Course Management System Content Conversion Tools wikipage

One of my main gigs is running a repository service to help faculty here in BC share online course content. As I have likely lamented far too many times, the bane of my existence is the uneven support for content interoperability across the various course management systems. At last count we had at least 6 flavours in the province in which ideally the content would work, and certainly would love it if it’d work with others too. So while I personally believe CMS are increasingly bankrupt as a model for online education and continue to work with others to demonstrate new ways of teaching and learning online, my reality is that the content I am asked to help share is almost exclusively CMS-based, and moreover built directly inside the CMS, thus somewhat reliant on the vendors to provide easy and open ways for getting it out. Yeah right.

We come at this issue from many different directions trying to improve it. We built a “best practice” wiki to encourage people in the province to share their tricks and tips on how to work with CMS and still get content out “cleanly.” We are looking at some content “convertors” as part of the repository framework to clean up some of the exports into better formats (a dicey proposition at best). We’re experimenting with a “harvestor” that will grab CMS content not through the API but by spidering course sites.

Along these lines, I have put together this wiki page to collect together whatever CMS content export/conversion tools I can find, mostly for the CMS flavours at play in the province, but not totally limited to.

And I’d like to invite you to play. There are multiple ways to contribute to this – if you have a wikispaces account, I will gladly add you to the site. If instead you are a user, simply tag any resource you think appropriate with “cms_migration” (or even just send it my way with the “for:nessman” tag). Am I duplicating effort here? Please tell me if you know of another good collection of CMS conversion tools. I have no need to re-invent the wheel here, just trying to give people as many options as possible. Please also tell me if I am barking up any wrong trees with my assessment of what CMS already work well (or not) with each other – I get sporadic access to any of these, and the situation often changes with versions etc. If you can think of a better way to do this, I’m all ears for that too. – SWL

bfree – export courses from Blackboard

Another useful pointer from Michael Roy at Wesleyan’s Academic Commons, bFree is a tool built by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. It allows you to open a Blackboard course export or archive file, select the files you want and then export these as an independent website.

This might not seem like a lot to some, especially with supposedly mature content interoperability specifications to ease the movement of content between CMS, but frankly I did a little dance when I saw this.

My issue hasn’t actually been with Blackboard’s CMS (no one in B.C. runs it) but with the product they acquired, WebCT. Specifically CE6 and Vista. I run a repository service for the province. We have funded both individual resources as well as full courses to be shared through this service. In CE6, there is currently no way to get a full course worth of content out of the system at one time in a way that works with any other systems. You can take a ‘module’ at a time as an IMS Content Package, but not the whole course. It’s not that this wouldn’t be feasible; the exact same state of affairs reigned over CE4 until it came time to get everyone off that platform when suddenly a tool that could export the entire course as an IMS package was created (the administrative Content Migration Utility). And it’s not like I am waiting around for WebCT/Blackboard to fix this; I was willing to develop a powerlink that extracted the entire set of content modules at once in a format that could be used in other systems. Except, much to my chagrin, I learned that WebCT/Blackboard had systematically left out the module export functionality from their API, and there are no plans to ever include it. Meaning there is no programmatic access to export content packages out of WebCT CE6. If you want to move an entire course worth of content, do it one module at a time.

This is probably enough that they can claim to not be playing the content lock-in game, but if I were at an institution that had recently adopted WebCT CE6, I’d be asking what the exit strategy from the product was (you do have one, right? because it won’t be long before you’ll have to have one) and shudder to think it amounts to “we’ll wait until WebCT offers us a good solution.” – SWL

My holiday gifts to you….

You already know what I want for Christmas. So in the spirit of the season, here are my (non-denominational holiday) gifts for ….

WebCT and Blackboard – I’d say a lump of coal, except they’d probably just claim to have patented ‘mining’ and sue me. So instead, how about “Courage,” the courage to adopt a strategy that keeps customers not by locking down their content in difficult to export ways but instead by creating a product people can easily leave but want to stay with; the courage to grow as a company not through intimidation and pathetic legal challenges but again, by continuing to develop a product that people simply want to buy (oh, and did I mention I believe in Santa Claus too!)

ELGG – continued success, and for some funder to acknowledge the blood, sweat and tears of these guys to build one of the best social learning platforms around today. As open source.

D’Arcy – some plane tickets to Hawaii so I can finally stop seeing all the links to Hawaiian hotels in his feed 😉

Alan – what do you get the guy with a great new job and seemingly unlimited talent? How about some well earned time at his cabin soaking in that unused hottub!

Stephen – A Patent. On Everything. Just Kidding.

Brian – his own radio show. I know, I know, who un-Web 2.0 of me. But I’d listen to it. You probably would too if you’d seen his record collection.

All the Edubloggers who felt it necessary to acknowledge an “award” from a link troll – some more self-esteem. Come on folks – “top 100 Edublogs”? What you’ve got there is exactly equivalent to someone’s blogroll. You’re all great. We love you very much. Remember, in the inimitable words of Dave Winer – it doesn’t matter if only 2 people read you, as long as they’re the RIGHT 2 people.

Michael (and all the other tireless folks working to expose the evils of software patents for education) – Math You Can’t Use: Patents, Copyright, and Software. Actually, no. Just a well deserved break. (And to Michael, great success next year in the new job).

the Moodle, Sakai, Atutor, .LRN projects and all the other open source CMS folks – continued success in the new year. Even if you are not an open source CMS adopter, be glad for what these folks are doing for you. Because you benefit from their work and efforts too, in more ways than you likely realize.

And finally…

To the readers of EdTechPost – thanks. And a promise – to re-launch this site early in the new year with comments back on. So you can talk back to nonsense like this post. That’s gone unrectified for far too long.

Hope you all get a break over the next few days, I look forward to learning and creating with you all in the New Year! Cheers, Scott.

More on the new behemoth – Timing, Open Source and Interoperability

So I’ve had a bit of time to digest the <a href=""big announcement yesterday and process what I heard on the analyst call, as well as see some of the feedback from around the edtech blogosphere. Here’s some more thoughts:

Timing and Rationale
First off, let’s put aside any euphemisms about this being a “merger” of equals. This was an acquisition by the largest player in the market (Blackboard, with $90 million in licenses last year) of its next biggest rival (WebCT with approximately $30 million last year in licenses). The offered price allows WebCT’s venture backers to recoup their investment (approx $120 million) with a decent return, far better than they were going to see anytime soon from the 5% operating margin that WebCT was turning at the time of the acquisition. Blackboard has been turning a profit plus is cash rich after it’s IPO, and with that and its line of credit, was in position to take over WebCT.

And the timing does make sense, in retrospect, in relation to WebCT’s recent release of CE6. Very few customers of their existing CE4 product have had time yet to do the upgrade. Sales for Vista have I think not been as good as hoped. So WebCT CE4 customers, expect some vigorous sales calls from Blackboard folks in your near future. BB hopes to convert many of these customers to its platform, and for those it doesn’t, it can still profit from sales of CE6 licenses without having to invest much by way of development in the near future. It will be surprising if there is anything much more than a few bug fix releases of WebCT CE6 before the new behemoth platform emerges.

Open Source
When challenged with the threat of “open source” both Blackboard (and WebCT in the past) have made incredibly vaporous statements in the past about how they are “open systems” if not open source, in an attempt to stave off interest from their customers in open source options. No doubt they will continue to do so, and Bryan Alexander’s right, we are likely to see more FUD coming from that camp. But on the analyst call yesterday they did come off as relatively nonchalant about the open source threat, and unfortunately not all of that is posturing.

Undoubtably, there are existing and future customers who will choose to go with the likes of Moodle and Atutor. Maybe if some of the bigger schools would weigh the value of ease of use and pedagogical flexibility more heavily than IT concerns we’d see even more adopt these two and for them to get the respect they deserve (I know, I know; look I’m not levying this claim, I’m just reporting what the common perception is, rightly or wrongly).

But for now at least, the promise that has been held out for those ‘bigger’ institutions has been lately from Sakai, the ‘enterprise’ open source CMS. And in my eyes this is the real tragedy here. In theory this presents the perfect opportunity for Sakai to shine and come into its own, to convert a ton of both BB and WebCT customers. Certainly, David Wiley seems to lament it not having showed up on a recent RFP in his state. Well true enough, I can understand David’s frustration at it not even showing up in the competition. But in reality it would have had to be an RFP so heavily weighted to business concerns at the expense of current functionality for Sakai to have stood a chance. You may hate the vision of online learning that CMS represent, but if you are trying to compare apples to apples, I just can’t see how the current release of Sakai measures up to these loathed commercial competitors.

But wait, what’s that you say – “but it’s open source, it will grow and and bloom as more people adopt and develop it.” Well, maybe. Hopefully. Last I heard, the soft money didn’t have too much longer to go and there look to be only a couple of instances actually in production. And maybe someone from inside that project can comment to the rest of us how many developers who are not funded through that soft money, and who are outside the “core schools,” are actually contributing code back into the core project right now. ‘Open Source’ at its best means more than just ‘source code availability.’ I will leave it at that lest I spark a religious debate. I do truly wish that project well, as monoculture in elearning is not a good thing. But I speak from personal experience in saying that adopting software solely or primarily because it is open source, and not weighing heavily enough its fit to functional requirements and one’s own capabilities for rectifying that lack of fit, is a fatal mistake in software acquisition and development..

Interoperability and Open ‘Standards’

This is the piece that really gets my goat. IMS has been around since 1997. The Content Packaging, QTI and Enterprise specs (the ones I take to be of primary concern when it comes to CMS portability) are now all at least 5 years old, if not more. And yet all of us, yes US, the adopters, implementers and purchasers of CMS, have given the commercial CMS a pass on these. (SCORM is a different story here, but unfortunately it’s never really applied that well for the higher ed sector, nor for the CMS that service it).

It’s not totally our fault – yes, the specs were a moving target for a long time. Yes, compliance testing likely means a load of liability insurance that no one can afford. Yes, there are good reasons to accept that the specs need to be able to be extended to accommodate things they couldn’t do in their original incarnations.

But we’ve accepted all of these excuses and what do we have? Instead of content interoperability and portability between systems, we basically have vendor lock in, the very thing the freaking specs were supposed to help avoid! And that just got a world worse too with this consolidation. David Davies has it exactly right when he says that “BigCo vendors were cautious about embracing interoperability too vigourously.” But who the heck thought they were ever going to adopt these voluntarily? Say what you like about the military and SCORM, but there are a whole lot of LMS that spent money to conform to that specification, and we know they do because there is a test you can run to confirm this, and there are procurement folks who insist they prove it before they are awarded a contract.

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Wow, I must have been bottling a lot of stuff up over the last few months of not posting to the blog. At least that’s the excuse I’ll give to anyone I pissed off with this write up! Anyways, that’s my limited view of things. Good luck! – SWL

More on WebCT aquisition by Blackboard

On the analysts call the first piece of work that was identified to bring the two products closer together was unifying an API for the Blackboard and WebCT.

So, what does that mean for things like the IMS Tools Interoperability Profile? Well, seems to me like the new unified API becomes a de facto ‘standard’ that will be even harder to displace for any of the more open approaches to integrating 3rd party tools into CMS. – SWL

HOLY $#@! – Blackboard and WebCT to merge

Well, there goes any claim to being an insider! Just found out about this a few minutes ago and had no idea it was in the works. I believe this is true as I am sitting on the analysts conference call right now. You kind of knew something like this had to happen, but still it’s profoundly shocking now that it has, especially as WebCT is just pushing WebCT Campus Edition 6 out the door in the last few months, which meant it was no longer supporting 2 code bases. Somewhat unsurprisingly, it was referred to as an ‘acquisition’ a number of times, which seems really like what it is. – 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

Campus Technology Article on the benefits of an integrated CMS

I’d like to believe that lots of what this article has to say is true; that, putting to the side for a moments complaints about the nature of CMS systems themselves, giving faculty an ‘integrated’ environment saves them (and the students) from the duplication of lots of dull, administrative tasks and frees up time to spend on the more critical tasks of teaching and learning. That was, after all, supposed to be one of the initial drivers behind this approach in the first place.

But this piece is just so anecdotal (“I recently did an informal survey of faculty members by email” or “One faculty member responded,” etc.) that it almost reads like a surreptitious piece of WebCT marketing. Indeed, I found it via an agent I have monitoring WebCT’s pages for news announcements.

So, make of it what you will. Studies on this topic ARE important – a large amount of time and effort has been poured into system integration efforts, standards, architectures and the like, on the assumption that removing duplication and increasing seemless integration is a “Good Thing™.” But not enough actual studies have similarly happened to determine if these efforts do increase usage, decrease barriers, decrease costs, and so on. And unfortunately, this piece isn’t one of them either. – SWL

WebCT announces participation in IMS Tools Interoperability Working Group

I’m sure the chattering masses (hey, I don’t exclude myself from this grouping) will have something to say about this one – yea, as the prophets foretold, in the year of the mark of the sign of the beast, the ‘evil empire’ took control, yada yada yada – but from where I’m sitting, if there’s a way that 3rd party learning tools can interoperate with different learning environments that is not based on proprietary APIs, that seems like a good step forward. If, instead, the Tools Interoperability specification becomes ‘Powerlinks for everyone,’ well then clearly the eschaton is near, so praise the lord and pass the hand grenades 😉 – SWL

Sentient Discover integration with WebCT or Blackboard announcement

As if to confirm some points from Martha Whitehead’s paper below, that there is a growing availability of means to integrate library systems with CMS, this press release announces news of integration plans for this U.K.-based “learning resource management system” with both WebCT and Blackboard (though this press release points only to the WebCT announcement).

Even more interesting perhaps is that Sentient’s Discover product is also starting to bridge the world of library collections and learning object repositories; its 2.0 version, to be released in January, will allow users to retrieve results from both their institutional library catalogue and the MERLOT metadata repository in the same search. – SWL