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Wake-Up Call: Open Source LMS


Are Open Source LMS platforms taking the lead in learning technology innovation?

 

"Some would say we should be fiercely competitive with Open Source, but our point of view is there's a tremendous opportunity for co-existence between commercial and Open Source software to deliver the best solutions to the e-learning market.”

 

Chris Vento, chief technology officer, WebCT, June 2005

 

There is a growing market demand for Open Source learning management system (OS LMS) products. This demand has attracted the attention of many corporate and government clients. Clients have begun to ask if Open Source LMSs are now viable alternatives to commercial platforms. Essentially, they are asking, “Are OS LMS platforms as good as commercial products yet?”

 

The answer to date has been tentative and conditional. I answer that Open Source LMS platforms will be competitive when two market conditions occur: The market for commercial platforms reaches the commodity stage and OS LMS products exceed the level of innovation of the commercial systems.

 

In my analysis of the commercial LMS market in the United States, I have concluded that we are well into the commodity phase in the market for LMS products. Commoditization (for any product) occurs when demand is very high, there are a firmly entrenched vendors supplying high-quality products, and competing products lack significant differentiation in the perception of customers. Customers expect high quality but shop for price. It may seem counterintuitive, but in a commodity market, products become more advanced while prices drop.

 

For example, the new Dell Learning System (DLS) LMS product costs less than $25,000 for an unlimited number of users. There is no per-user license fee. The key innovation of this LMS product is not the low flat price but rather the fact that Dell ships it pre-installed on a storage server, sometimes called a network appliance. Installation is as simple as plugging it in. The Dell DLS even includes a full library of pre-installed e-learning content, which makes it even more attractive to buyers.

 

In order for OS LMS products to compete in this commodity market they have to continually meet and exceed the innovation in commercial products. But in a commodity market customers will rarely switch brands or substitute products unless there is a clear perception of higher value. This is known as “the threat of substitution” in Porter’s Five Factors Model. Essentially, rival vendors arrive on the market with products that can replace the dominant products.

 

The rivals have arrived

 

There are currently dozens of OS learning technology products on the market, and the list is growing. Moodle, Ganesha, Claroline, ILIAS, and Sakai appear to be the dominant OS LMS products so far, at least in terms of adoption size and market buzz.

 

Version 1.0 of Moodle was released in August 2002, but has rapidly evolved through several versions due to the large community of developers working on it. Moodle now boasts a community of over 6112 sites and 50,000 users across 126 countries. Moodle is not the only OS LMS gaining traction in the market, though. Ganesha, created in France by the commercial e-learning company Anemalab, claims to have more than 4,000 sites. Claroline is used by some 470 organizations in 65 countries, and ILIAS dominates the German university market.

 

Sakai is the new kid on the block, launching in January 2004 with a $2.4 million grant from the Andrew Mellon Foundation. The Sakai Project is a joint effort of several organizations, including the University of Michigan, Indiana University, MIT, and Stanford. These four organizations alone are investing an additional $4 million in the development of the product.

 

The demand for OS LMS products has attracted the attention of the major enterprise software vendors. In April 2005, IBM announced that it had joined the Sakai Project. In June 2005, Sun and Unisys joined Sakai.

 

It seems clear that the OS LMS trend will not be contained to the higher education market for long. Higher education institutions have begun to deploy OS LMS products on a very large scale. For example, in April 2005, the Open Polytechnic in New Zealand announced a $1 million (New Zealand dollars) project to deploy Moodle across 20 higher education institutions and 10 secondary schools. In June 2005, the Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia (UNED) in Spain announced it had deployed the .LRN platform (pronounced “dotLRN”) to manage the courseware for their 200,000 globally distributed distance learning students.

 

Where there’s demand, there’s innovation

 

Clearly, there is customer demand and market momentum for OS LMS products, and a great deal of research and development is focusing on these products. But Chris Vento points out, this R&D pales in comparison to the millions of dollars being invested in the commercial systems. Yet, commercial vendors do not share their innovations. Indeed, their inventions are what define their competitive value in terms of intellectual property. The commercial vendors compete in innovation.

 

The reverse is true in OS LMS research and development. According to Chris Coppola, chief information officer at rSmart, “The spirit of Open Source is formed around diversity of input, recombination of ideas, creativity, and collaboration. These are essential ingredients for innovation and clear advantages to the Open Source philosophy.” So while a great deal less money is being poured into OS LMS development, a vast number of developers are contributing to the innovation process.

 

Many ask when will OS LMS products be competitive? Perhaps the answer is once they exceed the level of innovation of their commercial counterpoints. This leads to more questions: Why exceed and not just match? Why are OS LMS products held to a higher bar? This is due to the customer perception of value and the economic concept known as substitution mentioned above. Customers will switch if they perceive a higher degree of value. In a commodity market, value is a matter of innovation.

 

Are Open Source LMS platforms taking the lead in learning technology innovation?

 

To ascertain the level of innovation in OS LMS products, I enlisted the aid of five professionals that have experience with both commercial and OS products: Richard Brincefield, Patrick F. Carey, David Grebow, Mara Hancock, and Chris Vento. I asked them to answer one question, “Are Open Source LMS platforms taking the lead in learning technology innovation?”

 

Richard Brincefield, CEO of GlobalLiteracy Inc.

 

My answer to that question is yes. Compare Moodle with Blackboard, WebCT, Intralearn, Jones International University, etc. Moodle has the majority of features the big proprietary LMSs have. For comparison information about both proprietary and Open Source LMSs go to EduTools site. In their comparison of 42 LMS features and capabilities, Moodle had all but eight.

 

In 1997, while working at the University of Phoenix, I researched what was available for LMSs at that time and installed working versions of IBTauthor and TopClass. IBTauthor later became Docent and is now merged with the SumTotal product. SumTotal is the result of combining Click2Learn and Docent. TopClass is from WBT Systems. Both IBTauthor/Docent and TopClass were (and are) good products. I chose Docent. I installed and supported Docent for the University of Phoenix from 1997 to February 2003.

 

In 1998, a small company purchased Docent for close to $10,000 and asked me to host and support it. I installed it on one of my servers that was hosted at a local ISP. It worked great. The problem was that upgrades became more expensive than the original cost which meant that Docent was priced too high for small companies. I had to come up with a solution or the small company would cease to exist and I would have lost a very good paying customer.

 

In January 2000, I started developing my own LMS called TraineeTracker that my customer could use as a low-cost alternative. TraineeTracker replaced Docent for my customer by the end of 2000. It was developed in ColdFusion, and all customers received a copy of the source code (insurance for the customer in case my company went out of business). It satisfied the needs of the customers and is still in use. In 2002, I started following closely two new Open Source LMSs: Moodle and ILIAS. In 2003, I chose Moodle as the LMS I was going to master and promote.

 

My own proprietary LMS (TraineeTracker) had about 25 percent of the capability of Moodle. The cost of Moodle is free. You pay for hosting, support, training, and customization. Hosting for Moodle starts at $10 a month using an ISP. It’s easy to install on both Windows and Linux servers. It can be installed on laptops for presentations where Internet access is not available.

 

I have no arguments against large corporations purchasing expensive proprietary solutions, such as Docent (which I love), but small companies, small schools, and small religious institutions are left out because they cannot afford Docent-like solutions. To me, Moodle gives the same power for a small company, school, etc. that the expensive solutions provide. I love the power the Internet and Open Source provides for the individual and small companies.

 

Patrick F. Carey, leader, Americas Higher Education Industry, IBM Business Consulting Services

 

The answer is yes. I believe that the answer to the innovation question is clear, and addressed more by the fact that projects like Sakai and OSPI are developed by a "community" than the fact that it’s Open Source. To me, it’s the difference between serial and parallel processing.

 

I like to describe Sakai as more of an ecosystem than an application. An application is monolithic, both in development and innovation, whereas an ecosystem is more like a community, with permeable membranes and a common language (standards) that many people with diverse experiences and ideas share, collaboration happens and then...more innovation.

 

I believe that the CMS to LMS maturation is now being followed by a further maturity into what is called CLE or collaborative learning environment(s). I also believe that community Open Source, that is standards-based, enables much faster innovation due to its community development—more good minds innovating. In addition, the fact that in order to be successful, community development has to be standards-based, again eliminating the barriers to innovation common with proprietary development that is focused on driving a license-revenue model.

 

If we can get the emerging community source CLEs and the publishers to agree on a single content standard, and there are conversations going on about this, the commercial LMSs will need to "wake up" as you put it. Education and learning will be much better off as energy will be focused on the content and innovation rather than a proprietary environment.”

 

David Grebow, Chief Learning Officer of Comcourse

 

I’m not trying to straddle the answer; I really think its Yes and No. Yes, Open Source LMS platforms are taking the innovative lead. No, they’re not in the lead as products because there’s more to ‘taking the innovative lead’ than just innovation.

 

From where I sit, with one foot in the Academic world and the other in the Corporate, the Open Source coders are leaping ahead of the proprietary LMS vendors in terms of innovation. But there’s more to taking the lead than simply piling on innovative features and functions.

 

Using Claroline in Europe and Moodle in the United States, two programs currently leading the LMS Open Source charge, I consistently hear three major issues that Open Source needs to overcome in order to really take the lead and beat their proprietary competitors.

 

First issue: a case of really bad GUI. Too many Open Source LMS programs are just too hard to use. From talking with Open Source developers, the reason seems to be that the real work is in the coding, and the rest is not important (sound familiar?). In the proprietary world, GUI is everything. If the user cannot easily and quickly learn how to navigate around the system, then they will quit faster than you can press the ‘Esc’ key. Proprietary systems literally live and die by being part of a user feedback loop. If the GUI gets in the way and disables the learning process, then it’s toast. Open Source developers, it seems, cannot see beyond their code.

 

Second issue: documentation is usually spotty, and formal training programs are no better. Open Source LMS projects tend to have a major problem with providing decent documentation—if you can find it in the first place. Because there’s no contract that requires documentation, it’s usually some general guidelines, almost a FAQ, instead of a carefully written complete manual. And, they’re written by programmers for programmers. The most common response to complaints about documentation is "If they can’t understand it, they’re not ready to install it.” Documentation should always be written for the user with the assumption that they are simply trying to learn how to use a program, not add more cool code.

 

Third issue: Open Source is plagued by the very thing that makes it great. Creative programming, from many different programmers, drives the small parts of code that can add up to the great features and functions of an Open Source LMS. That same LMS also suffers from an almost endless feature creep, and this time not at the request of the Customer. They go way over the top because programmers can program all the innovative features and functions they can imagine. And as we all know, imagination is endless and boundless. It ends up so cool that the average user does not know where to start.

 

Unlike most proprietary LMS programs that are usually driven by a small and knowledgeable team, responding to the requirements of customers gathered from a variety of sources, Open Source LMS suffers from the “too many cooks” syndrome.

 

Again, it gets back to the successful innovative product mantra: It’s not what the LMS program can do (i.e., how innovative it is), but what it can do for you.

 

Mara Hancock associate director, Educational Technology Services at University of California, Berkeley

 

I think we are on the verge of that revolution. I believe that there has always been more innovation in learning technology that’s coming directly from higher education than from the large commercial vendors, but in the past there wasn't a clear path for sharing those tools and innovations and often the lack of an integrated platform was a show stopper.

 

Open Source platforms, such as Sakai and Moodle, allow for the integration of these innovative tools and help to alleviate the overall ease-of-use barriers for the end users and support costs for the institution.

 

In addition to the technology benefits, the Sakai Project brings with it an active and organized community (thus the term, community source) that shares in the vision, governance, and hopefully, the development. This creates a strong ecosystem that promises to foster and generate major innovation in the collaboration and learning environments. The upcoming Sakai Winter Conference promises to be an excellent showcase for this.

 

Chris Vento, chief technology officer at WebCT

 

Not sure that leadership or either-or is really the current reality or significance of the Open Source potential. Bear in mind that the major commercial educational technology companies continue to pour millions of dollars each year into R&D at multiples much larger than any current Open Source funded initiative.

 

Those expenditures and resources are focused on innovation to satisfy customer requirements and demand for features as their e-learning environments continue to expand and touch larger numbers of students, instructors, administrators, and classroom environments each year.

 

Not to mention, there is the added competitive dimension amongst the commercial vendor landscape to drive innovation so as to attract higher volume usage of their respective products via a continuous stream of new features and functionality.

 

However, this is not all about the commercial vendor landscape monopolizing innovation. As is the reality within other market segments of the broader software industry, the Open Source community is an invaluable additional source of innovation that can coexist with and compliment commercial vendor products and solutions.

 

The Open Source community has a definitive role, and in some cases advantage, in focusing their initiatives on learning applications and tools that can extend and compliment the commercial learning platform environment without having to continue to pressure and rely on commercial vendors to supply those product extensions. Many of the commercial platforms already facilitate, and will further enhance, such capabilities to integrate a wide variety of both commercial and Open Source technology extensions.

 

So, it isn’t about who is leading who in innovation. It’s about how such innovation from both the commercial and open community sources can coexist, leveraging their respective expertise and experiences, to synergistically provide the absolute best and most comprehensive set of functionality to enhance the overall e-learning environment required to advance the quality, of education for students, faculty and administrators.

 

Epilogue: innovation in progress

 

At the Always On 2004 Innovation Summit at Stanford University in July 2004, Marten Mickos, CEO of the Open Source database product MySQL, said that “My bottom line is that to commoditize something takes enormous innovation, skill, competition, and technical ability. It's not easily done.”

 

Tim Gnatek, in an August 2005 article entitled “Open Source for All” wrote that, “Open Source software is great in concept, and there are a few notable programs that closely rival their commercial counterparts. The great majority, however, are works in progress.”

 

Indeed, OS LMS products are works in progress and show great promise. Chris Coppola from rSmart believes that, “Open Source innovation represents the leading edge of a revolution that will literally change the landscape of technology in education for years to come.”

 

In a commoditized LMS market dominated by high-quality commercial products and very firmly entrenched vendors, OS LMS products will have to reach a level of innovation high enough to convince customers to switch from the dominant products. They can’t be merely good enough, they have to be better. They must take the lead in innovation.

 

Published: October 2005 

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