Saturday, May 21, 2005

How many CMS are enough?

I've had some email threads this past week with colleagues around the country about course management systems and which one is the best bet. One wants to know what do to until Sakai gets mature enough (and if it will ever reach that stage). Should his school go to WebCT Vista now and take advantage of its full feature set or wait for Sakai? Another wants to know whether it makes sense to get on the Moodle bandwagon. Has Moodle beaten Sakai to the punch? Is Moodle a viable solution for campuses that are looking for an enterprise CMS? Or is it just a cheapie alternative?

On a different but related front, last Wednesday night there was a meeting between the FSI steering committee representatives and Illinois Community College representatives about pursuing a statewide consortium for the licensing of course management systems. This coming Wednesday there will be another meeting of the Community College group (which has been meeting for the last 8 months or so and does have a few of the four year people on it, such as me) to review models such as the one done by the Ohio Learning Network, where OLN has negotiated a consortium price with Blackboard, WebCT, and soon Desire2Learn, and some of the bigger schools, Kent State and Cincinnati now, Ohio State in the not too distant future, serve as ASPs for any smaller school that wants to participate.

If Illinois adopts a similar model, I'd like to see my campus in this ASP role, on a cost recovery basis of course, just so we can afford some needed redundancy in the personnel who support our CMS. There clearly are campuses that would want to be hosted by us. We'll have to see how this plays out.

ON a different front, I periodically go to the NASDAQ Web site to look up Blackboard, the only CMS vendor that is publicly traded (its symbol is BBBB). Blackboard's earnings per share are finally showing a positive value, reflecting the fact that they've had positive net revenues for the last 6 months or so. WebCT also reported (privately to me and my boss) that they were in the black last year. I don't know how Angel or D2L did financially, but both got some lucrative contracts last year.

I can't see how all these companies and the open source ventures can survive. If I were betting (with somebody else's money, with mine I'd rather keep it in a mutual fund) I'd guess that at least a couple of these will merge or be gobbled up by some other company. My guess as to the acquiring firm a couple of years ago would have been one of the big textbook publishers or perhaps a company that makes administrative systems that support the academic enterprise. But now I'm really not sure.

What does seem clear is that higher ed is hurting financially and the companies that thought they had a sure revenue stream by selling enterprise CMS will have to reconsider. The interesting case now is not with the big schools that have already chosen to go enterprise but rather with the small schools that are currently in lower levels of the product offering.

WebCT dropped its standard edition product a year or two ago and drew the enmity of standard edition customers who were quite content with that offering. But WebCT was losing money on the offering and they are a for profit business. Blackboard is in the same boat now with their Basic Edition.

Some of these schools will switch to Moodle and in the near term that probably is the most sensible path. But as I hear about one school after another having significant production and reliability problems, the idea of supporting a CMS on a shoestring budget makes less and less sense. This software is becoming mission critical if it isn't there already. Supporting mission critical software requires a substantial investment.

I don't begrudge the commercial vendors making a buck. In that I seem to be unlike my peers. Most of them want their cake and want to eat it. If the consolidation does come and we all say at the time, "Woe is me," we'll only have ourselves to blame.


Anonymous said...

as I hear about one school after another having significant production and reliability problems, the idea of supporting a CMS on a shoestring budget makes less and less sense.

Just to clarify, are you hearing about schools using Moodle having these problems? That is certainly not our experience at Cal State, Humboldt, production is about the same as for Blackboard and reliability is better (on the same calibur hardware).

We've found that on the one hand Moodle reliability comes at a lower cost because it runs on technologies (PHP/Apache) in which significant investment has been made, and on the other hand investment from the world-wide Moodle community of 3400 sites and growing daily is increasingly significant.

There is an interesting discussion here regarding Moodle as mission critical, with input from installations in the 40k+ user range who are finding Moodle ready for mission critical status.

Lanny Arvan said...

It is good to hear you are having success with Moodle at Humboldt. I'm not aware of any large Moodle instance in the state of Illinois. I am curious about whether Moodle can run entirely encrypted (I've heard yes but don't know someone who is doing it) and how it does or does not integrate with administrative systems like Banner.

In any event, my comments were more about FTE allocated to the support activity and that especially at smaller schools there are not sufficient numbers of staff supporting the CMS. Even if the software is perfect, if the staffing is low that in itself will create problems. This in my view is the reason to centralize production support of these systems.

Michael Penney said...

Hi Larry, just to let you know I started a discussion over on the Moodle forums regarding your SSL question, to get some info. from folks using it that way.

Basically are two ways to run Moodle with SSL, the default way just encrypts the login screen, which is a bit better for performance. The second way is for your server admin to set the entire Moodle directly as a secure directory, in which case all data passed is encrypted via SSL.

This is reported to cause a slight increase in server load (which is expected as the server encrypts all the data), along with some other issues (related to running any LMS over SSL) as discussed here:

Lanny Arvan said...

Michael - thanks for the follow up. Rather than write a long response here and since Scott Leslie all wrote about his particular post in his blog, let me commit to write something else tomorrow as my post of the day on Enterprise CMS. This will be more about how we at Illinois think about these issues than about Moodle. But I hope it will help in that arena as well.

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