by Larry MacPhee
By the end of this year, the Provost’s Academic Computing Advisory Committee (PACAC), with input from the NAU community, will select a new learning management system (LMS) to replace Blackboard Vista, our current LMS. Vista has been in service about five years, which is a pretty good run in the fast-changing world of technology. But now we must move on.
The first question we always get is, “Why?!” Nobody likes change. We’ve already learned to use Vista, and changing to something else is costly, time consuming, and disruptive. Vista is working well, and we have more people using it each semester, so why change? Because we have to.
The problem is that WebCT, the company that created Vista, got bought by its main competitor, Blackboard (Bb), several years ago just as we were completing the previous transition, from WebCT Campus Edition to WebCT Vista. On that fateful day when the purchase was announced to the public, you might have heard a collective groan escaping from the e-Learning Center! In the years since then, Blackboard has kept Vista going, intending to give its Vista customers time to make a transition to Blackboard’s new product, called Learn. But now Blackboard has announced that the “end-of-life” for Vista will be the beginning of Fall 2013. NAU is required, by the terms of the license, to stop using Vista then.
Fall 2013 still sounds pretty far off, right? In reality, NAU’s courses must be off Vista well ahead of that 2013 date because of a variety of university business rules and transition-related issues (see our transition timeline). We have not yet decided on our next LMS; that process will take another six months. Once the decision has been made, we will need to run both systems—Vista and the new LMS—in parallel while we migrate content from the old to the new. That will take at least two semesters and probably more. We also need to allow time for incompletes and grade appeals to play out after the completion of the final Vista courses, and that can take a year or more. What this all means is that if we start right about now, we’ll only just be able to shut Vista down by Fall 2013.
There are plenty of good LMSes out there, and they all have generally similar features. Blackboard is now by far the biggest LMS company. They are our current vendor, and they make a good product called Learn. But Blackboard has a history of suing and acquiring its competitors (see LMS market share figure). Some other big LMS vendor that could stand up to Bb might be an option, but going with a smaller commercial alternative to Bb is risky. That’s what happened last time, when Blackboard bought WebCT, and we don’t want to make that mistake twice. Open source options, such as Moodle, would free us from the restrictions of a commerical license, and they are relatively safe from acquisition by Blackboard. That’s how we arrived at our two likeliest choices: Blackboard Learn, the commercial product with the largest base of users, and Moodle, the strongest open source alternative. So how do we decide?
Many factors must be considered in selecting a new LMS, and weighing the importance of each is difficult. How easy is the system to use? How well does it integrate with our other campus tools, such as PeopleSoft, the NAU Portal, and third-party commercial add-ins such as TaskStream? How compatible is the system with content modules available from various textbook publishers? How easy or difficult is it to move our existing courses from Vista to the new system? How easy is it to create and modify content? How well does each system work with the smartphones and tablet computers students are increasingly using for mobile web browsing? What about cost? Although Bb Learn has an annual license fee and Moodle does not, other factors make the cost a relatively neutral consideration. For example, Bb Learn comes with SafeAssign, a plagiarism-detection and writing tool, whereas if we go with Moodle, we would have to purchase something like TurnItIn, a separate product similar to SafeAssign, to get comparable functionality. While Blackboard provides technical support and regular updates for its products, with Moodle we’d have to depend on the open-source community as well as our own programmers for updates, customizations, and integration with our other campus systems. A larger issue might be the license agreement for Bb Learn, which defines and restrict usage of the system in ways that Moodle would not. In short, each product has its own advantages and disadvantages, costs and savings.
Which is best?
Both systems have many of the features we’re used to in Vista, such as discussion boards, a grade book, assignments, and exams, but the features work differently, and there will be a learning curve no matter which system we choose. The e-Learning Center is developing some presentations that contrast Vista with both new systems.
How can faculty and students get involved?
At the request of the PACAC, the e-Learning Center will coordinate some faculty focus groups during this summer and early fall, where you will get to try the same tasks in each system and give us your feedback. If you’re feeling adventurous, you could even volunteer to participate in the upcoming Summer and Fall 2010 pilots of a small number of courses in Moodle and Learn at NAU. Likewise, we plan to have a sample course available in both systems for students to peruse in the fall. We’ll keep you posted as the LMS selection process progresses.
In the meantime, if you are an NAU instructor and would like to participate in a survey about how to get involved in the decision process, check your email for a message from Don Carter dated April 27 and titled “Participate in Blackboard Vista Replacement Decision.” The email includes a link to the survey. We look forward to hearing from you.