As of this fall, the University is switching its online course management system from Blackboard to Moodle, an open source software. Open-source software provides the source code and other rights usually protected by copyright laws to allow customers, such as Information Technology Services (ITS), to change and improve the software. A link for Moodle can now be found on the top tabs of student portfolios.
Moodle bears no price tag except for the burden it places upon the ITS department. In contrast, Blackboard, which will be phased out this year, cost the University just under $50,000 – about $42,000 was used for Blackboard itself and about $6,000 for an add-on that included blogs and other additional features.
Although ITS has been following the development of open source alternatives to Blackboard such as Moodle and Sakai for some time, these products lacked some of the services offered by Blackboard until recently.
“[Moodle’s services] really improved right as the recession hit,” said Jolee West, Director of Academic Computing. “We were already leaning in that direction anyway.”
Last year, the H1N1 scare initiated a sudden influx of demands for Blackboard, with many members of the faculty accommodating students who were sick at home by providing information online. By the end of September 2009, about 350 courses were utilizing Blackboard. ITS had never seen this many courses come online so early in the semester.
One of Blackboard’s strongest selling points is the technical support it provides. However, as Moodle gains popularity among other universities, an expanding community of people familiar with its source code has proved an ample source for technical advice.
“Open source products, when the community is large enough, actually have an advantage over commercial products [such as Blackboard],” said Academic Computing Manager Kevin Wiliarty.
Many other schools, especially liberal arts colleges, have already adopted Moodle. Other than Wesleyan, about half of the New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC) schools already use Moodle. ITS currently works with these schools to develop and customize Moodle.
“We’re definitely not cutting edge in moving to Moodle,” West said.
Moodle was first piloted at the University during the Fall ’09 semester by six professors of different disciplines. After a successful first semester, the pilot was expanded in the spring. All professors were offered a chance to take part, and approximately thirty courses ended up on Moodle, exposing about one thousand students to the new software.
ITS started the process of transferring more courses to Moodle in July, and emailed instructors every two weeks to remind them of the switch. Wiliarty posted a series of one-minute tutorial videos to help instructors acclimate to the service.
ITS has since observed a record amount of courses brought online. As of Wednesday afternoon, 315 undergraduate courses for the Fall ’10 semester, not including tutorials or music classes, were on Moodle, out of around 750 courses that meet the same criteria.
Only about six or seven courses have been created on Blackboard this semester.
In addition to supplying many of the same tools as Blackboard, Moodle introduces some new features. For instance, it is now easier to upload images and create a slideshow. Some professors are allowing Moodle itself to essentially become the syllabus for their courses.
Moodle also improves organization, with weekly sections pegged to the Wesleyan academic calendar. A feature that ITS believes many students will appreciate is integration with Google Calendar.
The faculty has received Moodle warmly, as it provides many of the same features as Blackboard, but saves the University money.
“It’s pretty similar in terms of what it does,” said Professor of Psychology Steven Stemler. “For me, it was more a matter of using something like Moodle that is open source and free, or pay $50,000.”
“It’s a lot of work but it’s definitely a project I feel quite good about,” Wiliarty said.
Though many students have already utilized Moodle over the past year, several are adapting to it now for the first time.
“It seems pretty much the same,” said Kassandra Leidemer ’13 during her first usage of Moodle. “I just wonder what they’re doing with that extra money.”