Elgg and WebCT, sitting in a tree…

apertoSo, some interesting news that may send a few ripples through the old edublogosphere is that Curverider (the excellently named commercial arm of Elgg) have ‘got into bed with’ Aperto Elearning Solutions founded by Sasan Salari (one founder of WebCT).

My initial thoughts on this thing go back to June last year when I got wind of the ‘powerlinks’ approach WebCT were taking to allow for open source extensions which I wasn’t too happy about :) Even suggesting that this was how it was all going to go wrong. However I did chill out a bit down the track (as has been known to happen ;) and as it happens found myself suggesting that Elgg would be a good ‘integration’ partner – amazing what you remember when you look in the archives.

-it was also the same WebCT person, Sasan, who commented on the original post specifically stating that “We are not integrating open source applications into WebCT”, which is also mildly amusing, but enough of that-

Anyway, my final thoughts there were that:

I, however, don’t believe that education should be so much for sale (that there should be so much money able to be made out of it) or that it is in education’s interest to have such dominating market leaders. Also, I am absolutely committed to the vision of online education becoming a sustainable and multi-faceted environment, as affordable and accessible so that any teacher can use it and as varied and subvertable as any classroom or progressive curriculum.

And to me the appropriation of the tools that will help us achieve this by the WebCTs of this world through stuff like the ‘WebCT Wiki Integration Toolkit 0.1? is bad news. It’s the same approach that gets people to shop at K-Mart for everything even though they can get a much greater range, quality and price just down the road… and they are not doing it out of a philanthropic to help us teach and learn online better. They’re doing it to lock in the $s.

Which I stand by, but, knowing how much value and vivre an Elgg environment could bring to one of those lifeless WebCT courses find myself quibbling a bit. This isn’t helped either by the tremendous amount of respect that I have for Dave and Ben and how I think that Elgg integration into existing systems could be the tipping point for them in terms of feedback, design and use.., something which has ‘good’ stamped all over it.

What I find myself saying more and more nowadays in my professional role is that yes WebCT / BB are necessary as ‘backbones’ but as learning environments we need to be using and developing far more effective tools and experiences. And for that line of thinking, this is an absolute boon. However, I feel like to a degree that’s shrugging off the responsibility to the administrative side of things (“As long as they leave the learning alone I don’t care”) which isn’t a very holistic approach for anyone to take.

From talking to Dave though I guess what I’d really like to see is a set of genuine workable open standards which can be implemented across the OS development sphere and which allow for user dbase (and more through customisation) integration. I wanna be able to plug in Elgg, WPMU (it’ll be interesting when Aperto try *that* integration!), Mediawiki etc. into an administration system that doesn’t set back my organisation 6 or 7 figures a year … or at the very least I want to be able to choose another system for this rather than finding all my OS applications propriatised by a behemoth Blackboard. Yeh the merger might have been approved (they obviously couldn’t give a rats about the Aus market!) but I think that it’s a big company that is probably as keen as anything to do an IE on the educational world… what it’d be really nice to see would be Aperto building integration with Sakai, Moodle, Desire2Learn etc. etc. etc.

But that ‘aint gonna happen though cos it’s $s we’re talking about, isn’t it. Sigh.

Still, congratulations to Dave and Ben and I hope this supports and encourages them and helps Elgg take the next step up to becoming a major player in educational technology… it well deserves it.

12 replies on “Elgg and WebCT, sitting in a tree…”

  1. How else can WebCT remain viable other than through integration with OS systems? No innovation has come out of WebCT since it left UBC, many years ago. This is the desperate effort of a slow-moving proprietary system to remain relevent. At least some in the company (or a related company) realise that Elgg offers something that WebCT cannot. The problem for WebCT is that as soon as it integrates with Elgg, the next wave of OS innovation will have aleady washed ashore. I agree, it’s good for Ben and Dave to be making some cash on this integration (I hope they are anyway).

    Elgg is a good platform, but it’s just the beginning. If commercial systems can only play catch-up with open source, then sooner or later even university CIO’s are going to wake up. Of course, Elgg-Moodle integration is already happening – http://elgg.net/system/weblog/5040.html

    The community is much bigger than Aperto.

  2. Hi James and Harold,

    just to clarify what may be a mis-conception: WebCT has no involvement with Aperto. I left WebCT to start Aperto because, as James puts it, “we need to be using and developing far more effective tools and experiences”, and many of these tools are currently in the OS space.

    Naturally, my experience is WebCT, so that is the system I am most comfortable with from an integration perspective. That does not mean that I will not look at others. However, synergies already exist in the OS world, as per the Elgg-Moodle example. What is missing is the link between the OS world and the commercial systems. Why should those using Bb/WebCT not have the opportunity to be exposed to some of the innovative tools, such as Elgg? One way to make instructors comfortable with moving to new techologies is to make it easy for them, and that is really my goal here.

    I also want to clarify what I mean by “integration” – it is really a loose coupling of 2 systems, to facilitate single-sign-on, and to exchange relevant user meta-data, etc. It is not “integrating open source applications *into* WebCT”, but instead “integrating open source applications *with* WebCT (and others)”.


  3. Thanks for the clarification Sasan, and good luck with the “small pieces loosely joined” concept, especially since one is a large piece, and you’re now on the outside of WebCT.

  4. Having recently chatted with him at Northern Voices, I was going to interject on Sasan’s behalf regarding his disconnection from WebCT, but he’s taken care of it.

    I am sorry James, but open source is *open* source- you cannot be open and say, “Well it can be open everywhere except inside a CMS).” Even if you do not like it, you cannot say the goliaths cannot try and stick a wiki inside their walled garden.

    It will be interesting to watch ELGG grow and hope it is not a modern day version of “Animal Farm” ;-)

  5. Very good points Harold- I thought of that soon after submitting the comment. I’ve released code GPlL and never really check to see if it has been “violated” (doubtful given some of my code ;-)

  6. While I’m cynical about WebCT’s motives in all this (it’s a bit like the sinking Titanic deciding to order a whole lot more lifeboats at the time they hit the iceberg) given that many universities *are* demanding a blog tool within WebCT, I’ve got to say that an Elgg plugin/interface which seemlessly moves between the two (as far as I can tell) is a far better option than the internal blog tool we’ve been discussing in the past few weeks. Having a fully functional blog tool like Elgg will, to my mind, encourage the use of blogs per se and may, indeed, lead a number of people to the conclusion that Elgg might be one of the core tools they want rather than WebCT. Perhaps WebCT/Elgg will lead to Elgg/Moodle without the diruptions of completely alien systems.

    However, pragmatically, WebCT isn’t going to the be thrown out tomorrow by many unis, so Elgg-in-WebCT is, to my mind, a far better option in the shortterm than WebCT-without-Elgg!

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  8. I think this could be a great thing if Elgg becomes the catalyst/conduit to eventually opening up learning in the LMS to the web. One of the strengths of Elgg is in setting publishing and group permissions — so maybe at the start, users can only publish to (and receive comments from) their class (not blogging)…but then down the road, maybe that gets expanded to the program/faculty, or even the whole school.

    Perhaps that would help nervous administrators see the power and wisdom in letting students really take their learning from the web into class, and from class out onto the web. Some discussion on this issue over at Sasan’s blog…

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