Monday, June 23, 2008

Open Source Software and Web 2.0

It's hard to know where to begin this discussion. I've been observing the issue of open source versus commercial software for educational use first hand in my school so I have a lot of thoughts about that. We installed Moodle three years ago as our course management system (CMS) and we also bought Blackbaud's (not to be confused with Blackboard) suite of student records management applications, all of which are meant to integrate the financial, educational, and admissions records of students and their families for our K-12 school of about 500 students, which cost a huge amount of money. So we have both open source and commercial applications in our school for different purposes.

But part of this assignment is to discuss this in relation to the two magazine articles about the changing face of the web with the innovations of user-generated content and social networking capabilities. The commercial student records applications are not designed to meet these needs at all, so that helps narrow it a bit.

The picture above shows our installation of Moodle, which we call Hewitt CourseWeb. I've been very involved in its implementation over the last few years. I have focused on exploring its different features in my own classes, trained teachers on these features, worked with administrative functions, and developed strategies for importing our courses and users into the system. Recently I led a workshop for teachers that I called "CourseWeb 2.0" because virtually no teachers have been taking advantage of the features in the CMS that enable students to share their own content with their classmates. They've been using it exclusively to post homework assignments and provide lesson materials for students to download. I had been frustrated with this until I realized that our school's philosophy is very teacher- and content-driven, espousing a model of teaching and learning that emphasizes teachers delivering information to students and students simply studying it and demonstrating that they 'know' it. The concept of Web 2.0, that content and feedback should be generated and shared among users does not figure into this model. So in my workshop I presented the social networking capabilities of Moodle--discussion forums, glossaries, blogs, and even chats--in the larger context of its benefits to teachers even in a content-driven curriculum. It was nice to see the reaction because while the teachers know what kind of school they teach in they are sometimes frustrated with the exclusive emphasis on the traditional philosophy and I think they are looking for alternatives. I could see the lights go on when they saw that our CMS could serve as a medium for them to explore that in their teaching. I think we'll finally start seeing some exciting things happen with it next year.

There are some other minor issue that also come to mind. One is that as an educational technologist who sees the web as a creative medium it was a little frustrating to move from using FrontPage to design an individual instructional web site I used in my classes to a CMS with much more functionality but almost no control from the teacher's perspective over how the course pages look. Everything has the same color and layout and while I can innovate by embedding things like streaming video from Flickr into a page I'm mostly restricted to choosing modules from drop-down menus. I know a few other teachers who were into experimenting with their own HTML code were sad to lose that bit of sandbox to play with and individualize. While we have implemented Moodle in grades 4-12, the lower school teachers have reluctantly dealt with the transition from their colorful web pages full of clip art to the uniform Word Press blogs they now update with class news. The administration is happy, though, because under the old system they were frustrated by the lack of uniformity in design and navigation schemes. As the intermediaries of this issue, we in the tech department had to work constantly to help teachers at least put their navigation links in the same place on the page, but it was a losing battle.

While we've made the transition to open source software for our CMSs with great success, I've encountered a couple frustrations that weren't mentioned in the open source versus commercial apps paper. One is that while the CAOs/CIOs are concerned with the 'uncertain life expectancy' of vendors as they can be bought up by other vendors, I find that features can change with open source applications from one version to another and there is no one you can complain to about it. Usually upgrades bring improvements, but with our most recent upgrade we discovered that the new version of Moodle had taken a step backward in its handling of multimedia files. We had previously enjoyed the ability to upload MP3s and have them immediately stream in a nice, easy-to-use web player with a link to the file for download right below it. It was the perfect solution to students needing to both hear audio on their computer but also be able to download it to their iPod to listen to later. In the new version you have to choose one or the other so teachers have to upload the same audio file twice to make it available in both formats. That additional work effectively killed the option for most of the teachers I work with.

So that does raise the additional issue of open source applications changing in ways that you have no control over since the people responsible for its development are a community of programmers rather than a service-oriented company. The best you might hope for is to post feedback to a community forum and hope they the developers take it upon themselves to incorporate the feedback in a future version.


Anonymous said...

Hey Eric
Interesing post on open source and good information given that you've used both-moodle and blackbaud. I agree that-as someone who likes to manipulate design, the commercial tools are very frustrating. Not only because of their inflexibility, but also because of how badly they are designed. I cringe when I see Blackboard sometimes, and am always flabbergasted why no one higher up demands that they re-do versions based on ID models and principles. Anyway, blah blah, good post. Thanks for the comments on my site-I am not totally thrilled with it, but as happy as I can be. I am missing Thurs class since I'm leaving for a conference tomorrow, so will present it tonight. See ya

Jfefferman said...

Hi Eric,

You summed up the two readings and more so. Where does that lead us? I don't know either. I'm frustrated with Blackboard and expensive licensing fees from the major corporations. I know we can do more, and still these new endeavors (open Moodle, free Google) are new and educators are skeptical. I am curious to see how your school with implement Web2.0 and what your experience will be. We're at an interesting time in education and technology!

jemini said...

Dear Erik...this time with a K,

Reneta was not joking when she said you wrote long posts. Your blog could basically be a novel. Anyways I agree with your blog and I think that it is nice to have software that allows you to modify things suited to specific educational needs. That being said I have bad news. They took away our two computers in the lab and our table is no longer there!