Educause Quarterly Article: Changing Course Management Systems

This is one of those articles that ranks in the “could have been important but ends up being too anecdotal” category. The authors are right in pointing to course conversion as both a potential cost issue and huge concern in switching CMS. All one has to do is ask a collection of system administrators or educational technologists who support almost any of the major CMS and they will nod knowingly, or start frothing at the mouth (depending on whether they’ve actually had to do it en masse or not).

But this is one area where higher ed suffers greatly from diverging from the corporate training world – we have no equivalent to an ADL to provide certification of these products on IMS Content Packaging (the larger scoped SCORM never having taken off within higher ed, for good reason.) So we are left to rely on the self-reporting of the CMS companies about their compliance with the Content Packaging and QTI schemes.

For a while the story that the churn of these specifications was what caused the lack of consistent implementations seemed plausible, but increasingly, less and less so. And fair or not, it’s no small part of the reason why on the LOR front, people are increasingly resistant to the notion of trusting their content to the big CMS vendors, as they have yet to exhibit content exports from their systems that will work well in their competitors’ systems.

The irony of this article is that D2L, one of the 2 companies mentioned here, has in fact done a lot of work to be able to convert content from their competitors’ systems as part of their business growth strategy. So if this is the case in trying to convert to them, one can only wonder what it might look like going betwen some of the others. IMS CP got started as a spec shortly after the formation of IMS in 1997, and was an early goal for good reason. From the customers’ perspective, it represented a major risk mitigation strategy to adopting one of these large systems (at a time when arguably the entire domain space was still in a very nascent state). 8 years later, one has got to ask, has it worked? Has the risk been mitigated? Ask your CMS admins and content developers, I’m sure they will tell you what they think. – SWL

Educause Article – A Capabilities Approach for the Next-Generation CMS

I’m sure lots of those disenchanted with the current crop of CMS will enjoy reading this piece by Van Weigel. Weigel suugests another approach to envisioning what the next-generation CMS might look like; what’s missing for me (and to be fair, this is just a chapter length piece, so it’s unfair to expect this as well) is the ‘how.’ If CMS don’t end up looking like this vision (or some of the other suggested alternatives) it will not be the first time ‘better’ technology visions haven’t won out over market forces. So how, given that the the latest available Educause Core Data survey states that 90% of institutions have adopted CMS (of which 75% are commercial ones), is the change to be brought about. Bit by bit, I suppose. – SWL

Open Source Means Just That

Those who know me personally know that the past year was a bit of an uphill struggle. In addition to battling my Crohn’s disease last year, I was the lead on a project to implement a learning object repository here in B.C. based on some code another university had created. The partnership did not work out as hoped, and after 7 months we finally decided to cancel our involvement in the project.

We’ve moved on and should be announcing our choice of software to implement that same LOR in the not too distant future. But when things go the way they’ve gone, the least one can do is try and learn from the mistakes, and hopefully share that learning.

Hence this post. The lesson is exactly what’s stated in the title, and I certainly feel all the more boneheaded for admitting I had to learn it the hard way. And the lesson is this – at the moment you declare a project to be “open source” the source code better be available for download somewhere. Period. None of this “well, we’re just going to get it to this certain point before we release it, but really, it’s open source.” Sorry, no. I understand the desire to get things ‘just right’ before others see it, and the desire to take code that’s been written for a specific instance (and thus probably has all sorts of shortcuts and not-so-great practices in it) and make it more ‘generalizable’ before the public gets their hands on it. But these urges need to be resisted. If you’re serious about something being ‘open source’ then realize that part of the openness means a development practice that’s literally ‘out in the open,’ open for scrutiny (and also for people to pick up on their own, without having to enter into political or economic relationships with you ahead of time.) It’s clear that releasing something that works, or that at least is comprehensible, provides a big leg up for open source projects that are just starting up, so by all means get your code to that point before you declare it’s an open source project. Just don’t declare it to be ‘open source’ and then keep developing it in secret.

I expect there’s a lot of folks who will read this and go “well duh!” Like I said, it feels boneheaded to have to admit to learning this the hard way. I fell for the argument that one could talk about releasing something as open source “when it was ready” while all the while toiling away in private. And yet, the number of projects I continue to come across, that keep doing exactly this (“Yes ours is an open source project” “oh, so where can I download the code from” “oh, it’s not ready for release yet”) leads me to believe I’m not the only one who’s ever been sold this bill of goods. It’s important to do this, not just because literally it’s the very definition of “open source,” but because it recognizes that fundamentally, “open source” is as much about a form of software development practice and social organization as it is about a form of software license (which in the end is simply the precondition for the phenomenon). And while you may feel awkward about making your mistakes out in the open, it’s easier to work that way if you’re already working that way, instead of having to invent a process and openness that wasn’t there from the start. – SWL


Spotted from an ad in sourceforge, this little device lets you turn off any TV remotely. An “educational technology?” Depends on your perspective. A “useful technology?” Well, I travel down to the States a fair bit, and increasingly the TVs in airport lounges are tuned to Fox News. ‘Nuff said? Maybe they could just invent one that would disable TVs from receiving Fox News (god, it galls me just to even write the word ‘News’ after the word ‘Fox’!) – SWL


I found this short post by Bryan Alexander at the MANE IT Network personally really useful – I’ve known about LAMS for quite a while, but had never heard it described as a “CMS.” My first reaction was – oh that’s just wrong, it’s an “e-learning design tool” (oh the sophistry of labels!). But then I went back and re-read the LAMS material. Sure enough, it does have facilities for delivery to students, accounts mgmt, etc. So I think the characterization of it as a ‘CMS’ is not incorrect. But calling it that potentially overshadows why LAMS is in fact so interesting; it takes as its starting point the design of learning activities and then assists with the delivery of those activities, rather than the traditional CMS perspecitve of giving instructors a series of unconnected generic tools with no scaffolding for tying them together or combining them with the content itself. The filter I had for it in my mind was ‘learning design tool’ but this post made me re-consider what that meant; it’s a new approach to delivering the education that takes as its starting point the design of the educational activity, not the organizational container of a ‘course’ or the pre-set bunch of tools a traditional CMS offers. So thanks, Bryan, for reframing the issue! – SWL

A-HEC Survey on Open Source

Too bad there weren’t more respondents (79 does not a huge sample make) but this survey from the Association for Higher Education Competitiveness presents at least some interesting insight into changing attitudes towards open source. What do we learn – Sakai has a good marketing campaign (at least in terms of name brand recognition), and people who are already interested in open source (I’m questioning the randomness of the sample here) are dissatisfied with the existing offerings almost across the board. Still, the rankings of the predicted successes seems roughly right (though placing uPortal below Sakai in terms of garnering market share just seems plain wrong by definition – Sakai currently employs uPortal). Worth a quick look in any case – SWL

Report Assessing the Learning Objects, Models and Frameworks Developed by The Le@rning Federation

Someone brought up this report by two Canadians, Bill Muirhead and Margret Haughey, to me on a phone call yesterday, and try as I might I couldn’t remember having read it when it came out this past January. A subsequent google and search of blogs similarly found no mention, which surprise me considering how detailed and important a report it seems to be.

Commissioned by the Australian-based Le@rning Federation, the report folows up on an earlier 2003 report by the same authors that reviewed The Le@rning Federation’s progress with developing and spurring adoption of learning objects in the Australian (and New Zealand, I think) K-12 systems. Post-secondary folks should also pay attention though, as part of the benefit in the report is its fairly extensive review of the literature and current thinking around learning objects. At 93 pages it’s a bit of a read (though even just reading the Executive Overview is well worth it) but for me it represented one of the better anaylses of the state of play of learning objects that I’ve seen of late. – SWL

.LRN announced as SCORM Adopter partner by ADL

When people ask me for examples of open source CMS that really might be considered as alternatives to the current major commercial systems, I often cite .LRN as one potential example. It’s been built from the ground up on a portal framework and already contains a host of tools one would recognize from conventional commercial CMS (and apparently there is now a related LOR component as well). This announcement of self-test SCORM compliance is another piece of good news for them. – SWL

i d e a n t: Tag Literacy

I haven’t been doing a lot of ‘me too’ blogging of late (e.g. highlighting what other bloggers have written) but I thought this post deserved a mention, in part because I’m not sure if Ideant is as widely read as it should be. the piece is a worthwhile read for the folksonomies crowd. I like the term “distributed classification systems” – I’ve been using the term ‘dynamic taxonmies’ as my Furl category for such articles, but this term I thinks works better. I don’t have a lot of time for the term ‘folksonomies’ but at the end of the day, it’s hard to argue with a meme. – SWL

WebCT Announces the Beta Release of WebCT Campus Edition 6

The next twelve to 18 months should prove to be a very interesting time for folks dealing with CMS-related issues on campuses. As per this news release, WebCT is leapfrogging any sort of ‘5.0’ release in favour of a new Campus Edition 6.0 – from what I understand, an effort to bring together their product lines (Campus Edition and Vista) around a single architecture and code base rather than apply more duct tape to the plate of PERL spaghetti code that had previously been Campus Edition.

Add to this the upcoming release of Sakai 2.0 in June (on which the scoop is we’ll finally start to see more of the promise of Sakai), the maturing of various ‘service-oriented’ visions and practices, more folks experimenting with blogs, wikis and ‘community’ systems like Drupal to deliver their online courses, and not to leave out options like Moodle and ATutor, and you get what looks to me like a CMS landscape increasing in instability (and not in a bad way).

In some ways, it’s all about timing. From where I’m sitting, many current licensees of the big CMS are frustrated with the costs associated with these platforms, and more than a few instructors express frustration as well. The migration from current Campus Edition platforms to WebCT 6 will not happen overnight, and will present the opportunity for a new round of decision making for many instituions. Will Sakai present a viable alternative in time for any but the largest and most brave adopters? Will any specific ‘service-oriented’ models emerge that are easily adoptable by schools that aren’t already exhibiting maturity in their elearning architecture practices? Will Drake marry Moira, and is Hudson their bastard love child? (Oops, sorry, wrong blog). Time will tell. But clearly, if there was a time to consider alternatives, at least for WebCT adopters, the coming months, when they will be asked to swallow Oracle or SQL server on top of WebCT, seems opportune. – SWL