More Open Source for Education

Yes, I’m still looking. I’ve found a couple more sites that are collecting information about open source projects of interest to education. There’s an article in NewsForge about SchoolForge, but the stuff that looks viable to me is mostly at the more traditional sites like Fresh Meat, or CPAN, the mother lode of Perl modules. Which reminds me, there’s now a well organized site at perl.org, for learners.

Software doesn’t have to be New to be Good

Lately I’ve been talking to others in IT who are, like me, interested in solid products with good interfaces,and are taking advantage of stable but geeky standard protocols and unix tools and applications but putting a web front end on them.

I’ve been thinking about doing this with an NNTP server. Network News Transport Protocol is what makes UseNet newsgroups work, from a server perspective. Most of the discussion board products are monolingual; UseNet News is not, and readers are designed to support pretty much any language someone would post to UseNet in. News is threaded, and there are a number of ways to integrate HTML front ends. Why not use News as a discussion bard?

There are scads of News servers, but I keep hearing about DNews News Server, which runs on Macs, among other platforms. It’s particularly interesting since user authorization controls allow read and/or post access to be restricted for particular users or newsgroups; NetWin, the developer, also offers dBabble, chat server and webNews, a .cgi for a web front end to a news server. NewsRunner is a neat Mac application you can point to your News Server, and it will convert posts to HTML, text, digest form, email, or database and archive them. We were early adopters of Web Crossing, which supports UseNet news groups via the web or a client, email, private discussion boards with customizable templates, chat, and ssl connections.

CMS Crises, or Opportunity?

Yesterday, my interest in blogs and CMSs got a lot sharper; WebCT announced a deadline for ending licensing for 3.1x, the version we use on E-Campus. We’re going to have to decide what to do. We do have lots of alternatives, but it means my research and personal interest in CMSs and blog tools is suddenly professional and vital. But, you ask, what’s to decide? Why not just go with the flow and upgrade? Ah, well, there’s the question, and it means starting at the beginning, or at least in Spring of 2000, when I wrote a report on our LMS options, including an informal review of the various LMS products. We ended up staying with WebCT, even though I already knew it was deeply flawed, because it was the best option for our users at the time.

The Once and Future E-Campus

A year later in Spring 2001, I wrote an informal proposal, passing it by my manager and programmer, and discussing it with the chair of the faculty advisory committee, and then later, giving the new Assistant Director a copy.

Since I wrote that software review in Spring of 2000, BlackBoard has risen in popularity, WebCT fallen, and numerous small CMS systems have been swallowed by the two giants. Most recently, Promethius, built with ColdFusion, was bought by BlackBoard. Microsoft has a cooperative arrangement with Blackboard, privileging NT. And, like WebCT users, Blackboard users are not happy with licensing changes, judging from the complaints in the Blackboard users’ list.

I, like the software engineer and sys admin I work with, have been following the growth of Open Source popularity, and have even looked at various open source content management systems. I’ve not been impressed with them; sure, they are fine for use with one or two classes, but we host roughly 2000 or so classes, with over 25 thousand accounts. Even WebCT has jumped on the Open Source bandwagon. I’ve followed with interest the MIT/Stanford Open Knowledge Initiative. These collaborative projects have some great potential, though none seem to have much code yet. The Learning Online Network from Michigan looks promising. Frankly, the idea of open, public standards, particularly support for things like Unicode, are crucial. Yet as Blackboard and WebCT move towards databases, they are also moving towards proprietary data storage, including encryption.

The more I think about this, the more I am persuaded that the best solution for our students and faculty is to create our own tools and infrastructure for class site and content generation and management based on our templates and open standards. We need an infrastructure designed to allow us to include modules for specific tasks, for both “Designers” or instructional staff, and students, an infrastructure that will allow us to grow our class site support as our users grow. Such a system would allow us to offer the best of tools, and the features our users want, without being tied to any specific platform or publisher.

The danger of course is that such local systems, systems created by a small group of developers, make the institution deploying the system dependent on that group. This potential problem has already affected other local systems on several campuses. However, none of the local systems I’ve researched have been designed professionally, with real specifications, published APIs (APIs with the standard descriptors, the sort one expects from a developer), with documented and commented code, and properly tested via QA and standard user testing. Moreover, institutions are just as dependent on a commercial developer for support, and given the experience we and other have had with WebCT support, or Blackboard support, or support for the many products purchased by the two giants, I feel a local host system is an opportunity, rather than a risk.

On Blogging: What is it, and How May it Serve?

I’ve known about web logs, or blogs, as they are called, for about two years now. I started paying closer attention to blogs, and thinking about their instructional potential, last summer. But almost no one I’ve spoken to in the instructional technology field on campus has any idea what web logs are, or, if they do, why I think blogs have instructional potential.

So, you ask, what is a blog? Here’s my answer; it’s a way of presenting easily digested information from the web to the web, often in the form of annotated links, without knowing HTML or much about technology at all. No, wait, that’s not it; it’s more like a public (though they can be private or shared only with a few) online journal or writing space, . . . except there are blogs that are news sites, updated several times a day on specific topics.

Like any good blogger, I turned to the web for more information. Dave Winer of Userland, makers of Manila, one of the two most popular blog hosts/hosting software, has a history of web logs. He argues that Tim Berners-Lee’s very first page at CERN was a web log. Rebecca Blood has another excellent essay on the history of blogs.

Chris Ashley, Manager, New Program Development, IST/Interactive University suggests a blog is “something like an on-line journal, a web site an individual uses to write everyday, where all the writing and editing, and the whole look and feel of the site, is managed through a web browser from wherever the writer happens to be.” Chris’ three part essay on blogging and education is well worth reading.

Maybe I’m going about this the wrong way. Here’s an example of a blog; it’s my friend Paul’s iPaulo blog, and the first one I ever saw. Paul was one of the “happy few” who worked with me at Calliope Media; he knows useful technology.

His iPaulo blog got me thinking about blogs as tools for composition instruction, as ways of getting students to write in English, or French, or Vietnamese, or what ever, but getting them to write, and read, and think, in the language. Blogs like iPaulo are forms of free writing but the fact that they are public, “published” on the net, makes blog writers take them seriously. Getting students to write for an audience makes them really think about what, and how, they are writing.

But blogs don’t have to be “on line journals.” Dave Winer’s Scripting News is the oldest extant blog; it’s one of the blogs I check at least weekly as a good source for scripting news and information. The most useful instructional technology blog I know is David Carter-Tod’s SIT, or Serious Instructional Technology, but I also favor the venerable Tomalak’s Realm for always current information about web design.

There are other sorts of blogs, too. What you’re reading right now, of course is a blog. I thought I should try using one myself, as a way of figuring out how a blog might be used in teaching.

Blogs and Instructional Technology

I’m hardly the first to think of blogs for education; you might take a look at David Carter-Todd’s ruminations. The Curmudgeon, AKA John Marden, has a page of courses using blogs. Initially, I thought of offering our users a “Blog Tool” as effective tools for making class announcements, as a supplement to a bulletin/discussion board system, and as a way of fostering writing and community, without users needing to know HTML.

Blogs and CMS

But after I created a blog at Blogger, and realized how much of the process is template driven, I realized how similar blog systems are to CMS or Content Management Systems, like WebCT. I’m not the first to think of that either; see Shane McChesney’s Weblogging and Content Management Linkfest at his Skipping Dot Net blog. Clueful, a group of Australian CMS consultants, has a site just about CMSs, but they don’t include those designed for instruction (LMS). If you really get interested in CMS, there’s the CMS List too, which often refers to blogs.

Learning Management Systems

Technically, of course, WebCT, BlackBoard and the like are a sub-category of CMS; they are Learning Management Systems (LMS for those who thrive on TLAs), but they typically have everything a CMS has, with the addition of education specific features, like user tracking, quiz generation, grading functions, etc. Right now, there are a several open source LMS, like the nifty Class Web Mike Franks created, available via SourceForge, but the Big Names are BlackBoard and WebCT.

You can find several toe to toe comparisons of WebCT 3.1 and BlackBoard 5.0 on the net, like this one by Sabine Siekman of South Florida University. You can see the these two and 48 others compared by Bruce Landon, Randy Bruce, and Amanda Harby.