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Open Source Learning Platforms... what is the point?

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If you work in education you will know only too well what an LP is (and for our older readers, it's not made of vinyl). Otherwise you probably have no idea, ditto the near synonyms VLE and CMS.

They respectively stand for: Learning Platform,Virtual Learning Environment, and Course Management Software. For our purposes I will use the collective acronym, LP.

But, before plunging into the debate it must be said that schools themselves know the abbreviations better than they do the products and, be aware, there is no single agreed 'take' on what exactly a LP is.

What you really need to know, though, is that UK publicly-funded schools were mandated to have acquired a LP by the end of 2007.

Those suppliers reading this post who have had experience of publicly-funded 'you must have' procurements will smile nostalgically at memories of the feeding frenzy that follows. But in this case, as we near the end of 2008, not all schools possess or have access to a LP. So what is going on?

The LP

Essentially a LP is a suite of software that structurally consist of database-driven web-pages hosted on local or remote web servers which are then made available to users via an Intranet or the Internet. The LP's database connects via various plug-ins to other databases used by schools such as their Management Information Software (MIS) and users usually authenticate against Microsoft's Active Directory.

LPs exist to provide content organised in a course-orientated way and, as such, are often called CMS (course management software) packages. Typically a 'course' has a tutor (who may or may not have editing rights), students enroll electronically and are given access to its resources. These consist of information repositories (text, graphics, multimedia etc) and interactive resources (wikis, forums, chat, mail, quizzes). The students can upload assignments to their course folders.

That's it for the nuts and bolts. Hopefully now for something more interesting. LPs not all created equally: the perfect lock-in.

The technically adept will realise that a LP is not based on rocket science. It is very easy to create a graphical user interface with a few scripts attached to a database. Too easy unfortunately. Every vendor and his dog duly created their own LP and set about marketing it aggressively into a virgin market.

One feature of a LP that made it particularly attractive to proprietary vendors is that its database and associated scripts are hidden from sight. Combine this with with the thousands of man/woman hours required to load up a significant body of information onto the LP and you have the perfect lock-in.

Open Source LPs are not so evil

Standing out from the crowd is Moodle.

Moodle is the leading educational LP in Europe and is the choice of the Open University who have invested millions in customising its code to suit its needs.

Moodle stands out for two reasons: it's free and it is 100% open source software. Surely then a 'no-brainer' for UK schools. You would have thought so but you should not be surprised to hear that despite having five official Moodle partners in the UK not one is Becta-approved.

The result is that Moodle's penetration into the schools market is low and actually reducing as a result of the happy Moodle users not having a UK government accredited product!

Times may be changing though, one Open Source company has been very recently been admitted to the elite 12 accredited suppliers of software to schools. However, and here's the ridiculous bit, some existing Moodle partners feel that the presence of a Becta-accredited company in their ranks will adversely affect their businesses. What they fail to understand, however, is that not having a Becta-approved supplier as a partner has seen schools abandon Moodle pilots in favour of more expensive proprietary, Becta-sanctioned alternatives.

Moodle's codebase may be open source, but the project's tendency towards commercial protectionism is contrary to the spirit of the GPL and will, ultimately, be self-defeating in the UK.

Are LPs worth bothering with?

Well actually they are, and they have a lot of potential. LPs offer the possibility of moving the learning of students into a new context, away from the schoolroom and the timetable. Being web-based, location and time become unimportant (ie classic Open University Stuff without the late night TV and tank tops) and a raft of teaching-learning theories have been articulated to describe just how the LP enables independent and collaborative learning through grandly titled 'constructivist pedagogical processes'.

All very fine I'm sure but there are a few snags.

Snag 1: Students of secondary school age (by and large) do not pursue independent learning programs, just as (by and large) people do not enroll with the Open University. Obviously the OU is a real and valued asset for those who do enroll, ditto then so are LPs for those who can make use of them.

School children are increasingly spoon-fed in the pursuit of exam grades and the consequence of this is that universities and employers beg schools to increase their pupils' ability to think and study independently. A paradox is thus created whereby independent learning facilities are installed alongside a population increasingly ill-equipped to take advantage of it.

Snag 2: Teachers need to expend literally thousands of person-hours to populate a LP with content. Where they do a valuable asset is created but it should come as no surprise that as low as 30% of those schools with LP's have found the time to do so. Indeed, in many schools the VLE/LP is a feared beast. Oversold by Senior Staff to their teachers as the important development in our time and ordered to make use of it on pain of being moaned at, the onerous LP is often not a safe topic to broach in a staffroom.

So what is the solution? How can this technology be leveraged? The answer may lay in the plains of Spain and the rain of North West England.

Content, content. content...and Moodle again

LPs need content more than anything else. They need e-text books, videos, schemes of work and accompanying resources to make use of all the fancy front-end features like wikis, forums, quizzes and pupil tracking stuff work.

In Spain, as many now know, information technology in education is Open Source, more or less exclusively. If this is an indicator of a relatively new democracy confidently embracing new technologies then it is not surprising to hear that they already have a web-based, open source powered content repository for educational materials called AGREGA. This repository contains the collective content from hundreds of schools and external publishers.

The North West Learning Grid (NWLG) is working with a UK-based Open Source company to bring such a repository to the UK, with a clever twist.

Think about this: there are lots of empty LP's with cool features and grumpy resource - starved teachers. NWLG is creating a information repository that any school can 'front-end' it using their LP. Job done. All schools will have access to moderated high quality content to which they can contribute or merely subscribe.

Snag 3: I knew there would be a snag, LP's are mostly proprietary, how the heck do their API's work?

The answer is simple. Use the Moodle to start from (because their code is Open Source) and create the plugin to the repository, then release it under the GPL. Then owners of the proprietary LPs can use the plugin for free to allow their products to access the repository too.

This is a canny solution. Not only would it be good business strategy for the repository (the more users the more revenue) but it's very good for all schools as the solution is independent of the VLE they have been locked into.

Summary

LPs are becoming more important to colleges and universities as they put their content on-line and organise it for their students, however in schools more often than not they have failed to gain traction.

LPs will take off in schools when they become powerful content-delivery platforms.

They all use standard web technologies which means they can be accessed by any web-enabled device and because the latter are becoming ubiquitous (be they phones, mini-books or e-books) that means in turn everyone can be given access to educational content which has been vetted, organised and even grouped into courses.

If it happens it'll be thanks to the Open Source way of doing things.


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