Executive Skills & Strategy

Companies Aim to Leverage Open-Source Opportunities

By Katie Ash — February 06, 2013 6 min read
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Open-source approaches now appear to be migrating from the fringe to the mainstream in the education market.

Blackboard has acquired Moodlerooms and Netspot and launched an open-source services group within the company. Pearson is touting its “OpenClass” learning management system. Instructure has unveiled the source code for its Canvas platform.

But as companies make such moves, experts contend that the definition of what constitutes “open” is changing. And in some cases, companies are using the term in products that are not actually open source to capitalize on the popularity of the concept.

“There are multiple definitions of open that are confusing buyers and watering down the message,” says Philip D. Hill, the ed-tech consultant, analyst, and co-founder of MindWires Consulting. Hill has been following LMS companies for more than eight years and writes about developments in that market on the e-Literate blog.

Learning management systems provide an online portal for classrooms, serving many administrative functions for educators as well as allowing students to view assignments, grades, and learning materials. In some cases, LMS products can be used to deliver entire courses.

The Market

Instructure’s Canvas—An opensource learning management system featuring code that is primarily maintained by Instructure, a Sandy, Utah-based company that creates LMS platforms. Schools can host the platform on their own servers for free or contract with Instructure for the company to provide the hosting and support services of Canvas. Experts say that Instructure, launched in 2008, has created a more user-friendly LMS than some of its open-source competitors.

Moodle—A free, open-source learning management system created in 2002 by Martin Dougiamas, an Australian computer scientist and educator. It must be hosted on a school’s server or through an external Web host to work. Moodle is the original open-source LMS; it was considered the most viable open-source alternative to proprietary products made by Washington-based Blackboard until Instructure entered the market.

Moodleroom’s Joule (owned by Blackboard)—A Moodle-based platform that is hosted in a cloud-computing environment. Although it is based on the open-source Moodle platform, Joule provides outside technical expertise, hosting, and wraparound support services for a fee.

Pearson’s OpenClass—A free, cloud-based learning management system. Although the code is proprietary, the Web-based LMS allows for data input and output and offers many features of a traditional LMS, such as scheduling, gradebooks, the ability to assess students and report the resulting data, and a dashboard, which gives teachers and students an aggregate view of recent activity and a list of all relevant classes.

A purely open-source product allows a user of the product to both view and modify its source code. One major advantage to open-source software is that it is distributed for free, and for many cash-strapped educators and schools, there is a strong link between the concept of “open” and free, which is a major draw to such products.

That link may explain the use of the word “open” in a product like Pearson’s OpenClass. While it does not claim to be open source, it is available for free for anyone to download and use. However, the source code is not viewable and cannot be modified by users.

OpenClass, a cloud-based LMS that was launched by the London-based educational publishing giant in October 2011, allows educators to import and export data, so it is open in that sense, says Hill, but does not fit the purely open-source category because of its proprietary source code.

By contrast, the LMS platform Canvas offered by Instructure, a Sandy, Utah-based ed-tech startup, is technically open source. But even though Instructure allows the code to be viewed, the company makes most of the changes to the code in-house, says Hill. While Canvas was initially marketed primarily to higher education, it is now sold in the K-12 market, too.

But do schools care if products are staying true to the philosophy of open source?

“It matters a lot less than it used to—and that frustrates a lot of the open-source community,” says Hill. “What people care a lot more about now is the cost. They’re also sensitive in that they want to have easy-to-use features.”

“Canvas has really changed the game in terms of usability,” he adds. “And the market seems to be saying, ‘It’s fine if we’re not contributing code.’ ”

Usability Challenges

A majority of the schools that use Canvas do not host the code themselves as open-source products allow them to do, but rely on Instructure’s cloud-based hosting instead, says Brian Whitmer, the co-founder and chief product officer of the company.

Cloud computing allows schools to pay a third party to host software on separate servers that the third party maintains and troubleshoots in the event of an outage. Many schools do not have the staffing or technical expertise to maintain their own servers, and that need has helped create a market for cloud-based hosting services.

“Typically, what happens with an open-source product is that the usability isn’t where it should be,” Whitmer says. “But when you have a company like Instructure that’s backing the open-source offering, it’s not like you’re sacrificing anything to have an open-source product.”

ILLUSTRATION: Chris Whetzel for Digital Directions

Although schools may not actively be taking advantage of it, being open source does provide some benefits to the user, he contends. For instance, it allows users to build extensions into Canvas, giving teachers the power to pull in resources from other parts of the Web, he says, making the LMS more flexible.

Audrey Watters, the author of the Hack Education blog, says she has noticed a change in the way schools view open-source products.

“A lot of schools are nervous about open source because they feel as though they just don’t have the knowledgeable folks on staff to help manage it,” she says. “That’s been the appeal of something like Moodlerooms, which has developed a good support network of services to help people. They handle a lot of the service and architecture and implementation for schools.”

However, the open-source LMS Moodle has been criticized by many schools as being clunky and hard to use, says Watters. But while schools five years ago had to choose between proprietary Blackboard and open-source Moodle, she says, now there are more options, including the proprietary LMS company Desire2Learn as well as other products such as Instructure’s Canvas.

In addition, Watters sees Google as Blackboard’s main competitor in today’s market.

“Google Apps fulfills a lot of the things that a school would want in an online system—a calendar, email, Google Docs,” she says. “Blackboard feels like an older tool, and they’re really having to scramble to remain relevant.”

Seeking Open Sources

Blackboard Inc.'s acquisition of Moodlerooms and Netspot—two of the largest providers of the Moodle LMS—as well as the launch of Blackboard Education Open Source Services, which provides hosting, customer support, implementation, training, and migration services for open-source technologies, marked a new commitment from the company to the open-source concept. The move initially drew worries from skeptics who believed that the proprietary company would ultimately fold the open-source offerings into its line of products, as it did after its acquisition of the videoconferencing companies Wimba and Elluminate in 2010.

But so far, the Washington-based Blackboard has remained true to its promise to support the open-source offerings, says Hill from MindWires Consulting.

“We’ve seen that Blackboard is not taking over as a Trojan horse trying to take away the openness of Moodlerooms, and companies are still acting in the best interest of open-source technology,” he says.

Sanjeev Ahuja, the vice president of marketing for Blackboard K-12, says the motivation behind the acquisition was to better serve the elementary and secondary market.

“The way I look at it, if you’re truly to serve the entire K-12 education market, you have to have a variety of products to fit their needs,” he says.

A large portion of schools serve less than 200 students each, says Ahuja. “They can’t afford a big investment in technology.”

Open-source technologies, which are typically free but require technical expertise to maintain and run, are a powerful way to help schools that cannot afford a proprietary LMS to find a solution that works for them, Ahuja says. “Open source is a lower investment, and then [schools] can build on it and grow on it,” he says.

But as Watters notes, many schools prefer to leave the hosting and maintenance of the open-source software to a third party, which is where Blackboard steps in.

"[Schools] are looking for stability with a hosted solution,” says Ahuja. “When things go wrong, typically if you’re hosting it in-house, it takes a while to get it back up and running,” whereas with an outside host, it may take only a few minutes.

Ultimately, Ahuja says, it comes down to the total cost of ownership.

“If you have an underlying code base that gets you kick-started, as you start using the technology, you’ll need technological expertise,” he says. “Nothing in life is free.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 06, 2013 edition of Digital Directions as Open-Source Opportunities


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