Interview

Gartner: E-learning Market Pushing Toward Open Source

With open source products maturing, Blackboard's ongoing lawsuit with Desire2Learn, and more and more functions linked to learning management systems, it can be a tough time for institutions to standardize on an e-learning platform.

To sort through what's happening in the market, Campus Technology recently spoke with Gartner Research Director Marti Harris, who focuses on the higher education market, about an annual report from Gartner, "Gartner Higher Education E-Learning Survey 2007: Clear Movements in the Market," by Harris and two other Gartner higher education research analysts.

Campus Technology: In the survey, Gartner found "clear movement in the market" toward more open-source platforms in 2007--26 percent of platforms on surveyed campuses were on open source e-learning system such as Moodle or Sakai, and Gartner projects that number will grow to 35 percent by the end of 2008.


Marti Harris: Yes, and it's important to note that the biggest part of that growth is Moodle. Sometimes the expectation is that it's Sakai, but really, the surprise growth area in open source has been adoption of Moodle.

CT: Why is that?

Harris: Moodle is, in many ways, shrink-wrapped and ready-to-go open source, so that's part of the attraction. From what I've heard from clients when they do a side by side comparison with other commercial apps, Moodle does very well. The open source part of it isn't really the issue. They just like the features and functionality.

CT: What is it about open source in general that appeals in higher education?

Harris: There are several things. For one, there is sometimes the perception that open source is cheaper. But we really don't know that's the case yet, other than the fact that [institutions] are not paying a license fee. Certainly, unless it's something that's turnkey or ready out-of-the-box, [any system] will require additional resources to keep development going.

You do have to determine how you're going to handle service and support in any case. Some of the open source products, like Moodle, have third-party providers that you can contract for service, support, and even for further development.

We've yet to really know how much cheaper these open source apps are. We haven't been doing this long enough to really know the total price tag on migration, for one thing, and then the ongoing total cost of ownership.

CT: How long until Gartner can evaluate that sort of cost?

Harris: We need to see more migrations. For instance, if an institution doesn't have [an e-learning platform yet] or they're running a homegrown system and they move to open source, that's one thing. But what we really need to measure is those institutions that are running something commercial, then migrate over to open source. Then we can get a comparison of costs--running a commercial app versus running open source.

CT: What about the ongoing Blackboard patent issue? What are Gartner higher ed customers telling you about how that's affecting their decisions on e-learning systems?

Harris: Interestingly enough--and this is not news to you or to anybody else in higher ed--but strictly from a perception point of view, Blackboard is seen as the bully in this situation. It's seen as [having] a certain arrogance to think that they developed something [themselves], when so many academics feel they've contributed to it all along. I can't speak to the legal issues at hand, but that's the perception, and it's global. I hear that wherever I go.

So has the suit had an impact on our clients? One thing I hear from clients is that it's irritating to think that their license fees are going to support a big legal battle. They feel as if they're paying for that.

[In terms of impact,] I see more institutions in a pilot with other applications, be it Moodle, Desire2Learn, or Angel Learning. Whenever something like this shakes [things up], institutions start wondering: What would be our options if we needed to make a move?

[Also,] the lawsuit has given much more visibility to Desire2Learn. We've seen an increase in inquiries about Desire2Learn as an e-learning provider.

CT: Given the lawsuit, what is Gartner's advice when a client asks, "What should we be doing right now?"

Harris: What you need to do, on a case-by-case basis, is review your contracts. If there are any contracts that you have a question about--"Is it time to rethink our course management system?"--then you'll want to sign your shortest renewal and start gathering data [on other systems].

That's the advice--go with the shorter-term renewals if you think you're going to need to make a change. Then pilot, and get faculty and students involved in really finding what's the best choice considering all the options. That includes commercial and open source, as well as --I don't really want to call them homegrown--but other types of collaboration and content management systems.

CT: Speaking of homegrown or in-house systems, one thing that I found interesting in your survey is the number of schools that plan to roll out homegrown e-learning systems--10 percent of the schools you surveyed. That seems high.

Harris: That's a trend that we predicted, so it confirmed our thinking. The term homegrown doesn't mean [schools are] coding from scratch. They're using things like [Microsoft] SharePoint.

It's just that there are more options now. Schools use so many other content management portal applications with relatively good, usable toolsets that they can create their own e-learning systems also using those tools...

We also see things built out on Lotus [for example,] but the one where we're seeing growth right now is SharePoint.

Another event we're seeing is a rise in social networking and social software. We're receiving more inquiries asking, what can we build out from a social software environment?

What I'm working on now is what I think we will ultimately be moving to, which I'm calling a social learning platform.

CT: An e-learning system that includes collaboration tools, then?

Harris: Yes.... [An e-learning system] that includes the features and functionality in social software. Ultimately, students and users in general are very familiar with the types of social software and Web 2.0 tools. They have higher user expectations. Even now, professors are setting up discussions and class resources through Facebook applications or other types of social software applications.

CT: So will more and more e-learning vendors start to include collaboration tools and other integrations?

Harris: Yes. We're already hearing about institutions that are talking to Blackboard about Moodle integrations. I'm even seeing some providers positioning their e-portfolios as social software in terms of appearance: It looks and feels more like a social collaboration network than a course management system.

So I think that certainly, providers are moving this direction. Again, I think we can expect to see more developed with using Microsoft and Google applications.

CT: It's an exciting time to be watching the e-learning space.

Harris: Yes it is.... And at the same time, for a CIO of an institution who is dealing with an application that has stakeholders in so many different areas--from students to faculty to community and to the IT organization--it's a real challenge.
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