Recently, I've been part of a university team involved with the evaluation of a couple of open source Learning Management Systems (LMS) to replace our old version of BlackBoard (Bb) and a home grown LMS.
In the course of our investigations we found in favour of Moodle, a very popular LMS that has a wide variety of implementations that range from the world's largest open and distance education university (Open University) to small organisations and single teacher use in schools.
While the academic staff in the evaluation overwhelmingly supported the selection of Moodle, the Information Technology department did not. Their main objections were structured around the language the LMS was written in (PHP) and the need to integrate this language into the oracle database architecture the department has decided on for its long term strategic direction. PHP is a language that while many of the ITD programmers are familiar with, the their strategic direction and training is all aimed at Java applications and development. The reasons for the strategic direction are sound from a business perspective, given the management systems the university currently has in place.
Supporting Moodle will cause a deviation away from the strategic direction the IT department has chosen, and this will have an impact on training and integration with existing systems.
In the course of our investigations we also found an excellent eportfolio tool (Mahara) that will, for the first time, allow our students to store examples of their work and authentic assessment that they have designed and developed during their time at university. Mahara is also written in PHP, but offers additional challenges to the university in terms of long-term storage and support of student accounts. For example, if the eportfolios are for the storage of artifacts that can be used by the students to share examples of their work, (this is desirable to build learning engagement and ownership) then how long will the university support the hosting of student work? Issues of storage and time then become difficult issues which universities are not well placed to deal with and fund.
While this is just one example, there are many other possibilities for inclusion in high quality university courses and programs. SPARK (Self and Peer Assessment Resource Kit) is a product that I currently use to support group work in student teams. The current version is written in ASP (I think), but the new version that will be available early in 2009 has a user interface written in Adobe Flash with a back end written in PHP. Incorporating this into the current university IT infrastructure would cause additional issues for the ITD.
Yet another excellent product is ReView, a software product developed by Darrall Thompson from the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS). ReView offers an online assessment, feedback and graduate attribute alignment approach. I'm not sure what language this product uses, but I suspect that it would also have a Flash component in its design and operation.
The above examples are just a few, and as we continue further down the open source pathway, the divergence in software and IT architecture is also likely to add additional impositions on an IT department that is not receiving additional funding for this support.
University IT departments across the world are attempting to deal with these issues, not just my institution. While universities that are generously funded will cope better in the short term, eventually this divergence will also impact on their capability, flexibility and financial bottom line.
So what's the Solution?
While there is a natural tendency for IT Departments to want to restrict the software, platforms and systems that can be used for all university operations to contain costs, a better approach for the entire organisation would be to have them determine just what systems are cost effective for them to support. There are some systems that the institution needs to administer as it would be difficult and costly to outsource.
Outsourcing the hosting of some systems needs to be seriously considered if the university is to become a flexible and innovative organisation.
In the course of our LMS investigations, we engaged an external hosting company (NetSpot) to provide an instance of both LMSs for us to use and evaluate. Specialist hosting companies offer substantial savings and flexibility when it comes to using software platforms that are outside the strategic direction of IT departments. Not only do these companies offer specialist expertise and a high degree of reliability, they can also be engaged with specific contracts that ensure that they meet the specified operational requirements, or risk penalties. It is virtually impossible to replicate this with Service Level Agreements between ID departments and Faculties.
Outsourcing the hosting of some teaching and learning systems offers Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) savings, flexibility and added reliability which has a direct impact on a university's reputation.
In our organisation, and many others, there are a number of steps that need to be followed to before outsourcing can occur, but these should not be a barrier to considering outsourcing with specialist Web hosts, just part of the process.