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Mark Taylor

Written by staff at Sirius Corporation, the Open Source services group, this blog seeks to dispel any FUD around the use of Open Source software in the Enterprise and provide perspectives on business, economics, politics, philosophy and the environment.

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!

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