BETT: Beards and sandals versus suits and boots

What a poncy title mate! ... Worthy of the most whingeing of pommy pedagogues. Must be inspired by the release of Moodle 2.0 aka Karmic Kookabora ... or I am muddling up my southern tropical epithets? Whatever, It will soon be the BETT show,...

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What a poncy title mate! ... Worthy of the most whingeing of pommy pedagogues. Must be inspired by the release of Moodle 2.0 aka Karmic Kookabora ... or I am muddling up my southern tropical epithets?

Whatever, It will soon be the BETT show, (that interesting exhibition held at Olympia which showcases the latest and greatest in ICT in school) where only three years ago there were nine VLE’s and Learning Platforms (at that time mandated for all public-funded schools). Then, they (along with Whiteboards) were the ‘canis testiculares’ of pedagogical aspiration.

Not so in 2011. I notice that only Fronter has a full on VLE stand at Bett and using Bett’s .aspx parsing engine I notice 10 results for Moodle, 2 for Fronter, 3 for Sharepoint, 0 for Blackboard. Things must have changed it’s time for a revisit so here goes.

Who’s Winning the VLE battle?

It depends on how you frame the question and it’s quite hard to get matching stats but worldwide there are only two contenders:

Moodle

It is free, open source software from ‘downunder’ which runs happily on FOSS SQL databases (PostGreSQL and MySQL) Apache Web servers and good old PHP. Moodle claim nearly 40 million users world wide and to have 50 thousand accredited server installations.

Moodle does not seem to have a natural constituency and can be found in Universities, Colleges, Big Schools, Small Schools, Primary Schools and Individual tutors .. ’cause it’s free and a doddle to install.

Moodle is SCORM compliant (which means it meets all the agreed standards for e-learning formats) and was the original polysyllabic promoter of the ‘ social constructivist pedagogical paradigm’ espoused by its founder Martin Dougiamas..

Blackboard (Bb)

Blackboard is USA-based and is proprietary software that provides an open framework for third party developers. It has a large partnership deal with Oracle SQL and runs mostly on Java with Apache-Tomcat. Blackboard as it is today (Bb) results from a merge with WebCT.

Blackboard has income in the hundreds of millions of dollars, is unafraid of patent fire-fights and lists nearly 4 thousand licensed institutions on its books, the vast majority of which are Universities and Colleges, a market it really works hard to make its own.

In the UK Blackboard dominates the .ac.uk scene and is also SCORM compliant. Bb, it is fair to say, is less interested in pedagogical paradigms and prefers a more pragmatic revenue driven model.

So there you have it. The jungle’s big beasts ten years on. You could not wish for a better stand-off between opposing philosophies technical, revenue or pedagogical. Beards and Sandals versus Suits and Boots.

The Rest

I had better though mention the other significant players in the UK; these are Fronter and Kaleidos and Sharepoint. You will find them at the BETT show in 2011. Both excellent products, but you know how it is once a market begins to crystallise? ... After all, were you a Word Perfect or a Star Writer user last century?

Fronter has carved out a niche in the Independent School sector (no I have no idea why) and Kaleidos is RM PLC’s product so will be beloved by the BSF schools beloved of RM. Sharepoint VLE is, well, it’s Microsoft’s give away VLE, so what’s to be said other than lots of schools have it and it looks a little unloved?

Using VLEs

As luck would have it I have a lot of experience of both of the ‘big two’. I have been a teacher-user, a lecturer-user, a personal user and a student user of both, so it is fair to say that I am in a position to give a user’s perspective.

Repositories and alternative to e-mail.

It turns out that VLEs are quite useful, not quite the promised land but definitely useful. It’s quite simple given the fact that they are web hosted content management systems which are optimised to become course management systems.

This means that a bunch of enrolled students have their own content space wherein they and their tutors can dump and retrieve any digital stuff such as assignments and materials. It also includes a decent bulletin board which can be set to e-mail notification just like Facebook. This beats e-mailing work and attachments and endless missives back and forth any time.

It is no surprise then that these features of a VLE is very popular with users both staff and students. Simple and quick and convenient and easy. These kinds of things catch on.

Moodle and Blackboard are just as good as each other so take your pick.

Fancy Features

VLE have lots of features in addition to the above which comes as no surprise in the battle to add value to a product and it also comes as no surprise to find out that they are not so widely used.

Just a few though, for fun:

Teachers are aware of the blogs, forums and wikis but few integrate them into any pedagogical paradigm preferring the old face to face paradigm. Moodle’s Dougiamas himself notes on the intro to Moodle 2 where he (typically) describes the latter as ‘the blended learning approach’ preferred by many.

Blackboard which is rather more hard nosed in its pedagogy however has third party assignment plugins that for example automatically grade students’ work and parse it for plagiarism! Harsh. The ultimate un-social constructivist approach you might say. These features are gaining traction in UK universities and colleges but are mostly ignored by schools.

Moodle and Blackboard are very different in these kinds of area. Moodle does great tests, multi-choice, short answer, Cloze and automatically marks them; I use this feature a lot because I am quick with tech stuff and hate marking! Blackboard has a more grown up serious attitude to assignments and its automatic grading system is quite serious and authoritarian and tightly integrates to a reporting and monitoring system. I never get around to using any features on Blackboard but I imagine many do.

Reliability

The basic features are 100% reliable for both products so long as the web servers are up, but the fancy features are (in my experience) a bit flaky on both ...you really have got to want to use them.

‘Flakiness’ i.e. sometimes it is fine sometimes it is not, is death to student handling. Once the word gets out that something may not work every time, then guess what happens? For example with Blackboard, ‘Turnitin’ a third party assignment handling web-app (Tomcat) can misbehave quite seriously due to what looks like flaky propagation of permissions through the system. A problem which is I suspect endemic in Blackboard’s development model.

Single sign-on logins seem sorted wherever I meet the two VLE’s; presently both (where I encounter them) are using LDAP back ends.

Also it is annoying but somehow not surprising to find that Backboard does not like Chrome as a browser nor Linux as a user’s operating system. Moodle is cool with any browser or OS. My experience says that Moodle is the more reliable of the two.


Conclusion

As a lecturer-user I would now truly miss my VLE (Blackboard or Moodle). They have found a place in my educational work. I feel they excel as a repository of resources and a drop off point for assignments and I like leaving messages for my classes secure in the knowledge that they won’t read them. But after that, the extra features are either too esoteric or simply in excess to my requirements.

Would I buy Bb or use the free, open source Moodle? The latter is my answer but yours may be different depending on your attire and whether or not you work in a University or a Primary School.

Of course you could explore the alternatives; find them at BETT 2011.