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Learning Management

Moving to an Open Source LMS: 3 Stories

With open source learning management systems offering an increasingly rich slate of features and add-ons, more schools are considering a move. Smaller colleges and universities, which may hesitate owing to concerns over support, often turn to third-party companies for help.

Use of its learning management system (LMS) soared at Mount Holyoke when the prestigious Seven Sisters college moved from WebCT to Sakai in the fall of 2006. Perhaps 20 percent of courses made use of WebCT (now part of Blackboard); now, to the pleasant surprise of administrators, some 80 percent of appropriate courses are in Sakai.

Part of the reason for Sakai's success at the 2,200-student college--which self-supports Sakai internally, in contrast to many smaller schools--was approval of the move to open source, according to Instructional Technology Consultant Mary Glackin. She was a member of the original Sakai implementation team and is on the college's current Sakai management team.

Another factor driving the move was the college's decision to move electronic reserves from its libraries into Sakai early on, helping drive interest. (Mount Holyoke has a merged IT-library organization, making for natural connections between IT and the libraries.) According to Alex Wirth-Cauchon, director of research and instructional support, the early decision to move e-reserves--course-related materials that professors make available through the libraries--from a homegrown system into the new LMS helped facilitate the adoption. For one thing, it pushed Sakai into visibility with instructors who might not otherwise have used it at all. "Once the electronic reserves were there," Glackin confirmed, "students started going there, and [Sakai] usage went up remarkably.... It's just astounding to us."

Mount Holyoke: WebCT to Sakai
As a largely open-source campus already, Mount Holyoke was predisposed to an open source LMS when it weighed the move from WebCT. According to Glackin, "both the feedback from our faculty and our own estimation was that we would be well served to move [our LMS] to the open source world."

The college did consider--and conduct on-site testing of--other solutions, including an upgraded WebCT and the Angel LMS (now also part of Blackboard). But the preference for open source narrowed the choice ultimately to Moodle or Sakai. Another Sakai plus, Glackin said, was that the college's network staff was more comfortable with the backend structure of Sakai--which is Java-based--than with Moodle's use of PHP, a general-purpose scripting language. "Moodle has a wonderful toolset," Glackin said, but other features in Sakai prevailed.

Two items further clinched the decision to go with Sakai: its solid support structure through the Sakai Foundation, and Sakai's tight integration of portfolios, a feature that wasn't available in Moodle at that time. (Portfolios are now available in Moodle, but Glackin said they aren't integrated in the same way they are in Sakai.)

One perception with Sakai is that it is geared for--and largely used by--larger institutions. Indeed, Mount Holyoke was one of the first small schools to move to Sakai, Glackin said, along with Whitman College in Oregon, a small school that was about six months ahead in its own move and proved extremely helpful. "They basically told us that, no, we're not crazy, and yes, we could do it," Glackin said. (Whitman is also self-supporting Sakai.)

Smaller schools definitely need to weigh how much customization of Sakai they can handle, both Glackin and Wirth-Cauchon said, and how many of the enticing third-party bells and whistles they can truly support. "We need to be very conscious of what level of customization can be supported on a small campus," Wirth-Cauchon said. The question, he said, isn't whether smaller schools can use Sakai successfully. Rather, "it's how much are you going to be able to customize [the system] as a small campus?" After making a number of early customizations, the college is now fairly conservative in what it adds to Sakai, keeping in mind its small IT staff and limited resources. Mount Holyoke uses the equivalent of a quarter to a half of one staff member's time to support Sakai.

In its research, Mount Holyoke found the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education (NITLE) a useful source of information from smaller schools about LMS plans. After lots of discussion with other NITLE schools, Glackin said, "we came away feeling fairly comfortable with where we were going."

In the move from WebCT version 4.2, the college initially planned a small pilot introduction of Sakai. Buoyed by faculty enthusiasm for the move, however, they ended up moving much faster. Rather than importing 20 or so courses, Glackin and her team ended up moving 90 classes the first term--essentially, the content of nearly all of the college's active courses.

Rutgers University, which was making the move to Sakai about six months behind, was writing a script to automatically move data from WebCT into Sakai, but Mount Holyoke's quick move leapfrogged the college well ahead of Rutgers. Without scripts, Mount Holyoke instead decided to move courses by hand. "We ... initially picked our heaviest users," Glackin said, "and promised to hand-move their data and sit with them as long as they thought necessary." To meet that promise, her team recruited instructional technologists and librarians across campus for one-on-one support for the initial faculty move, then spent the summer moving remaining pieces of data from WebCT.

The pace of the move was challenging, but, Glackin and Wirth-Cauchon said, it helped build faculty and student relationships--and proved to be a good cleanup of courses no longer in use. "Think of it as a wonderful opportunity to make a lot of personal contacts on campus," Wirth-Cauchon summarized wryly. But in some ways, he said, Mount Holyoke's small size made the rapid move possible. A larger campus with more courses, he said, probably couldn't have moved that many courses that quickly--and certainly not by hand.

Mount Holyoke eagerly awaits a new user interface from Sakai, expected in version 3.0. Faculty members, who generally love the product, are starting to find the current look "clunky," Glackin said. "They think it's a great way to manage their materials [overall].... Their comments are also that the interface is aging." Part of that discontent, she said, comes from power users who were heavily vested in WebCT 4.2, which was "well designed and visually oriented." Duplicating attractive sites the professors had in WebCT isn't easy in Sakai, Glackin said, especially individual pages. She said she would also like to see a more robust and flexible testing and quizzing tool, something that WebCT offered.

Favorite faculty features in Sakai include the ability to add resources to file cabinets, to post assignments, to schedule events, and to archive e-mails. But comparing Sakai's wiki abilities to some Web 2.0 tools leaves it looking less than robust. "We have a lot of really innovative faculty and they push the edge in lots of ways," Glackin said. "They're all looking forward to the next iteration of Sakai."

Casper College: WebCT to Moodle
At Wyoming's Casper College, rapid growth in its distance education component helped push a move beginning in early 2008 from WebCT Campus Edition to Moodle. Director of Distance Education Ana Thompson said the main drivers behind the move included increasing issues with WebCT , including slow software response times, long waits for support, and an unfriendly user interface.

In addition, Thompson cited Moodle's (and Sakai's, which Casper also considered) student-centric rather than instructor-centric design, a model she said she sees education increasingly moving toward. For example, she said, she likes that Moodle's course setup options for instructors include a "social" choice, which allows students to communicate among themselves and with the instructor about the course, essentially helping determine its direction.

Moodle also allows customization of discussion forums so students can rate comments, thus further participating in the learning and evaluation process, Thompson said. She also cited Moodle's Workshop module, which allows students to peer-review documents, either as individuals or as a group. That sort of ability to hand over control to students at an instructor's discretion, Thompson said, simply aren't part of WebCT's design.

Given that the small college has a similarly small IT department, it evaluated both Moodlerooms and Remote-Learner for third-party support, electing to use Moodle partner Remote-Learner for the initial course conversion, and for upgrades and technical support. However, Casper hosts Moodle locally on its own servers (Remote-Learner is also contractually responsible for backups).

As with other small colleges, the third-party support has proved particularly handy for customizations and interoperability issues. For example, Remote-Learner helped the college customize its connection between Moodle and Datatel Colleague, used statewide by Wyoming. With the integration, Casper College can download class and enrollment information into Moodle each semester. (Thompson said a Datatel API is under pilot that connects directly to Moodle, thus eliminating the need for custom software for the connection.)

Thompson, who earlier worked at Idaho State University during its move from WebCT to Moodle, is a big fan of the open source model, especially the constant collaboration she sees it engender. "[I like] the ongoing progress and development that is done throughout the world [in Moodle]," she said. She closely monitors the forums at and routinely sees suggestions morph into product features. "Just from [Moodle] version 1.9.3 to 1.9.5, there was a great improvement in the gradebook feature," she said. "Instructors, administrators, and support personnel submitted information about usability," which she then saw reflected in the new release.

Washington and Lee University: Blackboard to Sakai
Faced with the need to upgrade from Blackboard's most basic license to a more costly enterprise version in order to access new features that younger faculty were requesting, Washington and Lee University in Lexington, VA made the jump to Sakai a year and a half ago. The private, four-year liberal arts college--with just 1,800 undergraduates but a whopping 1,100 courses for them to choose from--ran both systems in tandem for a year to ease the transition.

The college decided to upgrade after hearing more and more requests from instructors for features such as podcasts and blogging. The college also wanted to be able to use Active Directory for authentication so that students could sign in to the LMS through the same password used for other campus systems--a feature that the previous LMS didn't offer.

While the need for new features drove the college to explore an expanded LMS, cost was a principal reason behind the choice of Sakai, according to Sakai administrator John Blackburn. "We looked at upgrading to an enterprise license [for Blackboard], but we couldn't quite justify the cost. And we didn't like being locked into Blackboard."

Putting both Moodle and Sakai in the hands of students and faculty helped with the decision, Blackburn said, as did the fact that Sakai seemed like a more logical move from Blackboard. Moodle, Blackburn said, seemed "less hierarchical, less structured somehow, and I was afraid that many of our faculty in particular would look at it and ask what they were supposed to do with it."

It helped too that tools in Sakai matched directly to some of the most popular tools in Blackboard, as did the structure of Sakai--"It's modular in the sense that you can add and take away different tools," Blackburn said, "and thus grow over time." His checks with other institutions confirmed positive experiences with Sakai. "They loved the open source quality of it." In particular, as did Mount Holyoke, he found feedback from member schools in NITLE useful.

With limited IT resources, Washington and Lee opted to contract with The Longsight Group for offsite hosting and support of Sakai, including product updates, backups, and customizations. For example, the university used Longsight to help integrate Sakai with Tegrity for course capture. Despite some initial trepidation about losing control by hosting Sakai offsite with Longsight, Julie Knudson, director of academic technologies at Washington and Lee, said the agreement has worked out well.

Comparing what the college now pays to Longsight with what the university had been spending on its LMS, along with the cost of maintaining a server, in-house support, and backup, cost is probably a wash. Additional savings may come from reduced support calls because of improvements like integrated authentication. "Authentication is huge because it limits the number of calls to the helpdesk about "What is my password?' and 'Can you please reset my password?,' Knudson said. "Now that [the LMS sign-on system] is integrated with the network, that's not an issue any longer."

One plus of the third-party support, both Knudson and Blackburn said: Longsight monitors the Sakai forums and keeps an eye on product advances and what other schools are doing, including the pluses and minuses of new features and third-party tools. "They're excellent for advising us," Knudsen said. "If we're having a problem, they can tell us how other schools are handling it."

In addition, the migration was largely managed by Longsight. Washington and Lee staff first archived the Blackboard course files themselves, then Longsight, using a third-party automating tool, set up a process for importing the files into Sakai. Key courses were moved in a few weeks, Knudson said; others are imported now on an as-requested basis. Other files from Blackboard, such as gradebooks, which Knudson said weren't a heavily used feature anyway, were left to instructors to import as they chose.

Predictably, the biggest migration pain fell upon those instructors who were most vested in Blackboard and who used advanced features such as tests, quizzes and gradebooks.

In the end, Blackburn and Knudson said, the move has been a good one. Professors who didn't have to make the switch from BlackBoard and thus came directly into Sakai with no previous point of reference are particularly enthusiastic. Blackburn and Knudson do offer this advice: Communicate clearly to everyone involved the reasons for the change. That can help address inevitable faculty frustration with having to learn the features and functions of a new LMS.

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