Our business is built around the status quo,” points out Seth Godin in this blog post, “and it’s not fair that the market wants something else now.” These words describe so many companies who suffering the effects of disruptive technologies, scrambling to stay alive in the face of “easy to use, not quite perfect or the best but good enough to get the job done for what I need.” One example of a type of business who’s crying “Not fair!” includes course management systems, like Blackboard who gobbled up WebCT and Angel to the complaint of some of its customers. In fact, thanks to Angelic Learning, check out these stories of people fleeing the “black hole,” as that blogger colorfully puts it, below:

  • (4 campuses) went to ANGEL from Blackboard starting the Fall 2007 semester. The reasons given were: 1. Cost – Blackboard was too expensive compared to ANGEL. 2. Service – weeks and months would often pass before problem tickets were addressed. 3. Faculty approved ANGEL over Blackboard and competing systems.”
  • moved from Blackboard to ANGEL in 2005 due to Blackboard’s outrageous prices and deplorable customer service.”
  • “after Blackboard bought WebCT (the college) was not treated well and support went downhill quickly.”
  • “left WebCT 4.1 because of the Blackboard purchase. Too many problems with Blackboard support.”
  • “We moved from Blackboard to ANGEL in summer 2007 for a few reasons, #1-price, #2-functionality, #3-support!”
  • And many more….

In light of this conversation, it was fascinating to read a blog posting about assertions Blackboard makes in regards to Open Source alternatives like Sakai and Moodle. The blog’s author makes some interesting points, not all of which are represented in the notes I thought worth keeping and sharing on my blog. While I encourage you to read the blog entry in its entirety, I thought I might share a few points of my own.

While proprietary companies are silently paddling like heck under the water to stay afloat in a world where their services have suddenly become “free,” you have to admire any company for their attacks on competitors (e.g. Desire2Learn) and denial of the truths that many educators–slow as we are in understanding technology’s application to the work we do–are now accepting, in spite of the “Our Proprietary solution IS an enterprise solution.” These proprietary companies are NOT quietly going to go into the night with a whimper…I have to admire that.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Read the rest of the poem by Dylan Thomas

That poem’s reference to no forked lightning is defined as “ failed to command attention; failed to express a startling or revolutionary concept.” (source)

In light of FOSS tools become available and slowly growing over time, it’s no surprise, right? Proprietary tools no longer command our attention.

But what tools DO command attention, especially in course management systems? Well, though I advocate for the use of any FOSS course management system that meets the needs of an educational organization at lower cost and makes technical support required…well…less technical. That includes solutions I’m familiar with, such as Moodle, or those I’m not, like Sakai,

While support costs can be high, they are NOTHING compared to the recurring license fees of proprietary solution vendors. In times of economic hardship, and even in times of prosperity, it is incumbent upon school district administrators to be sensitive to saving funding so they can invest it in teachers and students. The “education industrial complex,” as I think Chris Lehman (Practical Theory) characterized it as cited in Will Richardson blog entry I read this week, is undeserving of any mercy since they have bled school coffers dry.

Proprietary solution providers, beware…you reap what you sow.

    • Blackboard has not been having a good time in the state of North Carolina. As I noted recently, the University of North Carolina (a Blackboard customer) reported highly favorable results of their pilot study of Sakai, with an outcome of further investigation into Sakai as a full replacement of Blackboard as their primary LMS. It turns out that this was following on the heels of a similar study done by the North Carolina Community College system favorably comparing Moodle to Blackboard. The details were different but some of the underlying dynamics were the same: the open source system in each case was found to be functionally equivalent to Blackboard for all practical purposes, the open source platforms did roughly as well as Blackboard (in the Moodle evaluation) or better than Blackboard (in the Sakai case) in usability evaluations, and Blackboard was deemed to be expensive relative to the alternatives.

    • poor support was one of the major complaints about Blackboard in the original NCCCS report. It is important to remember that, just as software development under and open source license is not inherently inadequate for the needs of large institutions, neither is software developed under a proprietary license—even by a relatively large company like Blackboard—inherently adequate.

    • It’s important to understand that open source projects are not inherently any more insecure than proprietary software development efforts.

    • If Blackboard can’t help you fix your problems, you’re out of luck, because nobody else understands their code or has the right to look at it. If your Moodle vendor can’t help you, you can go to another vendor, or find another adopting school that knows how to fix the problem. You can also fix it yourself. You don’t have to, but unlike with Blackboard, you can. Likewise, if Blackboard were to go out of business (ask WebCT or ANGEL customers if this sort of thing ever happens), you would’t be able to find somebody else to support and continue to develop your platform. Not true with open source support vendors.

    • Schools that have their systems hosted by Moodle vendors such as Moodlerooms or Remote Learner, or Sakai vendors such as Unicon or rSmart, have highly predictable costs with no additional staff required.

    • the Moodle community includes some of the largest distance learning programs in the world, such as Open University UK and Open Polytechnic in New Zealand, not to mention many U.S. community colleges.

    • With a proprietary product like Blackboard, just as with an open source community, development resources are going to go toward whatever projects that whoever controls the resources perceives to be in the interest of a critical mass of the adopting schools. Any proprietary company, including Blackboard, is obliged to prioritize functionality requests of a majority of the customers they happen to have, sometimes at the expense of the needs of a minority. The risks to adopting schools are therefore substantially the same.

    • Blackboard provides the least transparency of any vendor or open source project in this product category. Their dismissal of the notion that an open source project could keep up with new innovations also rings hollow, and not just for LIS. If I recall correctly, Moodle also supported grading discussion posts long before Blackboard did, to cite one example of innovation that started in the open source LMSs and has been copied by Blackboard.

    • NCCCS’s pilot and case studies found that Moodle’s usability is basically equal to Blackboard’s. UNC’s pilot studies found that Sakai’s usability is better than Blackboard’s.

    • According to the NCCCS report, member schools went to Moodle in the first place because the high fees and poor customer service from Blackboard were creating costly resource distractions.

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