The More Things Change (Bb Buys Another LMS), The More They Stay The Same (Reaction Filled With FUD)

May 16, 2009 § 1 Comment

As most know by now, Blackboard has announced that they will purchase Angel. Of course this has sparked all sorts of responses from folks, covering everything you might expect – unfortunately most still misrepresent open source.

Rather than offer any thoughts on the buy-out and what it might mean to Blackboard users, Angel users or even the entire LMS industry, I’d like to focus on how the discussions align with current ideas, perpetuate/counter misconceptions, or, have evolved from traditional views on the viability of open source.

With things moving so fast, or at least the comments through blogs and twitter (#auc09, #bbplusangel), etc. (the announcement was made on May 6th and the Angel Users Conference was just this week), I am sure most folks are reacting rather than assessing, but I am struck over and over by the comments being made by those on the ground working with an LMS and those reporting on the acquisition: everything from misconceptions to downright ignorance regarding open source projects and adoption.

Jeffery Young, of Today’s News in the Chronicle of Higher Education reported in an article titled, Blackboard Buys Another Rival, to Customers’ Dismay, “Some experts predict that more colleges will now turn to open-source alternatives that give them greater control over their own destinies (but which often require more effort by campus employees to run).” Requires more effort by campus employees to run? This is simply untrue. Running Sakai or Moodle out of the box does not require greater resources than running Blackboard or Angel. The infrastructure (hardware, supporting systems, networking, etc.) of running these systems are comparable. The skills needed by staff to install both the hardware and software (systems administration, programming, etc.) is comparable. If a campus chooses to extend the functionality of their LMS then, yes, they might need more (or different) staff than if they were running that same LMS natively. But this would be applicable for any campus, whether working with Sakai or Moodle code or developing Building Blocks for Blackboard or Nuggets for Angel.

If the point of this statement is that an open source option requires campuses to support these systems themselves, this too is untrue. Longsight, rSmart, Unicon and others provide technical and end-user support for Sakai. Campus Management, Classroom Revolution, Moodle.com, Moodlerooms, Remote-Learner and others provide the same for Moodle users.

Importantly, this argument–often used by those either ignorant of, or opposed to, open source options–has never been true. What is true is that open source deployments have traditionally been supported by alternate models that most campus decision-makers are not familiar or comfortable with. But now, even traditional service agreements through commercial providers are available, making this comment–once arguable in the past – simply false today. Mr. Young, please correct your article.

Later in the article, Blackboard’s president and chief executive, Michael L. Chasen, is quoted, “In the end, he said, colleges will choose Blackboard over open-source options because buying software works better for most colleges than being part of a do-it-yourself project, which he said takes more staff time to customize. ‘I really don’t believe it makes sense,’ he said.” Really? Let’s take a look at what makes sense for Blackboard…

Bb

Netcraft reports (see graphic) a website’s operating system, web server, and netblock owner together with, if available, a graphical view of the time since last reboot for each of the computers serving the site. I used the Netcraft “What’s that site running” service to see if Mr. Chasen’s observations regarding colleges, also applied to companies, again, that buying software works better than being part of a do-it-yourself project. Apparently not. According to the Netcraft report, which included 51 Blackboard hosted sites (where Blackboard Inc. hosts the campus’ LMS as a service), 41 instances are running the Blackboard LMS in a Linux/Apache environment, 6 are running on Windows and 4 could not be determined. Apparently, open source “makes sense” for Blackboard but not campuses. In addition, the report also lists another 25 sites hosted by Abovenet Communications, Inc. which are all hosted on Linux/Apache servers: I guess Abovenet’s hosting environment doesn’t make sense either.

Mr. Chasen also noted that using open source, “takes more staff time to customize.” Again, as stated above, running open source does not require any customization. I wonder what customizations Blackboard has had to undertake to run Linux/Apache, or run Blackboard on Linux/Apache? With 41 instances, I would suggest Blackboard hosted campuses call and request to be migrated to a Windows platform so that costs associated with the required customization can be reduced and thus their hosting fees.

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§ One Response to The More Things Change (Bb Buys Another LMS), The More They Stay The Same (Reaction Filled With FUD)

  • Open source advocates shoot themselves in the foot when they emphasize the ability to muck around in the source code, as that implies the code needs to be mucked around with on an everyday basis for production use. That’s not true* of any major open source project I’ve ever used in production.

    *To get Perl 5.8.0 to compile on NCR/AT&T Unix, I had to make a couple of changes in the install script. I call that a configuration change, not a code change.

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