Open-source competes with WebVista

Some would like to see the University move away from Blackboard’s WebVista to a different program.

Just as Firefox has given Microsoft a run for its money, a similar battle is taking place in the online classroom.

About 85 percent of University courses use Blackboard’s WebVista for online course-management, but an increasing number are using Moodle , an open-source program first available at the school in fall 2006.

Blackboard, to which the University paid $193,000 for fiscal year 2008 , has products used at about 60 to 70 percent of schools nationwide, according to senior director John Fontaine .

An open-source project such as Moodle means anyone can take part in the development of the software. It’s also usually free.

But it also means a better product in assistant horticulture professor Eric Watkins ‘ case.

Watkins said he’s used the software for about a year and for three classes in the past. Its performance has led him to sign on again for a course he’s teaching this fall, he said.

Citing faster development than Blackboard’s, and a more compatible and user-friendly interface, Watkins said he envisions more professors adopting it if it’s to their liking.

“I think they want to use the best one possible, and I think it is better than (WebVista),” Watkins said.

The software was used for 256 courses at the University during spring semester , according to the school’s Moodle development Web site.

Moodle, however, isn’t the only open-source software being used at schools.

More than 20 schools are pilot institutions for course-management projects from a project called Sakai, including the University of Missouri and the University of Virginia , which will launch a campus-wide project powered by Sakai next spring.

Trisha Gordon , project lead and user support manager , said Virginia decided that open-source was the best route after an advisory committee met on the issue in summer.

Looking toward the future, Gordon said she envisions more schools leaving licensing contracts on the wayside.

“My sense is that higher education institutions are becoming disenchanted with the hefty licensing price tags for systems like Blackboard,” she said.

Michael Korsucka, executive director at Sakai, said Blackboard has such a hold on the market because of its acquisition of then-WebCT in 2006 and the fact that open-source options are so new.

Unlike Moodle, most of the development for Sakai is done at leading research schools, Korsucka said – which allows for greater customization.

“The whole notion of open-source and getting them control of their own destiny is important to them,” he said.

Even though change is expensive, Korsucka said he also expects more schools to go open-source once they see the success other schools have had with the software.

Blackboard recently announced its intention to become compatible with Sakai.

Some have called the decision a maneuver for Blackboard to prepare to acquire Sakai. Fontaine said open-source projects aren’t competitors.

“What Blackboard’s realized in the last couple of years has been that it’s not Blackboard or Sakai, it’s often Blackboard and Sakai,” he said.

The existence of research and experimentation on such projects is important, Fontaine said, as teachers should be striving to better learning environments.

While open-source projects might seem cheaper to colleges in the long run, he said many schools realize that enterprise software like WebVista comes at a lower cost.

“Anyone can write code, what’s difficult is the maintenance, the testing and other operational aspects around running a software project,” he said.