Acquisitions and Mergers

I have been reading with interest the posts about Blackboard’s recent aquisition of MoodleRooms. There’s a good article by Christopher Dawson about it for ZDNet Education. The creation of an Open Source Services Group headed up by our old pal well known by the OU crowd – Charles “Chuck” Severance of Sakai fame. I think he’ll do a great job and he is upbeat about the Blackboard finally listening to his message about ” think[ing] more broadly about the LMS market”.

I’m sure I’m not the only one however that feels a little uncomfortable about the acquisition (and possible merger?) of these. The quote by Martin Dougiamas is interesting

“The decision of Moodlerooms and NetSpot to work under Blackboard may sound very strange at first to anyone in this industry…but it’s my understanding that these three companies have some good plans and synergies. I’m happy to say that Moodlerooms and NetSpot will remain Moodle Partners, and have promised to continue…participating in the community…and contributing financially to Moodle exactly as they always have.”

I think it’s a very interesting move by Blackboard. It reminds me of the Microsoft approach of the 90’s where they saw best-of-breed and acquired them to be merged into their ‘market leading’ technology group.

My feeling is that if all the organisations can remain pure to their ideals and founding principles then this should be treated as a positive move to financially support the onward development of the products and services. There is a little demon on my shoulder thought that’s whispering in my ear that Blackboard are not being altruistic in this venture. They are owned by a private equity firm. It’s a good move for them, it’s hedging their bets. It’s playing the percentages. It may however reduce consumer choice down the line.

Overall I’m not quite as upbeat about this as Christopher Dawson. I see this as a power-play by one of the giants in the LMS arena however a saving grace might be the fact that we’ve got a good guy in Chuck and a mature Open Source Community. If they don’t like a product they’ll build a better one.

I’m not for a proliferation of LMS’s but I am pro choice and I think we should be able to have interoperable systems and services without having to buy whole product suites. If Dr Chuck can manage to make that happen then I’ll buy him a drink. Possibly two.

Outsourcing Mega-Deal

Due to the current economic climate and the need for belt tightening in the public sector many organisations are now exploring various forms of outsourcing to try and ‘reduce costs whilst still maintaining services’. Hmmm. The latest one that I’ve heard of is Suffolk County Council who are doing this wholesale to a single outsourcing supplier as a “megadeal” – There’s an article in Computing Magazine about this. There are many other articles about this and the common theme seems to be outsourcing is more likely to be a consideration during recession.

I have however read many articles which say there are risks with outsourcing within the public sector, and I know these from my own experiences and those of my colleagues, the main risk being outsourcing can be beneficial in the short term but have negative impacts in the longer term because you lose skills internally which you may need down the line. However more outsourcing and shared solutions within the public sector is inevitable, and I think healthy. We are moving to a more commoditised view of services and therefore we should all be looking to move ‘up the value chain’ and deliver at the level that is most appropriate.

For example why are Universities investing in infrastructure and IT Support, in management of those services and in server rooms and hardware and system software when these things can all be bought off the shelf through a IaaS, SaaS and PaaS providers like Amazon?

The question senior management should ask is where is the right balance? – We have had fifteen years at least of commercial vendors such as Microsoft and Sun creating products for the educational market with mixed success however the landscape is changing and products like Blackboard and Moodle are now fully featured, mature and relatively low cost options compared to creating bespoke environments. The amount of customisation varies, blackboard is more of a “blackbox” solution, allowing the value to be added through the way it is used, whereas Moodle allows for more customisation at lower levels which can be powerful but also costly.

But the models aren’t just limited to LMS. Outsourcing could apply to the course (module) materials, and in fact to the assessment services and assessment of courses. If you go down this route you get more into the realms of the ‘for profit’ organisations like Kaplan and you then do look at the bottom line all the time in assessing your curriculum. I’m not sure that’s always a healthy way to be but there is a need for Kaplan, just as there is a need for open and free educational resources.

Each organisation has to assess the level of outsourcing and how the quality and values of that organisation work within the proposed model. If you add value through the richness of the engagement with students and that requires specific adaptations then you must either have environments which allow that customisation, or work with partners who can understand your organisations needs and allow you to have control of the quality assurance.

Moodle v Sakai

“That old chestnut again”  about whether to continue to invest in a centralized service or whether to look at a more SOA approach for the OU’s Virtual learning Environment (VLE) has risen its head again. Ross MacKenzie has blogged about the fact that with the imminent release of Moodle 2 the OU is conducting a landscape review of competitors including Sakai, Desire2Learn and BlackBoard, exploring the features of each.

In my opinion moving to Blackboard or D2L, which are both commercial VLE products, would be quite a significant shift in cultural and strategic direction – moving the OU into a position where it would be using a commoditised approach to delivery, customising an off the shelf product for delivery and in direct competition to other sites offering similar services through the same toolkit.  This may be a step too far for the OU but it doesn’t mean that it wont happen. If the OU accepts that it’s the content and quality of teaching and the tutorial support model that makes it unique rather than the technological infrastructure that provides ‘supported open learning’ then this might be the way forward, especially to achieve saving whilst delivering to very large scale.

Setting aside those two products and looking at the Open Source VLEs which is more in line with the OU’s current philosophical approach there is Sakai and Moodle. Back in 2004 Martin Weller and I had a discussion when he was exploring VLE’s for the OU. Martin suggested that what was really important for a VLE/MLE was integration. A system that is flexible and extensible and interoperable and standards-based. He was thinking then that Sakai was the way forward for the OU. In the end the OU went for Moodle and since then has been quite successful with it and both the OU and the Moodle community have benefitted from the relationship. However the marriage has not been without its tensions and the OU has a lot of customised code within the OUVLE that is not part of Moodle core. Another tension is that even with ‘modules’ Moodle remains quite a monolithic product with over 1m lines of code. This is not as flexible an architecture as Sakai which is more truly modular and component based. In 2004 Sakai was far to green to really be considered for the OU but things have changed and it is now in use in over 200 Universities and colleges worldwide.

By the way there is a good blog post provided by Mark Smithers providing some public comparisons of LMS’s.

The review that the OU is conducting is going to be purely comparing features of Moodle 2 against the direct competitors but I hope that it can also be used to move the ideas of shared services, distributed and hybrid cloud architectures for creating a more personal, student centred environment. I hope that thinking around commoditisation of service doesn’t close down but rather open up the range of features and services available.

I hope that the OU considers itself to be more than simply pushing out (good quality) content through standard channels but rather creating, innovating and delivering new channels and ways for people to find learning through a variety of online social engagement and formal and informal methods – with intelligent services scaffolding that learning process. That’s where I hope we’re going.