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New Lessons in Course Management

A group of universities have banded together to offer a low-cost course management software alternative; commercial vendors compete with new applications.
University Business, Sep 2004

In mid-July, just one week before college and university leaders were to launch into their summer season of conferences, a nonprofit group known as The Sakai Project ( introduced software for higher education providers to use for course management. Sakai's project leaders timed the announcement right.

Sakai's goal of providing open source software that may someday save academic computing departments significant amounts of money was the subject of casual commentary during the week that followed. Hallway conversations at the annual conference of the Society of College and University Planning, held in Toronto, speculated about this new set of tools for creating course Web sites, posting homework, creating e-mail threads and bulletin boards, archiving lectures, and uploading lectures.

The Sakai Project is taking the best solutions from course management systems built at four universities--the University of Michigan, Indiana University, Stanford University (CA), and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology--and offering them to any interested party. Built as an open source system, Sakai's software is meant to be shared among education providers and enhanced by partner schools' academic computing departments.

If the higher ed sector takes interest and supports the project, Sakai's open source software may end up providing an alternative to commercial course management systems in this nascent sector of the software industry. Course management systems serve one of the most traditional institutions--the academies of learning--but have been available for only the past seven years, with much development occurring during just the past few. Academic computing managers have taken a variety of approaches to providing online tools for faculty and students. In addition to using the best commercial resources, some, like the four universities launching The Sakai Project, took the do-it-yourself route and developed home-gown applications.

Now Sakai stands to provide a different solution.

To date, Blackboard (, WebCT ( and eCollege ( are among the leading commercial systems. Added together, the client bases of these companies represent thousands of educational enterprises. In addition, there are a mix of campus IT solutions and other projects that have morphed into commercial offerings. One example is ANGEL, the course management system of CyberLearning Labs ( which was developed in the mid-1990s in the CyberLab of Indiana University-Purdue University. CyberLearningLabs has since spun off as a commercial venture.

Today, more than 80 percent of the four-year private and public universities that use course management systems have settled on a "single product standard" for course management, meaning they use one primary system, says Kenneth Green, director of The Campus Computing Project (, an independent enterprise that studies higher education technology trends.

Having a single source for CMS is a logical development, says Michael Roy, director of academic computing services at Wesleyan University (CT), who adds that Wesleyan once used two CMS systems but eventually settled on one provider. "We found that when we ran both, the faculty couldn't help each other. There is a lot of this collegial support that happens on campus."

Those colleges and universities that don't use a single source CMS model are probably providing a "detente" for departments that need to use a non-commercial or homegrown CMS system for very specific applications, says Green.

Commercial CMS systems have come to require significant investment. A university serving 15,000 students could spend $75,000 annually in licensing fees to use a commercial course management system. CMS providers charged less in annual licensing fees when they introduced their systems to the market, but soon realized they had to increase pricing if they were to grow. In 2002, higher ed users of two major commercial systems were hit with annual fee increases as high as 20 percent.

The installation of such complex systems generally require a school to spend an additional $10,000 to $20,000 on a commercial vendor's consulting services.

Then come the infrastructure costs. "The cost of buying the software only begins to capture the cost of running the system," says Roy, who is also a member of the Northeast Regional Computing Program (, a group whose members look at innovative ways to use technology in the classroom. It can cost at least $100,000 annually to pay the staff to keep the servers backed up, to install patches and perform upgrades, and to ensure that the software works with other databases. Any software, including course management software, requires these infrastructure costs "if you look at all those who touch the system," he adds.

By contrast, The Sakai Project is asking that users become partners and pay $10,000 annually to use its CMS software. Partners are asked to sign a three-year agreement to use Sakai. For this they have a say in where the project focuses its resources and energy. Given that Sakai is an open source project, any institution can download the code for free.

The management team at UMassOnline, the online education department of the University of Massachusetts, initially invested $500,000 in its commercial CMS system, says David Gray, CEO. The department has, as well, paid the rising licensing fees. "These are relatively new companies that are small application firms. They had to reinspect their business models along the way so that there was capital to develop the products." Such understanding, however, doesn't mean that departments like Gray's aren't watching Sakai and open source efforts. "Open source isn't yet mature enough for us to use, but we might have a different story in one or two years."

The Sakai Project, which is loosely named after television's "Iron Chef" Sakai Hiroyuki, will include the best of the CMS systems built by the four universities, along with applications from the uPortal Consortium and the Open Knowledge Initiative. These six entities officially banded together in late 2003 to collaborate on Sakai, while working on some other open source projects.

"The systems at Michigan, Indiana, MIT, and Stanford were built in 1997 and 1998," explains Joseph Hardin, director of the collaborative technologies lab at UM, and chair of the Sakai board of directors. All four systems were due for upgrades. "We were looking for the next step," he says. "We are at a point where we can contribute to standards development and provide working collaboration."

Sakai is a $6.8 million endeavor. That total includes the $2 million in staff time and financial resources that each of the four universities have agreed to dedicate to the software's development. It also includes $300,000 in grant money from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation ( and $1.2 million from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation (

By late July, 43 IHEs had agreed to pay $10,000 annually for three years to support Sakai. The group of early adopters includes the Foothill-de Anza Community College system (CA), which received a $600,000 grant from the Hewlett Foundation to use and help develop Sakai software.

From July to September, programmers at Michigan, Stanford, MIT, and Indiana continued to refine the code to make it ready for use on their own campuses by fall 2004. An upgraded version is expected to be available in December. Sakai is meant to work with, and then replace, legacy systems, according to Hardin. Project founders also have designed it to work with commercial open source systems, such as Red Hat Linux.

Skeptics, though, don't expect the migration to Sakai to happen quickly. For the same reason most colleges and universities that use CMS have settled on using just one vendor, most will not want to run Sakai and a commercial software program at the same time. The staff costs to learn and support two systems will be too much. Schools will want to see that Sakai is a bug-proof, smoothly running software alternative before jumping on board. Otherwise, they will be adding to their costs, says Roy.

Commercial vendors certainly were not idle during the months leading up The Sakai Project's software release. The three leading commercial vendors, Blackboard, WebCT, and eCollege, announced added applications, software upgrades, and new partnerships throughout the spring. In mid-June, eCollege partnered with Microsoft ( and HP ( to create still another content management system. The companies are building CMS applications that will allow instructors to easily archive course materials, update them, and share them with each other.

Something as basic as fixing a spelling error in a course presentation can be time consuming, says Sarah Bradford, vice president of product development for eCollege. This new content management system will automatically make corrections throughout a course. Instructors will be able to do many more high-level functions, such as search key words in shared materials to find learning objects and lessons. The content management system will be based on Microsoft's .NET software and HP server technology.

Academic CIOs can expect to see even more emphasis on content management as CMS develops. The higher ed sector is now addressing what is known as the "afterlife" of a course, says Tom Warger, consultant with Edutech International ( Now that some faculty members have used CMS--and some for a number of semesters--they are spotting weaknesses in the systems. "Someone teaching History 345 is now asking, 'How do I get access to the map I used in History 123?'" To date, system administrators have archived and stored digital teaching tools, leaving instructors to come back to them to find things and help them repurpose them.

Blackboard launched its content management system in early 2004.

The higher ed sector is now
addressing what is known as
the "afterlife" of a course.
-Tom Warger, Edutech International

Competitor WebCT expanded its Powerlinks network to encourage the creation and use of e-portfolios for storing learning materials and objects.

Such development will be key as professors develop and share more material within their own departments and with academics at other institutions. Instructors also will need more digital content from which to build their courses, which is why partnerships with textbook companies are already in the works, and links to more library databases will probably take shape in the months ahead.

This spring, Blackboard announced its new partnerships with Thomson Higher Education, Houghton Mifflin, and Pearson Education to provide users with textbook materials in digital format.

CyberLearning Labs has worked out a similar arrangement with Pearson, so that ANGEL's users have access to the publisher's higher education imprints.

In response to Sakai's open source initiative--and smaller ones that have been tried along the way--the commercial vendors claim to feel secure about their role in the marketplace. "We have clients that can do open source," explains Matthew Pittinsky, chair of Blackboard, "but they want applications from the commercial vendors." Commercial providers, through their own efforts, or in partnership, can finesse applications and issue upgrades more quickly than a nonprofit open source initiative, he insists.

Not surprisingly, executives from WebCT and eCollege also assuredly state that higher ed clients rely on commercial efforts for the common applications that are now part of all commercial CMS systems.

"Three years ago this was an infantile market," says Brian Douglas, director of technology and operations at UMassOnline. "All competitors were elbowing for room and we had to make our best bet as to what would work for us." In the end, it is the system that is perceived as being easy to use, easy to teach to new faculty, and flexible enough to help users create and store course materials that will be the must-buy.

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