Yesterday, I attended the Midlands Blackboard User group meeting at the University of Northampton, and I thought I’d regale with you with an account of the proceedings. The User Group meetings are always valuable, but this one proved to be particularly helpful, as many of the institutions represented had reviewed, or like us, were in the process of reviewing their virtual learning environment. There was a lot for us to learn from. Now, I’ll admit from the start that a Blackboard users group is likely to have something of a pro-Blackboard bias, but the key phrase here is “user group”. There is nothing that users like more than kicking a little corporate ass, and I’ve been to lots of meetings at both regional and national level where that sport has been gleefully indulged in.
I’m not going to name names on a public blog, but will be happy to share the details of evidence provided at the meeting with our review team. (Also, some of this is taken from private conversations outside the meeting, so it would be doubly inappropriate to share identities). Finally, before I get going, this is a report, not a personal position on my part, nor should it be taken as being indicative of any future decisions that the University of Lincoln may take.
One institution had undertaken a very thorough comparison of Blackboard and Moodle, after shortlisting them from a larger number of a VLEs. They started from the position as the delegate entertainingly put it with the PVC in charge sticking their fingers in their ears and shouting “La La MOODLE La La” (or words to that effect) whenever anyone mentioned any other VLE. (I suspect there may be a touch of dramatic license there, but it does seem to be a syndrome that is widely reported at these events). Anyway the review team, having completed their comparison announced that they were less than impressed with Moodle.
One concern was that it was they felt it would be very difficult to upgrade. If, for example, you want to move from version 1.9 to the latest version (2.3) you not only have to download and install the new version, you have to rewrite all the patches you made to make 1.9 match your business processes. (And pay staff to do it) Of course you can pay a consultant to do that, but smaller software houses are sometimes quite literally just that, consisting more or less of one person working from their own home, so there’s little reliability. Finally you could wait for the Open Source community to deliver the patch but that may be a risky strategy with a mission critical system.
Another major concern from this institution was that in spite of claims to the contrary, it proved almost impossible to seamlessly transfer Blackboard content into Moodle. (They set up two servers, to compare the latest versions of Blackboard and Moodle). Also, they discovered that of all the VLEs they looked at, the only one that produced IMS compliant packages was Blackboard. I was quite surprised at that, but to be absolutely frank, I haven’t thrown myself into the exciting world of metadata standards as deeply as I probably should have done, so didn’t ask for more details.
Not specifically related to the qualities of Blackboard, Moodle or any other VLE, but still something of an issue, was the reluctance of academics to get involved in the review. There was definitely a sense of “Why should we engage with this, because we’ll only have to do it again when we move to Moodle”. In the end this institution decided to renew their contract with Blackboard. As a matter of interest they also costed the review, which they said came out at about 300 hours of academic staff time, plus the cost of running all the focus groups. Reviewing a VLE it seems, is not a cheap exercise. They also concluded that any cost savings that may be made by moving would be more than cancelled out by the support and maintenance costs.
The delegate summed this up with a memorable quote from a VLE manager who uses Moodle herself. “Moodle is free like a puppy is free”. You might get it for nothing, but you’ve got to feed it, house train it, exercise it and pay the vet’s bills when it gets ill. And it won’t even fetch a stick!
(Image credit – http://www.flickr.com/photos/shekum/3415361722/)
Most other institutions gave less vivid accounts, but at least one major Midlands university had also decided to stick with Blackboard, but had decided to shift from hosting it themselves to letting Blackboard host it. Their principal reason for doing so was “Terrible service from our central IT services”.This delegated related tales of servers failing and not being rebooted, (resulting in no Blackboard service) and noted that “Blackboard are quicker to tell me there’s a problem than our own IT services”. Central IT support services in general seemed to attract some opprobrium from the delegates, so perhaps we should be grateful that Lincoln’s IT team are on the whole very responsive.
Much of the other reports focussed on attempts to integrate Blackboard with Student Record and Programmes Data systems. This is something the Blackboard representatives said they were keen to develop, and I’ll report on the latest version of the Blackboard Road Map in a future post. There was quite a lot more at the meeting, not all VLE related so I’ll need at least a couple more posts to tell the full story.