Apples to Oranges

My web hosting service, Dreamhost, happens to have a one-click-installer for Moodle. So I installed one for my own personal sandbox. In looking at the available roles, it suddenly occurred to me…. Comparing any LMS to another is like comparing an apple to an orange. The industry is like the Tower of Babel. Each product has its own jargon covering much of the same ground in absurdly different ways. How could you have an Internet if all the servers talked to each other so differently? Yet in technology created for higher education every system has a different name for the person who teaches a class or even if the name is the same, the capabilities differ.

Sure, there are some commonalities, even apples and oranges are both fruit, but the developers had different conceptual models in mind. The same word meaning different things really is quite annoying. Another example is a course in Vista is a container for the type of place where learning takes place whereas in Learn a course is where teaching takes place. Teaching in Vista takes place in sections. So… Vista : section :: Learn : course.

These different conceptual models are why the faculty get so irate about change. It is hard enough to have to learn new places to click and how to accomplish what you used to accomplish. For some period of time they have to have two vocabularies and maybe even years later they still cannot call it the correct term. (WebCT CE/SE called where teaching takes place courses and both former and current coworkers 6 years later still call sections “courses”).

One would think standards organizations like the IMS Global Learning Consortium would help solve this. Every product adhering to a standard should end up adopting consistent terminology, conceiving of objects similarly, and conceiving of processes similarly. This make comparing the two easier. Except the standard adoptions appear to be in the integration components or database not the main product.

I really feel bad for the instructional technologist who has to support more than one learning management system.

Also, selecting a new LMS seems like an insanely difficult task when trying to learn a dozen vocabularies enough to ascertain whether it has what you need.

Computer Metaphors

An effective way to explain something is to use a metaphor. This can be especially effective by picking an metaphorical object or behavior with which the audience is already familiar.

The one I see most often is comparing computers to a car. This morning I saw this on an email list describing a person’s experience  migrating to Vista 8 from Vista 3.

It is like I have traded in a familiar (though frustrating) car for one that has the lights, wipers, and radio in new locations.

Also this morning, Vista 8 was compared to a malfunctioning pen forced on faculty who would rather use a better pen. Nevermind all pens are not used exactly the same. (Fountain vs rollerball) Some require more maintenance and care than others.

A coworker always says Free Open Source Software like Sakai or Moodle are free as in free puppies not free beer. Nevermind proprietary bought systems like Blackboard are bought as in bought puppies.
🙂

No Hiding From Blackboard

Some former WebCT (bought by Blackboard) customers switched to ANGEL rather than move to Blackboard products. PDF Apr 14, 2009 Today, Blackboard announced it is buying ANGEL. You can run, but you cannot hide from Blackboard.

Some light reading for you…

  1. Learning, Together ANGEL Learning and Blackboard® have decided to join forces.
  2. Blackboard Plans to Buy Another Rival, Angel Learning | Chronicle.com
  3. Why HigherEd is rejecting Blackboard … | Laura Gekeler
  4. Open Thread on Blackboard/ANGEL Merger | mfeldstein.com

So the options left are…

  1. Blackboard-WebCT-ANGEL
  2. Moodle
  3. Desire2Learn (currently in patent troubles with Bb)
  4. Pearson eCollege
  5. Sakai

Course Management Systems are Dead!

Heh. Blackboard Vista is headed for a brick wall? Who knew?

7. Course Management Systems are Dead! Long Live Course Management Systems! Proprietary course management systems are heading for a brick wall. The combination of economic pressures combined with saturated markets and the maturing stage of the life cycle of these once innovative platforms means that 2009 may well be the year of change or a year of serious planning for change. Relatively inexpensive and feature-comparable open source alternatives combined with some now learned experience in the process of transition from closed to open systems for the inventory of repeating courses makes real change in this once bedrock of education technology a growing possibility. As product managers and management view these trend lines, I think we might see incumbent players make a valiant effort to re-invent themselves before the market drops out from underneath them. Look for the number of major campuses moving (or making serious threats to move) from closed systems to open ones to climb in the year ahead. The Year Ahead in Higher Ed Technology

It is true the big player in proprietary CMS / LMS / VLE software has lagged in innovation for quite a while. Remember though Blackboard bought WebCT and kept around the other product while hemorrhaging former WebCT employees. That alone kept them extremely busy not to lose every customer they bought. The next version, Blackboard 9 should be available soon. That is the litmus test for their future success.

Bb9 is a newer version of Academic Suite, aka Classic. There is no direct upgrade path from CE / Vista to Bb9. There is a Co-Production upgrade path where one can run both versions side-by-side with a portal interface to access either version without having to login again. Content still has to be extracted from the old and placed in the new. (Since we are running Vista 3 and Vista 8 side-by-side now, this doedsn’t give me warm fuzzies.) This was the upgrade path some WebCT and Blackboard clients took getting from Vista 3 to 4 only to find Vista 4 was junkware. Similarly, those leaving CE4 for CE6 were frustrated by the move. So, I would predict:

  1. Those on Classic 8 now will go to Blackboard 9 ASAP.
  2. Smaller colleges on CE 8 who through turnover no longer have the people burned by the CE4->CE6 migration will probably move to Blackboard 9 this summer prior to Fall.
  3. Smaller colleges on CE 8 who still remember will migrate after AP1 (maybe a year after Bb9 release).
  4. Larger colleges on CE or Vista 8 will move some time between AP1 and AP2.
  5. Consortia groups like GeorgiaVIEW, Utah State System, or Connecticut State University System will wait and see.

That last group doesn’t take change easily. They have the nimbleness of a Supertanker cargo ship.

I am still waiting for the tweets about Moodle and Sakai, the open source alternatives, to change from in general “X sucks, but at least its not Blackboard.” to “X is the best there is.” If “at least its not Blackboard” is the only thing going for the software, then people will stay where they are to see where things go. There needs to be compelling reasons to change.

Unfortunately the cries of the students and the faculty in the minority are not enough. Most people are happy enough. They can accomplish the important things. They get frustrated that IT took the system down, data center power issues, network issues, or a performance issue. None of which go away by picking FOSS.

Monopoly Fears

Something brought up my abandoned Friendster blog, which had a link to fiftymillimeter which used to be my favorite photography site by people in Athens prior to me even moving here. Why “used to be”? Well over a year ago, they stopped posting to the site. Sad, I know. Still, I was curious, Where are they now? I ran across Twitter-Free Fridays looking for Toby Joe Boudroux.

What I found interesting about this post was his approach to whether or not Twitter is or is not a monopoly. I agree with the first part. The last sentence surprised me.

Being at the top of an emerging market segment does not constitute a monopoly. Unfair practices, abuses of that dominance to limit fair access to resources and outlets – those are monopolistic. If Twitter struck a deal with Mozilla that blacklisted other microblogging services, we’d have something to talk about. Opening APIs freely and allowing supplemental markets to emerge hardly seems consistent with railroad barons.

Supplemental markets would be the equivalent of a railroad baron allowing new train stations or business to sell to the customers using the trains. Open APIs allow other corporations to find a niche. However, they are not a direct competitor. For example, with Twitter, the API is not used by Pownce or Jaiku. Friendfeed who fits in both the lifestream market and the micro-blog markets does use the API. More commonly, the Twitter API is used by companies like Summize or Twitpic in searching or posting content.

If economists or lawyers determining whether a company with a large market share is monopolistic are influenced by open APIs creating supplemental markets, then this could be a strategy to avoiding DOJ further scrutiny? At Bbworld / DevCon, a frequent point of pride from the Blackboard folks was the anticipation of Bb9 to have a more open, accessible, and useful API. This API will be able to do everything the current one in the Classic line can currently do. The anticipated additions to this API could benefit many supplemental markets. (Let’s just forget at the same time, they are saying API for the CE/Vista products is a dead-end development path.)

Scoring points with the DOJ (and more importantly the court of public opinion) could never hurt while trying to sue a much smaller competitor like Desire2Learn. Some characterize Bb as not likely to stop until D2L no longer exists. Who knows? I doubt even Chasen knows. Still, it would far fetched to characterize just this as making Blackboard a monopoly.

There are pleny of alternative LMS products to the Blackboard Learning System: Moodle, Sakai, ANGEL, eCollege, and many, many more. Heck, the rumor mill would indicate more and more higher education institutions are considering and even changing to the alternatives. Blackboard acknowleges institutions likely run multiple products. With Bb 9, they encourage people to use the Learning Environment Connector to single sign-on to into the other products. With the Bb9 frame remaining so they know who got them there, of course.  Don’t forget about a Personal Learning Environment,

Certainly I dislike that Blackboard hears my objections and continues to act in ways contrary to them. However, that happens within my own team. Neither group are criminal for ignoring me.

If a Learning Management System Was a Boat…

I saw a CompSci.ca blog post for If a programming language was a boat… (through WIRED) and laughed at the descriptions of C, ColdFusion, Java, Perl, PHP, and Ruby.

Java is a cargo ship. It’s very bulky. It’s very enterprise~y. Though it can also carry a lot of weight. Will carry a project, but not very fun to drive.

PHP is a bamboo raft. A series of hacks held together by string. Still keeps afloat though.

Blackboard Vista / CE 6+

Vista is an aircraft carrier. Bulky, enterprise-y, and a floating city which requires an entire armada of support (SafeAssign, Wimba, Luminis) to really fulfill its billed purpose. We see the “Mission Accomplished” banner with each new release. Marketing likes to describe it as a cruise liner, but I am sure it is because they are just recycling the Academic Suite points.

Blackboard Academic Suite

Academic Suite is a cruise liner. Swimming pools, mini-golf, and all you can eat buffets with little of substance.

Sakai

Sakai is Noah’s Ark. Good in the great flood and built by divine guidance. However, we live in the present reality… not ancient Babylonian mythology or the Jewish mythology which adopted the story. Do you really want to take a trip in something that may not even exist?

Moodle

Moodle is a houseboat. Yes, it is on the water, so technically it is a boat, but you only really use it tied up to a dock. You don’t want to take it out on the ocean or try to have too many people use it.

Anyone have thoughts on Desire2Learn, ANGEL, or any other systems?

Programmers

Gave a former coworker, Stu, from my Valdosta State days a heads up about a complaint my brother heard from a close friend of his. Stu is working with Sakai these days at Georgia Institute of Technology. He made an interesting comment:

It would be great to have all the energy your team puts into Blackboard be put into Sakai instead.

One of the unknowns which always seems to come up in talking about Sakai or Moodle is hiring a development staff. How many programmers we need depends on how much customization we will need to implement. Certainly finding the programmers is another problem. A large fear is we’d need 10 programmers and years to implement all the features people insist are critical. People need to be told. “No, you will have to live without that feature,” which would be very cool… However, it would be like your ISP telling you, “Sorry, we turned off port 80. You will have to live without it.” Finding the balance between features we can abandon, features which would need to be created pre-go-live, and features we can post-go-live? Difficult enough when you have 15,000 users. It seems more than 10x harder with over 150,000 users.

Surely people have cracked this nut?

Blackboard and WebCT Merger

The threats to switch to Moodle are a little premature over the announcment of the Blackboard and WebCT merger. Moodle seems more like a content management system than a learning management system. Some thoughts

  • Support for WebCT’s existing products is not going away in the near term.
  • Products currently in development probably will finish.
  • Blackboard has excellent design concepts WebCT can use and vice versa. A combination of the two could be the best of both worlds.