EduBlogr - Blogging in E-ducation

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Thursday, October 13, 2005

reflections on the merger

According to the bb.com/webct site, the product lines will remain intact and supported [for now I assume], while over time a new product set that combines the best of both worlds will be rolled out. As I wrote to one of our faculty (her immediate reaction was amusing, and unprintable :-D), it'll take several months to do the paperwork, several more months to fire and reassign sales and backoffice people, and then they'll be able to start thinking technical stuff. If they fast-track it, they MIGHT be able to have something (BlackCT?) in beta this time next year.

Or they might take a deep breath, step back and really think strategically about 21st century learning. Maybe they'll start slow; come up with a blog or wiki module that can be plugged into both Enterprise and Vista. ('Course, us po' redheaded stepchillin' - Basic customers - gots to stay out in de barn.)

I suspect that the low price means that Blackboard sees WebCT's main asset as its customer base rather than its technology. WebCT has some nice features. But having used both systems, Blackboard seems to deliver a more consistent overall user experience. They've been steadily gaining market share, and it's certainly not due to agressive pricing.
After the quality and customer-service debacle of CourseInfo 3.x Blackboard shook itself and decided to get its act together and become a Big Company. They're certainly structured that way now, and this deal only reinforces that.

Moodle and Sakai aren't real competitors for Blackboard's customer base IMO. I just don't see open source solutions as major players. WE are not the customers. We're the users. The customers are our bosses and their bosses, the VPs who sign the POs. relatively few institutions - especially small and medium-size institutions - can afford open source. Pay $75,000 a year for software licenses, or hire 1.5 FTE system admins / programmer-analysts at $60,000 to support open-source? Even I can do that math.

Feature-wise, OSS tends to be a couple of years behind commercial off-the-shelf products. A big part of that is the fact that OSS depends on volunteer development, while COTS vendors have dedicated developers. Bb is trying to straddle that line with its Building Blocks architecture. Unfortunately, their current pricing strategy leaves the smaller customers (like us) out in the barn. (Macromedia did the same thing with Extensions for Flash and Dreamweaver. Fortunately for the little guys, anyone can use the Macromedia extensions.)

There may be a third path. Maybe, just maybe, the combined company will say, Hey, you developers and end-users. We know you've had some great ideas that we've had to set aside in the past, because we've been locked into these legacy architectures. We're going to start with a blank sheet of paper and design a real, 21st-century learning system with all the features, bells and whistles you've been waiting for.

Sure, I'm an optimist. I'll be scanning the sky for swine. ;-)


UPDATE: Welcome readers of Inside Higher Education!

25 Comments:

At 4:26 AM, Blogger MichaelP said...

About that math, don't you need a sysadmin if you pay $75,000 for a Blackboard Enterprise license, anyway?

So isn't it 75,000 for the Blackboard Enterprise license + 1 FTE for the sysadmin (and that's cheap)?

Meanwhile, you certainly don't need a programmer to run Moodle, it installs with a 4 screen form, and it's ready to go (at least as ready as Blackboard Enterprise: you need to pay BlackCT extra for things like LDAP and/or SIS integration, libray integration, etc.).

Actually, Moodle comes out of the box ready to integrate with LDAP/Active Directory, with a nice form for setting up authorization (course shell and enrollment) and authentication. It has an open and pluggable API for integrating with SISs that don't support LDAP.

With Enterprise, like Moodle, you can build building blocks. Do you need a .5 FTE programmer analyst if you buy Enterprise because you can modify the product with BBblocks?

It seems you are using that math with Moodle, it can be modified, so you need to hire a programmer if you use it.

You don't though. It's your choice, you can run stock Moodle with the same number of people you need to run Blackboard. You can get Moodle hosted at Moodle.com, if you'd prefer to outsource the management, just like you can with BB ASP.

Not only does Moodle cost about the same to less to run, it has advanced elearning tools like the lesson module that BB Enterprise can't touch.

And if you want to, you can modify it, without paying BlackCT $75,000 for the privilege.

 
At 4:00 PM, Blogger Corrie said...

That's a good point, Michael.

In general, though, schools who've implemented OSS generally report that they require more sysadmis support than COTS systems. In our experience, our server admin doesn't spend full time supporting Blackboard Basic. He keeps about three different dozen apps fed and watered.

There's another issue that I haven't seen discussed much. With a COTS system, it's easy to say to faculty who want a particular feature, "I'm sorry, the software just can't do that." It gets more difficult if they know it's OSS and can be changed. I don't know for certain, but I suspect that a good deal of admin time can be used up figuring out whether a partiuclar tweak can be done, or whether someone else has already done it, and whether that tweak is dependent on some other previous tweak to the system.

Knowing that you CAN make changes is a great temptation to do so. And that's expensive.

 
At 6:14 PM, Blogger MichaelP said...

Hi Corrie, yep our sysadmins spend about the same amount of time on the BB Server (Win2003) as on the Moodle server (Red Hat Enterprise). Both mainly just for system updates, once a month, occasionlly login to kill a runaway java process on the BB server.

It gets more difficult if they know it's OSS and can be changed.

But if you are comparing BB Enterprise to Moodle, you can change both of them (BB E via Building blocks), so again you only need that .5FTE programmer if you intend to change it:-).

I think alot of the OSS vs. CSS 'TCO' opinions are flawed because they are comparing artificial categories. I've seen CSS that is a nightmare to support and OSS that is a no-brainer. Do you spend more time supporting Apache or IIS? IE or Firefox?

I think these comparisons are meaningless unless you look at specific applications rather than license types. Heck every CSS software I've seen has it's own license. Is it more expensive to support software with the Microsoft license vs. the Apple license? The Adobe license vs. the PSP license?

How does it make sense to compare TCO for applications by license type? Seems to me it's like saying red fruits taste better than orange fruits, a statement too general to be helpful.

 
At 11:30 PM, Blogger Ben Brophy said...

There's an additional option for schools beyond paying BlackBoard or hiring sys admins to run Moodle or Sakai (as MichaelP alluded to). You can pay a company to maintain your Open Source LMS for you. There are several companies partnered with Sakai from the small e-learning specialist RSmart to IBM. The business model seems to be to charge for institution specific customization and 24x7 support. So the school pays for service, not software. That seems like it could be highly competitive with BlackBoard. I don't think Sakai is quite ready for the big time, but it gets stronger with each release.

 
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At 8:13 PM, Blogger Hugues Peeters said...

Stumbling to your blog, I've been a bit stunned concerning your opinion about Open Source solutions in e-Learning. You distinguish 'users' from 'customers'. I share your opinion, and that's precisely why I think Open Source solutions are able to provide attractive alternatives. Most of the time, in the Open Source world there is no product customer, only user (to be complete 'services' customers can exist but not product one).

Beside, I would like to share my experience. I'm deeply involved into the community of a an e-learning software freely available (Claroline - http://www.claroline.net). We're a intensively using this software in our university. Our system hosts 2.500 course sand is daily used by 20.000 students. For that, we rely on a team counting only of 2,5 people who maintains, supports and occasionally participate into the software development. For a similar scale of users and courses, we note that our neighbor universities needs 6 people when they rely on technical solution like Web CT or Blackboard ...

 
At 8:13 PM, Blogger Hugues Peeters said...

Stumbling to your blog, I've been a bit stunned concerning your opinion about Open Source solutions in e-Learning. You distinguish 'users' from 'customers'. I share your opinion, and that's precisely why I think Open Source solutions are able to provide attractive alternatives. Most of the time, in the Open Source world there is no product customer, only user (to be complete 'services' customers can exist but not product one).

Beside, I would like to share my experience. I'm deeply involved into the community of a an e-learning software freely available (Claroline - http://www.claroline.net). We're a intensively using this software in our university. Our system hosts 2.500 course sand is daily used by 20.000 students. For that, we rely on a team counting only of 2,5 people who maintains, supports and occasionally participate into the software development. For a similar scale of users and courses, we note that our neighbor universities needs 6 people when they rely on technical solution like Web CT or Blackboard ...

 
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