Sakai, Blackboard and Moodle

Yesterday at Educause I was one of three panelists in a “Point/Counterpoint” session entitled “Blackboard, Moodle and Sakai.” The session was completely overcrowded. There were probably 400 people in the room 20 minutes before the scheduled start time, many others who were trying to watch on a TV screen outside the room and many others that gave up and did something else. Luckily it was recorded so you can watch the session online. And you can view the slides we used to structure the conversation.

The interest in the session shows that a large proportion of universities are thinking about what system will best meet their needs. So expect to see lots of change in the coming years. Interestingly, John Norman of Cambridge posted great advice about choosing a system on the Sakai email lists at about the same time the session was going on (he’s not at Educause this year):

The [feature & function checklist] approach to purchasing decisions is widely used because it gives the appearance of objectivity and is relatively easy and low-cost to operate.

In my personal opinion, this is a naive approach to purchasing that explains a great deal of the subsequent unhappiness in large IT deployments. Much information is lost in mapping to the ‘feature boxes’ and the boxes themselves are often defined from a base of a particular implementation.

Given the cost of adoption, and the later costs of switching if the wrong choice is made (or the cost of trying to justify the decision that _was_ made), the value of investing in the process of selection cannot be under-estimated.

I genuinely believe that there is tremendous value in identifying these technology-neutral faculty (and student) goals and then dispassionately (and ideally with users) assessing how readily the product facilitates those goals, and that this is the right approach to making a choice. Unfortunately, the process can take time and investment and can be challenged as open to subjective analysis. The good news is that the subjective analysis may be the way in which institutional culture is allowing into the decision and much of the investment in investigation will be valuable and reusable when you come to deploying the chosen system.

So if you’re looking to change, take your time and ask the right questions. All of these systems will meet the functional checklist over time (and I’d like to mention Desire2Learn, who was not represented on the panel). This is a long-term decision about a core mission of the university and should reflect the values of your institution.

One final note about our Educause session. It didn’t produce the fireworks that some people may hoped for. We chose to take a more reasoned tone for a variety of reasons. We, as panelists, didn’t know each other well and we didn’t want to seem to be fighting with each other personally. Also, because Moodle and Blackboard were represented by implementing universities (respectively Melody Childs of LSU and Dave Swarts of American), I certainly didn’t want to put them in a position of having to defend products/communities that they don’t work in on a day to day basis. But really, at the end of the day, while a verbal “fight” is more entertaining, all three of us wanted to generate more light than heat. We hope you find it helpful.

3 Responses

  1. Nicely done Michael! Very civil, yet also very insightful – Dave made some tough points about “not all open source software being equally mature” and it was good to hear you mentioned Sakai’s understanding of that. You made it clear the Sakai community understood that looking at innovation as a dichotomy from stability is a dead-end, and that Sakai learned a while ago that if it wants to innovate, it can only do so by providing a solid code base, or forever be trapped patching holes. Dave also asked some tough questions about upgrading ( Sakai III transition ) which I thought you handled well.

    I also liked your point about open source not having to over-reach in features simply for the sake of gaining licensing fees.

    Melody Childs was also great ( she’s even named like a pop star! ) – I loved her point about all the money saved on licensing fees being put into user support & customization, to enable a far better, real world, value experience: I don’t recall Dave having much of a rebuttal 😉


  2. Thanks for the kinds words Charlie. There is no rebuttal to Melody’s point. Josh Baron of Marist College has said the same thing many times–even if they don’t save money (which they do), Marist would rather invest in their own human capital. In the long run it pays substantial dividends.

  3. Well done, Michael! I agree with all of you. E-learning platform selection is a long-term process that should be studied with some detail. It is worth to invest some time into decission making, evaluating more than features and functionalities, in order to reduce the risk of failure of the project.
    And, finally, I would like to remark than, from my point of view, there is no better platform. It depends on each institution case…though Sakai is the best. 😀

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