Blackboard has not been having a good time in the state of North Carolina. As I noted recently, the University of North Carolina (a Blackboard customer) reported highly favorable results of their pilot study of Sakai, with an outcome of further investigation into Sakai as a full replacement of Blackboard as their primary LMS. It turns out that this was following on the heels of a similar study done by the North Carolina Community College system favorably comparing Moodle to Blackboard. The details were different but some of the underlying dynamics were the same: the open source system in each case was found to be functionally equivalent to Blackboard for all practical purposes, the open source platforms did roughly as well as Blackboard (in the Moodle evaluation) or better than Blackboard (in the Sakai case) in usability evaluations, and Blackboard was deemed to be expensive relative to the alternatives.
What’s interesting in the Moodle evaluation is that Blackboard wrote a response, which was published by the North Carolina Community College System (NCCCS). And the heart of the response is a swipe at open source with many claims that are…factually and logically questionable.
Unfortunately, the PDF has some sort of copy protection on it that prevents copy/paste. (I thought Blackboard was on an openness kick….) So I have laboriously retyped the section of the response entitled “Top Five Risks to Consider When Evaluating Open Source” so that we can weigh the strengths of Blackboard’s arguments together. I apologize for any mistranscriptions.
Here we go:
All open source technology is not equal. Most open source products offer targeted, narrow functionality that allows for quick deployment and no license cost. Some of the many risks associated with dependency on these small-scale products are lack of support, lack of standard training, a small developer community, uncertain security policies, and no defined product roadmap to inform your decisions. A few open source projects, such as the Linux operating system, offer mature, enterprise-level solutions, because industry leaders like Red Hat and IBM invest millions of dollars to maintain, support, and develop them. Because of this commercial support, linux poses few risks; but for the same reason, costs to purchase and implement Linux are consistently in line with proprietary softare. Moodle may offer some benefits of other open source products, but it comes with considerable risks and hidden costs because it is not a true enterprise solution backed by reputable software vendors that have the resources to ensure enterprise-level security, support, and development.
Blackboard refers to Red Hat as if it has always been the multi-billion-dollar company that it is today. In fact, Red Hat grew with the success of Linux in the enterprise. In other words, Red Hat is able to “invest millions of dollars to maintain, support, and develop” Linux because Linux offered a “mature, enterprise-level solution”, not the other way around. (To be more nuanced, you could say that the two co-evolved, but that doesn’t really change the underlying fallacy of Blackboard’s claim here.) Similarly, the Apache web server was wildly successful well before IBM and Oracle invested in it. In fact, Apache’s success was what attracted the investment. You could look at a project like Drupal, which was just adopted by the White House (yes, that White House) to run their public web site as an example of an open source project that is earlier in this trajectory. It is simply false to claim that the only reliable open source projects are the ones that are heavily sponsored by hundred-billion-dollar companies.
Also problematic is the implied claim that Blackboard is a “true enterprise solution backed by [a] reputable software vendor that [has] resources to ensure enterprise-level security, support, and development”, while Moodle is not. In fact, poor support was one of the major complaints about Blackboard in the original NCCCS report. It is important to remember that, just as software development under and open source license is not inherently inadequate for the needs of large institutions, neither is software developed under a proprietary license—even by a relatively large company like Blackboard—inherently adequate.
The future economy of North Carolina is directly tied to the success of distance learning within the NCCCS. Recognizing this critical dependence, Blackboard recommends minimizing risk by continuing to invest in an enterprise solution that has industry-standard security, support, and innovation. The following list documents the top five risks the NCCCS should consider when evaluating any open source product:
1. Security Risks
Security breaches and identity theft are common challenges that today’s education IT staff struggle with every day. Sensitive information, regulated data, and proprietary research are transferred over the Internet more than ever before. Protecting this information is critical to minimizing liability and ensuring students and teachers can focus on learning instead of on technology. Moodle relies on the community at large to test for security vulnerabilities and to issue security patches after a problem is identified. This model is risky because hackers can have access to the same information as the programmers and they can quickly exploit any security issue announced on the Moodle public forums before a school offers a patch to fix the issue.
Blackboard is accountable for repairing any security concerns and these concerns are never announced publicly while a fix is in progress. Blackboard has a dedicated team of security professionals who follow a software industry standard security methodology, providing clients with enterprise-level security monitoring, testing, response planning, and maintenance. Blackboard spends millions of dollars to ensure that its products and your data are secure and these security benefits are built directly into the Blackboard license fee.
I can’t speak to the Moodle security process because I’m not familiar with it. (This is true throughout this post; I’m going to be using Sakai examples not because I think Sakai is better but only because I know Sakai better.) It’s important to understand that open source projects are not inherently any more insecure than proprietary software development efforts. For example, Sakai discourages users from reporting security issues publicly. There are private channels where they are reported to a security work group that addresses the issue before it is made public. Some support vendors may also provide contractual assurances about security, just the way Blackboard presumably does. Most importantly, there is no real guarantee that Blackboard is more secure just because they say they are, or just because Blackboard is a proprietary product. Is Internet Explorer more secure than Firefox? What I would like to see, and what customers should demand, is detailed information on how security issues are handled by each LMS vendor or open source community. I get that Blackboard thinks their security process is 65% more enterprise-y than Moodle’s, but what is that process? Also, I would like to see up-to-date lists from all vendors and open source communities of all fixed vulnerabilities in the past three years–how many of them there were, how severe they were, how quickly were they resolved, and so on.
2. Support Risks
Technical issues and other related problems are inevitable when operating any distance learning program. Managing and fixing these technical issues can be costly and distracting to teachers and students. Ensuring a consistent level of support as a distance learning program grows is also a major challenge. Moodle support, when it exists, is provided by several small consulting companies. These consulting companies do have Moodle experts but usually are not focused solely on supporting Moodle and education clients. Instead, they support several open source products for various types of users. These companies may not have the deep expertise required to fix your problems, they many go out of business without warning, or they may have priorities that are not aligned with your mission of supporting quality distance education.
Blackboard is not solely focused on supporting their LMS and education clients. They sell key cards, e-commerce systems, and emergency alerts systems. They recently crowed about being included in the Gartner Magic Quadrant for corporate LMSs, which means that they are apparently looking to expand their corporate clientèle. Blackboard also may not have the “deep expertise required to fix your problems.” Just because they wrote the code doesn’t mean they can always fix it when it breaks. How many Blackboard customers have called in with a technical support question that ended with the answer of “Sorry, we can’t help you”? If Blackboard can’t help you fix your problems, you’re out of luck, because nobody else understands their code or has the right to look at it. If your Moodle vendor can’t help you, you can go to another vendor, or find another adopting school that knows how to fix the problem. You can also fix it yourself. You don’t have to, but unlike with Blackboard, you can. Likewise, if Blackboard were to go out of business (ask WebCT or ANGEL customers if this sort of thing ever happens), you would’t be able to find somebody else to support and continue to develop your platform. Not true with open source support vendors. As for the vendor’s priorities being aligned with the mission of supporting quality distance education…well…no comment.
One solution some Moodle users undertake is to hire additional programmers and systems individuals at each site with the obvious headcount and cost implications. Blackboard is accountable for all support issues a large distance learning program may have. Blackboard works with hundreds of distance learning programs around the world and is uniquely qualified to offer quality support and expertise specifically to distance learning programs. Blackboard focuses solely on supporting Blackboard solutions, and provides each client with a dedicated technical support manager and client manager. Blackboard’s client care programs and technical support are built into the blackboard license fee, but costs for similar support services for Moodle can be unpredictable and sizeable for large distance learning programs.
Or not. Schools that have their systems hosted by Moodle vendors such as Moodlerooms or Remote Learner, or Sakai vendors such as Unicon or rSmart, have highly predictable costs with no additional staff required. Whether any of these vendors provide better or worse support than Blackboard is an empirical question, but there is certainly no reason to believe that Blackboard’s support is better simply in virtue of the fact that they don’t share their source code, or even in virtue of the fact that they are larger than their competitors. The airlines I fly when I travel are large companies, but I don’t recall them giving me particularly good customer support. I have bank accounts with both a local credit union and a big money-center bank. Guess which one gives me better customer service?
3. Product Roadmap
A distance learning program must be confident that the future direction of their course management tools will be aligned with their mission and vision. The Moodle product roadmap offers only a short-term view into the direction of future product upgrades and is controlled by a single person, Martin Dougiamas.
Is Blackboard seriously arguing that schools have more input on future product direction with Blackboard than they do with an open source project like Moodle? Are they seriously arguing that Moodle is a more top-down organization than Blackboard, Inc.?
A large-scale distance learning program needs to plan three or more years in advance, but by then Moodle may have changed its priorities based on the types of users who have adopted the system. The Moodle developer community controls what functionality is available for Martin Dougiamas to choose from for future upgrades.
Phew. I thought they were arguing that Moodle is more top-down than Blackboard, Inc. Instead, they are arguing that the future of the Moodle platform will be shaped heavily by the schools that use it. And that’s bad…how?
Without other large distance learning programs investing in new Moodle development and customizations, it is unlikely the unique, changing needs of the NCCCS will be available for selection.
Luckily, the Moodle community includes some of the largest distance learning programs in the world, such as Open University UK and Open Polytechnic in New Zealand, not to mention many U.S. community colleges. Arguing a counter-factual here doesn’t buy Blackboard anything.
Depending on a loose development community to build individualized NCCCS innovations and having little influence over which innovations are selected for future product upgrades is risky. The risk is that the Moodle development community decides to build tools in a direction that does not support future NCCCS needs or Martin Dougiamas does not select tools that support NCCCS needs. The NCCCS would then have to hire even more developers and testers to build and manage customized functionality that is separate from the Moodle community product package, and additional headcount which can be costly and distracting from the NCCCS mission.
With a proprietary product like Blackboard, just as with an open source community, development resources are going to go toward whatever projects that whoever controls the resources perceives to be in the interest of a critical mass of the adopting schools. Any proprietary company, including Blackboard, is obliged to prioritize functionality requests of a majority of the customers they happen to have, sometimes at the expense of the needs of a minority. The risks to adopting schools are therefore substantially the same. We can get a an equally true sentence here by substituting just a few words and phrases from Blackboard’s original: “The risk is that [Blackboard’s management] decides to build tools in a direction that does not support future NCCCS needs or [Michael Chasen] does not select tools that support NCCCS needs. The NCCCS would then have to hire even more developers and testers to build and manage customized functionality that is separate from the [Blackboard, Inc.] product package, and additional headcount which can be costly and distracting from the NCCCS mission.” Interestingly, Blackboard thinks this can be a virtue when applied to their own product. They like to publicize OSCELOT, a Blackboard-maintained site where schools that have needs for functionality which Blackboard’s management did not decide to build or Michael Chasen did not decide to select can develop their own tools and share them with other schools whose needs have been similarly unmet by Blackboard’s development direction. [Update: I have been informed that Blackboard does not run OSCELOT; rather, it is run by Blackboard’s educational customers. This does not change my point here.]
Blackboard is a public company and must present a long-term product roadmap and clear vision for future innovations. Project Next Generation (NG) is a three- to five-year, forward-looking vision to bring together the best of WebCT, ANGEL Learning, and Blackboard. Innovations in student assessment, student retention, mobile learning, and openness are cornerstones to the future of Blackboard offerings. The Blackboard Idea Exchange and many other client input programs enable clients to influence each new Blackboard product in a systematic, democratic process. Global innovation is by nature not static and moves at a rapid pace. Open source may meet some minimum standard of LMS competency, but only Blackboard can grow, adapt, and evolve with the customized and ever changing needs of your students and faculty [emphasis in original].
As a publicly traded company, Blackboard is forbidden by law to make certain forward-looking statements about product development, thanks to Sarbanes-Oxley. They can’t tell you in any level of detail about non-released products. Saying that “openness” is part of a three- to five-year plan (oh, the irony) is not really the same as giving you a detailed road map of what will be opened in what ways for which releases of the product. There is a difference between an actual road map, which tell schools where the product will be going in sufficient levels of detail that is useful for planning purposes, and marketing slogans, which tell schools what brand attributes the vendor would like to have associated with the product. Blackboard provides lots of the latter but little of the former. Let’s take the example of standards-compliance, which Blackboard trumpets elsewhere in their document. Specifically, let’s take the new IMS Learning Information Services (LIS) integration standard. Sakai supports it in production. The code is available. Documentation is available. Commercial support is available. Discussions about whether, when, and how it will be integrated into the next versions of Sakai (including Sakai 3, which has, among other things, public development plans that project out three years in more detail than Blackboard provides for its own platform) are publicly available. Likewise, Moodlerooms (you know, one of those teeny, tiny, teeny, tiny consulting companies that Blackboard talks about) has provided LIS support for Moodle. Because, you know, global innovation is by nature not static and moves at a rapid pace. What do we know about whether, when, and how Blackboard will provide support for LIS? Nothing. They don’t even provide the level of detail that would be permitted by Sarbanes-Oxley (or anything remotely close to it). Their “road map” for LIS is to tell customers that they participate on the LIS working group, which is to say, they show up for meetings sometimes. Schools who want to know whether and when they can count on LIS support as part of their integration planning get no value from this “road map.” Blackboard provides the least transparency of any vendor or open source project in this product category. Their dismissal of the notion that an open source project could keep up with new innovations also rings hollow, and not just for LIS. If I recall correctly, Moodle also supported grading discussion posts long before Blackboard did, to cite one example of innovation that started in the open source LMSs and has been copied by Blackboard. (Other examples are welcomed in the comments section.)
4. Training Risks
Students, faculty, and staff training are critically important to meet the NCCCS’s mission of student success. All software tools, no matter how easy to use, require significant investment in training to ensure all users are actively engaged with the technology. Distance learning programs depend heavily on these software tools to deliver online teaching, creating an even greater need for universal training. There is not a consistent user interface across Moodle modules, making it difficult for students and faculty to adjust as new modules become available. The inconsistency leads to the need for more frequent training in order to maintain levels of adoption and satisfaction with the software.
NCCCS’s pilot and case studies found that Moodle’s usability is basically equal to Blackboard’s. UNC’s pilot studies found that Sakai’s usability is better than Blackboard’s. Like many of Blackboard’s arguments here, this can be boiled down to, “Well, open source may work in practice, but it can’t possibly work in theory!”
The NCCCS has already invested in training for the Blackboard platform and Blackboard offers a consistent user interface to reduce training requirements.
The UNC study found that users were more productive while making fewer help desk calls using Sakai than they were using Blackboard.
The Moodle Assessment Report identified faculty development and training is needed regardless of what technology is being used. To address this immediate need, Blackboard has quickly responded by offering free training workshops and seminars available to all the NCCCS affiliated schools from September until the end of the year. This training would be extremely costly with a Moodle consulting company and you would lose your significant existing investments in Blackboard training.
5. Risk of Shifting Focus Away from the NCCCS Mission
The mission of the NCCCS is to provide high-quality, accessible educational opportunities to the state of North Carolina. To achieve this mission, you must recruit students and teachers, develop effective curriculum, train faculty to properly use the technology, and retain students in good standing until they graduate ready for the job market or further education. Managing the security, support, training, and maintenance of an open source course management tool is not aligned with your core mission and risks creating a costly resource distraction when problems occur.
The phrase “open source’ is irrelevant here, i.e., “Managing the security, support, training, and maintenance of [any] course management tool is not aligned with your core mission and risks creating a costly resource distraction when problems occur.” According to the NCCCS report, member schools went to Moodle in the first place because the high fees and poor customer service from Blackboard were creating costly resource distractions. There is nothing particular to open source here.
The NCCCS should use the investment required to migrate to and retrain on an open source product instead to focus on increasing faculty development and student retention programs, which are core to the NCCCS mission. This investment would show an immediate and measurable return on student success and further the achievement of your mission. This is the biggest risk, as you can easily begin to find day-to-day tasks are less about supporting students and more focused on supporting technology.
Blackboard’s mission is to develop technologies and services to support online education and we invest millions of dollars in product enhancements, security, support, and our training curriculum every year. Our missions are complementary and the growth of the NCCCS programs over the last ten years is a testament to the success of our partnership. Knowing that you can trust Blackboard to provide the technology and support you need for online education frees your resources to focus on your core mission of educating the citizens of North Carolina.
My point here isn’t to tout the merits of Moodle or Sakai over Blackboard, or the merits of Moodle or Sakai support vendors over Blackboard, Inc. Those are empirical questions, and they are somewhat individual to the needs of schools. Rather, my point is that Blackboard is making demonstrably false and/or irrelevant arguments against open source, even as they tout their “openness” and promote their open source Blackboard add-on community.