Open System and Open Source LMS:<br>Settling the debate for the benefit of higher education

In this provocative rejoinder to Scott Siddall's earlier Viewpoint on Open Source, Chris Vento argues for the virtues of both commercially-developed LMS based on open systems and community-developed LMS based on an open source development model. He concludes that a blending of the strengths of each leads to the solid infrastructure and pedagogical flexibility required to sustain a mission-critical LMS on campus.

Over the past year, there has developed an increasingly polarized debate between those who support community-developed Open Source LMS solutions and those who support commercially-developed LMS Open Systems. The "battle" consists of opposing and competitive viewpoints, with many substantiating pros and cons for each. Many papers and presentations enumerate and compare these pros and cons in the process of defending and recommending one, and only one, alternative. However, it is possible to examine Open Source and Open Systems and discover that they are actually more complementary than you might imagine. Open Source and Open Systems may in fact not be mutually exclusive. We should highlight and focus on each alternative in relation to the other in a more synergistic and holistic way.

Let's begin by briefly exploring the evolution of Open Systems and Open Source eLearning solutions. During the past decade or so, commercial eLearning systems have evolved from early grant-funded research project initiatives into investor-backed, enterprise software companies that provide mission-critical eLearning solutions. During this same period of time, eLearning itself has exhibited significant growth in higher education as an integral component of both on-campus and pure distance learning. As commercial eLearning systems have evolved, it is important to note the significance of the emergence and adoption of open standards. Open standards are critical enablers of the interoperability between commercial systems, third-party application extensions, and potentially solutions developed by the Open Source community.

Open Source eLearning solutions and communities have established a presence on the landscape and have made notable contributions along the way, but to date no single entity has become a predominant, sustaining player in the industry. Nonetheless, community-developed Open Source solutions, such as eLearning software components, libraries, teaching and learning tools and applications, will continue to have a presence moving forward. These solutions will provide alternatives to integrate with and complement an enterprise eLearning Open System based on open standards.

Commercial Open System providers have made significant and continuous investments in building and sustaining highly scalable, extensible, and comprehensive products. Commercial Open Systems incorporate quality and performance engineering/testing, ongoing software maintenance, a formalized feature enhancement process, customer support, and professional services required to effectively support an enterprise eLearning solution.

However, it is important to note that not all Open Systems are created equal. Commercial vendors vary in the degree of their commitment to, and delivery of, flexible, interoperable systems that are truly based on open standards. Therefore, institutions must investigate whether the Open System provides a solid foundation to enable customized integration or development of other third-party, commercial, or Open Source extensions. These third-party and Open Source functional extensions can be very effective in enhancing and complementing the core functionality provided by commercial Open Systems.

Existing and emerging eLearning Open Source communities offer the potential to deliver innovative, specialized, functional extensions to commercial Open Systems. Such extensions leverage these communities' vast experience and focus on pedagogical technologies as they relate specifically to faculty and students. After all, one of the greatest strengths these communities have is that they often originate from and continue to be immersed in the academic environment, which can result in achieving a more relevant match of eLearning solutions to academic needs.

To date, however, the availability of production-ready, highly scalable forms of Open Source extensions has been limited. One possible explanation for this is that developing and maintaining an enterprise eLearning system requires an enormous amount of time and resources. The fast-paced growth and scale of eLearning environments requires mission-critical elements of the solutions to be operational first and foremost. With time and resource limitations, Open Source communities often are forced to spend a disproportionate amount of their development efforts on pure infrastructure, low-level services and protocol, and platform-related aspects of the solution - functionality that Open Systems already provide.

Rather than struggling to build and sustain the eLearning infrastructure and platform, Open Source communities should focus their efforts on developing the specialized teaching and learning extensions that fully leverage their pedagogical experience and knowledge. This development approach would allow Open Source communities to build on the strengths of the commercial Open System - offering a hybrid eLearning solution set that combines the strengths and expertise of both respective sources for the best overall solution.

Instead of competing, Open Source communities and commercial Open System vendors should work in close collaboration to establish baseline standards of interoperability. Upon closer examination, the Open Source community is neither the opposition, nor a threat, to a commercial Open System. Even if the Open Source community is effective in delivering an alternative eLearning system framework, platform, or application set that overlaps commercial Open System offerings, the two systems can peacefully co-exist for the betterment of higher education.

Even more impact and value can be gained, however, in the realization of a collection of Open Source community-developed teaching and learning application extensions that are based on open standards. These extensions would be infrastructure- and system-independent, allowing them to be deployed within the commercial Open System framework. The availability of standards-based teaching and learning extensions would offer institutions more choice and control in developing their eLearning environment than any one solution - be it Open Source or Open System. "Either-OR" is not the answer. The interoperability of Open Source solutions and Open Systems delivers the best of both worlds.

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