A colleague recently asked me if I could explain the distinction between open source and proprietary learning management systems, especially as it might affect a K-12 school looking at the best kind of LMS to implement today. She wanted to know how schools assess open source vs. proprietary systems–
“So, the ‘limiting context’ I am interested in is how the decision to acquire an open source or a proprietary LMS is determined – is it cost, functionality, usability, easy to implement, requires little training, etc., etc. “
There is another, equally important consideration when you’re looking at open source vs. proprietary learning management systems– cloud hosting and support. These services have arguable a larger impact on your computing experience than whether the software is open or closed. Here’s how:
Professional Hosting and Service– Whether You’re Open or Closed
Our small university is currently on Blackboard‘s “Managed Hosting” plan which means that they (not us) run the servers, pay the IT personnel to keep everything running, and hire support personnel to answer our technical questions. We could choose to host Bb ourselves and potentially save money by having our own staff do all that service work– then we’d only be paying for the software license (since Blackboard is proprietary software) and whatever it costs us to keep the system running and all of our users supported. This university used to run Blackboard on its own servers (before my time), but we switched to paying for hosting after experiencing reliability issues with that model.
Now, we pay Blackboard for the license to their proprietary software, the resources required to keep 100% uptime, and user support services like 24 hour help, access to help materials, etc. This is what’s commonly referred to as “cloud” computing– paying a fee to a 3rd party for the use of its software, computing power, and technical expertise instead of maintaining our own. The reason we can do that is not because Blackboard is proprietary software– it’s because they offer that particular bundle of services at a price we can afford. This kind of cloud service package is possible (actually common) with vendors running open source software as well.
If we decided to go with a hosted, supported open source solution like MoodleRooms, we would not be paying for the license to the software– we’d only pay for the “cloud” uptime and support services that come with it. In this way, our consumer experience is very similar to paying Blackboard for hosted, supported service. We are still paying for the “trouble free” experience of using their servers, their trained personnel, and their support materials, but it ends up costing much less without the licensing costs (tens of thousands in Bb’s case).
If we decided to run open source software on our own servers, then the cost of service and hosting drops out almost completely. We would only be paying whatever it cost us to keep the system up and running– server costs, IT personnel, and supporting users. Many K-12 schools have adopted this model and run Moodle on their existing servers basically for free. They will often have a tech admin or even a tech-savvy teacher who admins the system part time. The help materials are freely available online in discussion forums at Moodle.org, but they do not have a support number that you can call for help in emergencies. This way of working depends on having a critical mass of users who are actively developing their skills in mastering, troubleshooting, and maintaining the tool. This approach can be dirt cheap– as long as nothing breaks. You always have to consider the possibility that a catastrophic crash of one kind or another might bring down your school’s ability to deliver courses. This is why paying for good support is like an insurance policy against that. This is also why proprietary services like Blackboard (who offer these support services) have historically been viewed as “trouble free” while open source solutions (which generally don’t) have been thought of as “play at your own risk”. This distinction also grew up at a time when cloud computing was not a widespread phenomenon– when anyone who wanted a free LMS had to run it themselves on a shoestring budget. Modern advances in cloud technology have drastically changed the economics of running an LMS, as we’ll soon see– but first, let’s talk about extending the tools we have.
Extensibility: A World of Tools
Open source software offers the added benefit of enabling users to write new modules to add into the LMS to add new features. They are also free to share those additional features with other users, opening up a worldwide free “app store” of plugins that extend the software in extremely valuable ways. If you use Firefox as your web browser, you may be familiar with the Firefox Add-Ons website which gives your web browser amazing new abilities for free. Since Firefox is open source, this kind of collaboration and extension is a natural outgrowth of people’s freedom to explore, alter, and build upon the source code. I think that a healthy ecosystem of developers is the strongest asset that an open source project can have.
The freedom to expand our tools (and the inability to easily expand Blackboard) is my main motivation for wanting to switch. Blackboard sells its products in packages, where you have to add tens of thousands of dollars to the price tag in order to get additional services like a mobile web interface, e-portfolios, file storage, or social media features. Many of these features are available as free plugins (or even part of the core product) in Blackboard’s open source competitors like Moodle, Sakai, and Canvas. This recent proliferation of competitors to Blackboard’s monopolistic model means that schools can choose the service that best addresses their educational goals on whatever budget they have.
Our university is likely to switch to Canvas, a hosted, supported open source LMS which offers several features in its core product that would be financially unattainable for our university if we bought them from Blackboard. Since Canvas is open source, we do not pay for the licensing of the product– only the costs of maintaining and supporting it. Canvas will give the university the new ability to offer outcomes-based grading, e-portfolios, video sharing, collaborative cloud documents, and social media features for about 30% of what we’re paying for Blackboard’s most bare-bones product. We will basically be getting a similar level of support and uptime to what we get from Blackboard Managed Hosting, but the overhead costs of the software licensing are drastically reduced.
Is it the same for K-12 as it is in Higher Ed?
While LMSs seem to be the norm in higher ed, I haven’t seen as many K-12 schools that have an LMS in place (though maybe that’s changing since I last taught high school in 2009). Most of the teacher bloggers I follow online use free cloud tools like blogs, Google Docs, wikis, Edmodo, and Engrade to provide a lot of the services we use an LMS for. With the many capabilities that Google Apps for Education makes available to schools for free, it’s possible to save the massive costs of administering an LMS altogether while still benefiting from commercial-quality cloud uptime and an acceptable level of user support. Google Apps also has its own app store of complementary cloud services that can be patched into their existing service, enabling schools to extend their computing capabilities at little to no cost. This includes new cloud LMS products like Pearson’s OpenClass which leverage the power of Google Apps to offer an LMS that’s “Completely Free”. The proliferation of free, high-quality cloud learning tools is causing many institutions to question whether their legacy LMS is providing the same value that it used to when it was the “only game in town”.
Part of the reason that I think it’s still a good idea to pay for a dedicated LMS is so we have complete control over (and access to) our data. By switching to Canvas, we can actually access the data that’s produced by our LMS, and we can devise analytics that will provide insights about the level of teaching and learning that’s taking place. Centralizing all of that data in one system that’s controlled by the university means that we aren’t forcing instructors to use external tools (where we can’t get their grading data back into the system for analysis). This is a burgeoning science but one that depends on all faculty and student performance data ending up in the same place– something that LMSs are good for.
Image by Dru! via Flickr
Notice that there is little distinction between open source and proprietary software when you’re talking about cloud services. Many cloud-based Web 2.0 giants like Facebook, Google, Twitter, and YouTube have figured out ways to make (lots of) money while providing valuable free services to end-users. They do this by selling your personal information to advertisers, up-selling users on additional services, or charging for support services. The paradigm that the LMS has historically had to exist within– local vs. cloud, proprietary vs. open– is growing more fluid as entrepreneurs seek to break into this market and figure out ways to provide equivalent value for lower costs. It remains to be seen where the sweet spot will rest between fully-featured Learning Management Systems and the many nimble little tools that are streaming in to take their place.