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Students in Video Master Control Room
In This Issue QuickbITS Archives IT Directory Publishing Info
   Information Security, Identity Theft & YOU! by Jodi Ito
   Outdated Equipment...Swap or Scrap? by Larry Wiss
   Podcasting Enhances the Students' Engagement by David Nickles & M. B. Ogawa
   Pioneering an Innovative Education Highway by Larry Wiss
   "The Dog Ate My Homework" and Other WebCT Classics by Kenwrick Chan
Summer 2006 Edition
Chief Information Officer, David LassnerCIO's Corner
David Lassner

A number of people around the UH system have asked us what the acquisition of WebCT by Blackboard (sometimes called a "merger") means for UH. This is one example of the continuing consolidation in higher education software that is so dramatically changing the market dynamic. So it's a good time to review where we've been and where we're going.

UH was one of the very early adopters of WebCT. In 1997, during our NSF-sponsored HERN project, a group of UH faculty and staff innovators selected WebCT through a "bake-off" of the web-based systems then available. UH then issued a small purchase order to the University of British Columbia, where WebCT had been developed by a faculty member who thought the web might be useful in helping him teach more effectively.

Since that time, an entire marketplace of what are now called "course management systems" or "learning management systems" has emerged, churned and subsided. Literally hundreds of similar systems have been developed, bought, sold, and abandoned in a decade of market maturation. UH was extremely fortunate to have picked one of the few systems that survived as long as WebCT did. Over the past decade WebCT was commercialized and upgraded a number of times before its recent acquisition by Blackboard, which was still an academic project at Cornell when we selected WebCT. This is not BlackBoard's first acquisition of a competitor. And while for now they have committed to ongoing support of WebCT, customers of previously acquired products have eventually had to migrate.

Even prior to the acquisition by Blackboard, since the corporatization of WebCT the licensing costs to UH have increased over 2000%. Under the new pricing terms unilaterally imposed on us, and even with a significant discount from list pricing, our costs are roughly tripling in the current contract period alone. To the extent the intense competition between WebCT and Blackboard may have held some price inflation in check, the merger of the two dominant vendors to create one company with some 80% of the marketplace eliminates a major external driver of cost containment.

While this would normally be a recipe for immediate change, corporate representatives point out that their products could add substantially more value to the University and argue that the costs are still reasonable relative to some other enterprise software products in the commercial marketplace. And they note that the merger will result in additional resources to invest in R&D and improved services that will make things even better for us. I am sure that their sales team will be visiting many of you over the next months to try to make these points directly to our user community.

Also mitigating against changing software is the substantial time and effort to move to a new package. In addition to the technical work required to re-implement the integration with Banner and other UH systems, such a migration would impact all our students and faculty using WebCT throughout the UH system. Of course, a forced vendor migration might have similar effects.

The bottom line is that we now find ourselves relying on a piece of software that has served us well and has become mission-critical to many in the achievement of our core mission of teaching & learning. Unfortunately, this software now has an uncertain future over which we have no control, and unbounded long-term costs under a new owner that now has enormous market power. Given that it has been nearly a decade since our original selection, it is particularly appropriate to reassess our institutional options in the current environment.

Besides the commercial system, over the past few years several highly viable open source learning management systems have emerged. It is important to note that implementing open source software is not free. While the application software itself may have no licensing fee, there are other costs associated with implementation and support that must be considered. In some situations open source implementations may cost more than commercial software. But even in those cases, some customers believe that having control over mission- critical costs and services may outweigh some level of cost differential. Two of the most widely embraced open source solutions for learning management are Moodle and Sakai.

Moodle is now a mature open source learning management system in use around the world. Moodle is a classic open source project in which individual contributors add features and contribute them to the central distribution where they can be used by others. While widely used, most of the current Moodle implementations are much smaller and much less complex than what UH requires to provide integrated services in our multi-campus environment. However, a few "enterprise" implementations of Moodle are beginning to appear.

Sakai represents the new "community source" movement in higher education. Community source differs from classic open source in that it relies on committed institutional resources that are assigned to development under a coherent project plan. This is the model that resulted in uPortal, the base of the MyUH portal we now use. Community source also underlies the Kuali Financial System, in which UH is a partner and the Open Source Portfolio, which Kapiolani CC in now implementing. Sakai was designed from the start as a enterprise level collaboration and learning environment for education. The original leadership from Michigan, Indiana, MIT and Stanford has been supplemented with some 100 partners and several million dollars in support from the Mellon and Hewlett foundations. Sakai is still younger and less mature than Moodle and has fewer implementations in production today, although most of the initial implementations are in environments more like UH.

Selecting a learning management system is a long-term choice. Beyond any differences in cost and current product features, many of the universities that joined the Sakai community did so because they believe it is vitally important to have full control over their learning environments and the content they are developing and sharing. And they have decided that working together with the global higher education community best leverages our collective strengths, ideas and capabilities. Having full access to source code also provides the option to implement purely local changes in the software to support any unique approaches and needs we may have in teaching and learning. And it provides a level of protection against certain kinds of negative change for customers that takes place in today's increasingly investor-driven and less competitive software marketplace.

Blackboard will certainly want to keep our business, so interesting times are ahead. Our current contract runs until Fall 2008. That gives us enough time to be thorough in our deliberations and still manage any migration to a new product that might result -- whether commercial or open source. The exploding marketplace of commercial support for open source software has reached higher education market as well. So we could blend use of an open source product with commercial support if we think that's in our best interest.

Over the next months we will be consulting widely throughout the UH community to help determine how to set our future direction. In the meantime, don't hesitate to share your ideas, concerns and dreams with me at david@hawaii.edu.

Aloha, David
CIO, Information Technology Services


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