A Class on Open Source Courseware


Colleges and universities have long been proficient contributors to free and open source software projects, dating back to the early days of the Internet, so it should come as no surprise that they create open source software no meet their own operational needs. One of the biggest fields is online courseware–specialized content management systems for teachers and academic departments that facilitates Web-based course content, interaction with students, and grading and reporting. Also known as “course management systems” (CMS) or “learning management systems” (LMS), they are database-intensive, often support thousands of users at a time, and must interface with a wide gamut of third-party and legacy systems for record-keeping and billing, making them ripe for an open development model.

Proprietary Competition

Although many educational institutions use hand-rolled courseware systems, proprietary courseware products are widespread and command high prices. The dominant market leader is Blackboard, which in recent years has bought out several of its competitors: first rival WebCT, and most recently ANGEL Learning, an acquisition reported to have attracted attention from anti-trust investigators.

In 2006, Blackboard was granted a US patent for “technology used for Internet-based education support systems and methods” and sued competitor Desire2Learn, sparking protests from the education community over prior art–including from the Sakai Foundation, which works on open source courseware projects. The Software Freedom Law Center successfully requested a re-examination of the patent, and in April 2009, the US Patent and Trademark Office rejected all 57 claims in the patent, but Blackboard has continued to pursue legal action against Desire2Learn in US and (more recently) Canadian court. Regardless of the progress of that case, Blackboard did pledge in 2007 that it would not sue free and open source projects for infringement of the patent in question or of any other pending patent.

Proponents of open source courseware cite the usual advantages over proprietary systems: lower total cost of ownership, easier and faster customization, and guaranteed bugfixing and feature enhancement ability. More specific advantages unique to CMSes are that open source courseware packages tend to include additional functionality such as blogs, student journals, and wikis, offer more flexibility in the way course modules are edited and arranged, and are simpler to customize using standard Web tools and programming languages.

The Open Source Alternatives

The most widely-known free courseware system is Moodle, which has the highest market share of any CMS (open or closed) after Blackboard. Moodle was created at Curtin University in Australia, and is developed by a tight-knit team still led by the original creator.

Moodle is designed around a “social constructionist pedagogy” education philosophy, emphasizing interaction between students and between teacher and student. Consequently, although it can easily handle traditional classroom tasks like assignments and quizzes, it also incorporates a wide range of built-in communication-oriented tools, such as wikis and discussion forums. Moodle is implemented in PHP and can use any SQL database as a backend; although it was originally (and continues to be) developed on Linux, and operating system that supports PHP and a database server can be used to host a Moodle Web site.

After Moodle, the most famous free courseware project is the Sakai Collaboration and Learning Environment (CLE). The Sakai CLE is developed by the Sakai Project, a long-running collaboration between several prominent universities: the University of Michigan, Stanford University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Indiana University, and Polytechnic University of Valencia. Each institution had been developing its own courseware system; the Sakai CLE is the result of the combining of their individual code and efforts.

Sakai CLE implements modern courseware features, from course materials to grading to online collaboration, but is also actively maintained as a research collaboration platform in addition to its role in the classroom. Sakai CLE is written in Java, and designed to run on the Apache Tomcat servlet container. It is tested against the MySQL and Oracle databases, although other database options are reported to work as well.

The Moodle and Sakai projects each maintain lists of their active installations. Sakai’s includes the founding institutions of the Sakai Project as well as several other prominent universities in the US and abroad. Moodle’s includes well over 50,000 installations across the globe.

More More More

Although Moodle and Sakai CLE dominate the open source courseware market in terms on number of installations, they are by no means the only players. A wide range of other options exist, many focusing in on a smaller suite of features or targeting a specific market or learning style. A short list of active projects includes ATutor, Bodington, Claroline, Docebo, Dokeos, eFront, ILIAS, Interact, LAMS, .LRN, Metacoon, OLAT, and VClass.

Not all of these courseware systems are designed to serve a large university hosting hundreds of simultaneous classes with paying students. Primary and secondary schools are increasingly using open source courseware to manage course content, businesses are deploying learning management systems to use for employee training, and general purpose Web communities are using courseware for tutorials and other informal education uses.

For many institutions, selecting a courseware system requires picking a package that complies to the Sharable Content Object Reference Model or SCORM, a standard for courseware storage and data exchange originally developed by the US Department of Defense for selecting its training systems. The current version of the standard is SCORM 2004, which was established in 2004 but has received periodic updates in the years since.

Many open source courseware projects are SCORM-compliant, and their development is assisted by the non-profit International Federation for Learning, Education, and Training Systems Interoperability (LETSI). LETSI is participating in the creation of the next revision of SCORM.

Open Courses Resources

The development of open source courseware over the past decade has contributed indirectly to another trend in higher education, making course content available online free-of-charge. MIT was one of the first prominent institutions to provide free course content online via its MIT OpenCourseWare program, which hosts class materials for more than three dozen departments, including syllabi, lecture notes, assignments, and exams.

Many other institutions have followed suit in recent years, including Yale, Notre Dame, and Stanford. Although several of these universities are involved in developing open source courseware systems such as Sakai CLE, it is important to recognize the distinction between the two types of effort. Although open course content is made available over the web, initiatives such as these are generally collections of static resources, not interactive courses, and most are not deployed using courseware packages used for teaching live classes.