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Issue 17 July 2009   Tuesday, July 28, 2009

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Open opportunities, open threats?
by Derek Morrison

The following article is an abridged version of the online essay first published in Auricle (30 April 2009).[1]

I would prefer to think that technological developments and experience would have, by this time, made the debate about which Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) is most appropriate for use in Higher Education (HE) in 2009 an expensive irrelevancy. Nevertheless, I am always intrigued to hear perfectly rational and detailed explanations of how, after an impressively rigorous research and commissioning activity, brand X was introduced into institution A. The next day I can be listening to equally rational and detailed explanations of why brand Y was introduced into institution B.

I’ve also posited in my Auricle articles and elsewhere that if, at one stroke, some mythical bolt of lightning was to destroy all VLEs (as we currently know them) then, because there are now sufficient alternative options for use by academics and students, a process of disseminated self-repair would rapidly occur. But the mythical bolt of lightning is unlikely to materialise and so it is probably more useful to view the current situation as more like an evolving ecosystem where formal institution provision co-exists with less formal platforms, tools and artefacts. Some of that less formal provision is explicit and sometimes it forms part of what I’ve previously called the Hidden Learning Environment (HLE) [2]. What I want to reflect on in this article is formal VLE provision in HEIs that have eschewed the proprietary offerings in favour of the open source route, or are happy to support both proprietary and open source offerings. Others, for a variety of reasons, may now be considering their positions regarding their original proprietary choices. It is worth noting that some of the institutions that have embarked on this open source route are significant names in the UK HE sector that would not have embarked on this course lightly. They, therefore, perhaps offer useful reference models for those contemplating commissioning, or migrating to, non proprietary offerings.

Developing this balanced digital ecosystem may be helped by Tom Watson’s (the then UK Minister for Digital Engagement) announcement of a government action plan for Open Source in Public IT projects, i.e. Open Source, Open Standards and Re–Use: Government Action Plan (Cabinet Office 24 February 2009) [3]. This opens the way for using open source when it will deliver best value for money. Notably, the Conservative Party perceives cost savings from using open source in public IT projects. See also Can we build a world with open source? (Guardian 5 March 2009) [4].

But there's a lot of infrastructure and hard and soft investment out there. Hard, because of all that hardware, and platform licences. Soft, because there are those who view their jobs and careers as allied to a particular VLE brand or who shudder at the thought of all that migration effort and retraining. There are also those who would view this as an opportunity for refocusing and refreshment. I explored some of these issues in my ALT-C 2004 paper E-Learning Frameworks and Tools: Is it too late? – The Director’s Cut [5]. Also, back in 2004 in Clark Kent solutions have super-powers – well sort of! [6] I suggested:

… there’s a lot of e-learning activity in the world … right? There must be! There are thousands of Blackboard, WebCT et al ‘courses’ out there. Now let me pose a really difficult question. How much so called e-learning is really using a proprietary VLE as a content repository with perhaps a smidgen of noticeboard? Go on, do the audit! .. in many cases a VLE (as we currently know them) may be expensive overkill (licensing, training etc) for what after all is relatively simple initial requirements, e.g. post up some course content and make a few announcements…

There can be multiple reasons given for considering a migration to an open solution; including:

  • Economic: the recurrent cost of proprietary licenses for the underlying platform and/or third party extensions; or the equivalency of functionality/usability being offered by non-proprietary systems.
  • Control: the desire to avoid creating institutional dependence on or ‘lock-in’ to a proprietary supplier or a single platform; or the ability to make adjustments or improvements to the underlying platform without breaching proprietary constraints/licensing.
  • Ethos: belonging to a support community separated from commercial drivers or influence; focusing expenditure and effort within the educational community; or sharing information, improvements and artefacts for use by the whole educational community.
  • Scholarly: disagreement with the underlying pedagogical model manifested by the design of a proprietary platform.
Equally there can be multiple reasons given for rejecting it; including:
  • Economic: open source is not "free", the software platform may be “open” but there are still the hardware, software and staff development costs; the investment in the current hard/soft systems is too great; overcoming institutional inertia (or reaction from some) would be costly; or migrating content will take a long time.
  • Control: the schedule of proprietary updates aligns with institutional expectations and planning.
  • Ethos: buy in proven 3rd-party solutions where the focus is on integrating with existing systems; views “lock-in” as a fact of life (whether that be open source or proprietary “lock-in”); perceives  less risk in going along with what many other institutions have done; or may assert support communities are relatively independent of proprietary influence.
As I suggested in the opening to this article, both positions view themselves as equally rational and undoubtedly those at the extreme end of the position poles would defend their beliefs to the death. I suspect, however, there is a significant number who may at least be doing the thought experiment about how to swap VLE horses and managing the risks of doing so.

My views have been partially shaped by my observations and reflections on the reality of how e-learning arrived in many HE institutions now a decade or so ago. A common model was for senior university managers to become de-facto advocates of one or more of proprietary solutions that had been demonstrated to them as the e-learning solution, sometimes by proprietary lobbyists. Before embedding such technologies, however, we should perhaps reflect on the commercial imperative which is seldom articulated as clearly as the following about what a proprietary supplier means by “establishing a strategic relationship”:
"… our job is to make sure you choose our platform and not another platform, because once you have chosen another platform, getting you off it is usually impossible." [7]

Arguably, some solutions, therefore, became embedded rather more quickly than, on reflection, they should have done. Technology's potential to excite and, inevitably, its soothingly delivered promise of a rapidly delivered portfolio of ever more efficient solutions also exposes us to the risk of a never-ending “groundhog day” in which recurring cycles of excitement about technology in education always end the same way, in disappointingly little change; a point highlighted by Terry Mayes in his 2007 keynote Groundhog Day again? [8] [9]

But am I recommending that everyone migrates to open source?

No. That would be naive. It’s highly unlikely that those who have invested considerable finance, effort, and reputations in the construction of a hard and soft proprietary infrastructure are willingly going to change horses. Even if there is an intellectual rationale for migrating, the costs of doing so, they will argue, are just too great. It is a bit like fossil fuels, we know that other energy sources would be better for the planet but the costs of changing are just so high. So short of a disaster rewiring everyone’s thinking, the inclination is going to be to support and advocate business as usual.

But for those seriously thinking about doing so or – and – whose existing hard and soft infrastructures are flexible enough to take the change then I would say yes.


  1. Mainly because I think that public funds are best focused within the sector rather than contributing to the bottom line of for-profit companies who are required to put the expectations of their shareholders first with some of them embarking upon public IPR disputes with competitors. My personal view is that the UK and global HE sector should view such behaviours as a risk and not an affordance.
  2. The migration may be challenging but it also offers an opportunity for a high level of engagement throughout the institution. If viewed as a multi-disciplinary project and multiple processes (with a steering group) it could provide a focus for considerable organisational development and refreshment/realignment of thinking.
  3. No matter how promising an open source solution looks what matters more for adoption by an institution is the size of the support community. When I initiated the change to an open source solution it was reassuring to see that a few VLE later adopters had occupied the ground before us, i.e. the University of Glasgow and the UK Open University. Since these are not small institutions and quite frankly their provenance caught the attention of those institution decision-makers I had to convince. The open source landscape today is considerably more occupied and this can only be good thing. For example, the Sakai Project site does provide a useful summary of Sakai installations which also includes UK HEIs. The self-registration system run by, i.e. UK view and global view helped me identify a significant number of Moodle HE installations which now appear to have a firm toehold in the UK HE sector [1]. Some of the Moodle installations undoubtedly supplement the “main” VLE but an increasing number are the main VLE, e.g. UCL, LSE, Open University, Glasgow, Bath, RGU.

For those concerned about another large scale technical investment (or reinvestment) an alternative approach to migrating to or supporting an open source approach would be to eschew local hosting and opt for a hosting service. There are several options here but under the principle of investing in the HE sector the University of London Computer Centre (ULCC) provides a reference model. ULCC offers a Moodle hosting facility plus other ‘e’ services which are already being used by some UK HEIs. Such a model may very well suit small institutions that lack significant existing IT infrastructure or support. Those wishing to reflect further on hosting models may find Terry Anderson’s My place or yours? [10] or the JISC RSC West Midlands’ Introduction to Moodle of interest.

So how sustainable are open source solutions? From my point of view when there is a big national and global community [11] they can be every bit, if not more, sustainable than proprietary solutions. The latter are increasingly vulnerable to the vagaries of the competitive commercial market including takeover and eventual deletion through merger or legislative attrition [12]. Those exploring this conceptual dimension may be interested in the JISC OSS Watch article Moodle: a case study in sustainability [13] or its other articles relating to Moodle. As regards staff development for new Moodle users JISC Netskills may have something to offer here.

But lest the open source VLE advocates are now sitting too comfortably in their chairs; the big question I posed in my earlier Auricle articles (and again at the start of this abridged essay) is whether what some call a Virtual VLE and others a Learning Management System (as though the internal and uniquely individual but socially mediated process of learning can ever be managed) is now actually necessary at all? So for some final food for thought I offer the following extract from the 2006 Auricle article Whose PLE is it anyway? [14] in which I said:

"But, it would indeed be ironic, if a large amount of investment was diverted into the institutional palatability option only to find that knowledgeable users have increasingly decided that the institutional provision has ceased to be relevant, voted with their fingers and are off using, or assembling, their own personal learning environments below the institutional radar."

Derek Morrison
Head of e-Learning
Higher Education Academy

This article represents the personal views of the author and should not be construed as necessarily representative of any other individual or organisation.

Further reading

[1] Open opportunities, open threats? Auricle. 30 April 2009.
[2] Times Higher – “By the blog …” plus. Auricle. 21 October 2008.
[4] Keegan, V. Can we build a world with open source? Guardian. 5 March 2009.
[5] E-Learning Frameworks and Tools: Is it too late? – The Director’s Cut . Auricle. 15 September 2004.
[6] Clark Kent solutions have super-powers – well sort of! Auricle. 15 October, 2004.
[7] Anderson, T. No longer living in cloud cuckoo land. Guardian. 16 April 2009.
[8] Mayes, T. Groundhog Day again? Proceedings of the JISC Innovating e-Learning 2007 online conference. October 2007.
[9] Proceedings of the JISC Innovating e-Learning 2007 online conference.
[10] Anderson T. My place or yours? Hosting Web 2.0 Education. Virtual Canuck. 8 April 2009.,
[13] OSS Watch, June 2007 and December 2008.
[14] Whose PLE is it anyway? Auricle. 2 June 2006.

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