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ACS-STAF  January 2005

ACS-STAF January 2005

Subject:

Course Management Systems >> It's all About Support

From:

Steve Cavrak <[log in to unmask]>

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ACS staff discussion list <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Fri, 7 Jan 2005 07:47:50 -0500

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Parts/Attachments

text/plain (296 lines)

Course Management Systems >> It's the Support, Stupid!

By Mikael Blaisdell
Campus Technology
Thursday, Jan. 6, 2005
http://www.campus-technology.com/article.asp?id=10407


In the open source vs. commercial CMS debate, support turns out to be a
deciding factor. Here’s why.

At the July Syllabus2004 conference in San Francisco, attendees took a
day to head to the UC Berkeley campus where they absorbed session and
keynote content, shared information with peers, and participated in
vigorous panel discussions. One such discussion, “Is Open Source in
Your CMS Future?” tackled the issues around open source course
management (or learning management) systems, more commonly referred to
as CMS or LMS. Most specifically, the discussion centered on Sakai
(http://www.sakaiproject.org), the open source CMS software released in
July 2004. The discussion, led by UC Berkeley’s director of Educational
Technology Services, Victor Edmonds, employed the use of personal
response software to poll session attendees as issues arose.
Interestingly, the polling revealed that for session attendees, a
primary concern about open source CMS was the ability to secure
dependable support.

Edmonds counters, “It is true that the group identified support as
their major concern about adopting Sakai. But I’d bet it would be a
major concern if we asked about adopting WebCT (http://www.webct.com)
or Blackboard (http://www.blackboard.com), too.” Given the consistent
concern about support for campus systems in general, Edmonds may have a
point. Still, while open source CMS proponents argue that support is
likely to be superior for the more consortial systems, anxiety about
support for those systems can’t be dismissed and may be a reason why
some campus officials insist on a single CMS vendor which can be held
contractually accountable for support.


The Argument for Single-Vendor CMS

When you come down to it, the questions are: Does single-vendor CMS
(proprietary CMS products such as WebCT or Blackboard) offer an
inherent advantage in the areas of product and user support over the
Sakai open source model? Or do the open accessibility of the product
source code and the range of potential suppliers for Sakai support mean
that open source CMS support actually has an edge over that of
proprietary systems?

“Support is an issue for any software,” acknowledges Sebastian Rahtz,
Information Manager for the UK’s Oxford University Computing Services.
“But ‘support’ is a very broad area; it’s hard to answer for all of it
at once.” Vis-à-vis the CMS support discussion, then, a framework needs
to be established in the form of a workable definition regarding what
is actually meant by CMS support.


Defining CMS Support

While some may disagree about the labels assigned to support categories
(and the assignment of responsibility for specific components within
the groups may vary), there is a surprising level of consensus about
support components in general. Items such as implementation and
customization of the software to fit local requirements, integration
with other systems, migration of legacy data, documentation, user
training, incident handling, diagnosis of bugs, and preparation of
fixes in one way or another are all nearly universally understood to be
included somewhere under the heading of support.

When it comes to the breakdown of CMS support components, however, Mara
Hancock, UC Berkeley’s associate director of Learning Systems &
Multimedia Services, divides CMS support into three general categories:
Frontline customer support, technical support, and implementation
support.
Support on the Frontline

“There is not much difference between vendor-supported and
open-source-supported products at this level,” according to Hancock. In
both cases, she points out, the same options are available. The scope
of the frontline support group’s typical duties, she says, is to
respond to immediate problems that prohibit someone from accessing or
using the tool. “The issues could range from a lost password to how to
perform a certain function with a given tool,” she explains. “These
types of questions are rarely, if ever, escalated back to the vendor
level.” And though frontline support usually refers to the common
higher ed help desk, there’s nothing common about the intensity of help
desk interactions, says Ann Watts, Instructional Design coordinator for
Des Moines Area Community Colleges (DMACC) (IA).

Look at your help desk. “Until you’ve had to sit and listen to irate
faculty members coming to you, you won’t really understand about
support,” says Watts. Stress or no, there are two factors about support
at this level that should be kept in mind in the proprietary/open
source CMS support debate: 1) Frontline support is the last structure
to be built for any new technology, and 2) the resources required for
providing it are seldom, if ever, seriously taken into consideration in
the product selection decision-making process. Yet because frontline
support often interacts with larger numbers of individuals than other
support structures on campus, you’ll want to look carefully at this
support structure when you weigh the pros and cons of proprietary vs.
open source support.

Training. Another familiar element of first-level support is user
training, and there are a variety of sources for both trainers and
course material. While proprietary CMS vendors offer training services
on various levels (staff, faculty, and students), universities may opt
to augment or replace some of these by developing their own training
programs.

On all levels, however, training for Sakai is offered by the Sakai
Commercial Affiliates (SCA), typically, for-profit partners which have
committed to Sakai and which have full access to the source code of the
product (as do Sakai users). Currently, four independent vendors are
prepared to offer training and full support services for Sakai, and
more are expected to sign up during the course of this year. Currently,
the vendors are: rsmart group (www.rsmart.com), Embanet
(www.embanet.com), SunGard (www.sungardsct.com), and Unicon Inc.
(www.unicon.net.) In addition to the courses and training services
offered by the SCAs, universities may elect to develop their own
materials and courses, just as users of proprietary support services
may do.

Build or contract? Regardless of whether a CMS product is proprietary
or open source, a university will have the same basic options when it
comes to addressing the need for first-level support and/or training
for faculty, staff, or students. The institution may either build its
own help desk and/or training programs using in-house resources, or it
may contract with another organization (a vendor, in the case of
proprietary systems, or an SCA, in the case of Sakai.) Or, it may use a
blend of both approaches.


When Support Gets Technical

The next level of support deals with more technical issues and involves
a different group of individuals. “I see CMS technical support as a
bigger concern than the frontline support for many schools, especially
smaller institutions,” Hancock explains. “These are areas where there
are problems with the CMS application itself, the installation, or the
database.” Pointing out that technical support issues are often dealt
with in-house first (moved either from the frontline group or from
system administrators to the developers), she notes: “This is where
[some schools] worry that they won’t have the expertise necessary to
identify and fix the problems, and that they won’t have the support
structure in place to get the rapid response that these types of
problems require. This concern may be real if they don’t have a
technical staff.”

Money and source code limitations. Under the proprietary CMS model, the
sole source of higher-level technical support is the vendor, usually
under the terms of a contract between the supplier and the institution.
Of course, “the rapidity of response from the vendor,” Hancock points
out in this scenario, “depends on how much you paid them for the
support.” One drawback of this model, for schools with access to
technically knowledgeable and skilled resources, is that the in-house
developers and systems administrators may be able to identify the
problem and the appropriate correction, but may be unable to actually
make the changes due to the lack of access to the proprietary code that
would be required to implement the fix. The vendors of proprietary
systems are seldom if ever willing to release any part of the source
code to their customers, regardless of whatever expertise they may
possess, because to do so would endanger their control of their
intellectual property.
Implementation Support

Unlike common desktop horizontal software products such as word
processors or spreadsheets that may be purchased by the user,
downloaded from the Web, and completely installed by using a built-in
software wizard utility on the spot, major campus systems like CMS
require substantial installation design, preparation, implementation
and integration services before they can be fully released for
campus-wide use by the institution’s general community. Whether
proprietary or open source, no CMS runs ‘out of the box.’ This aspect
of support is a critically important factor, for the implementation and
integration costs can be staggering, especially if proper preparation
and design is not completed before beginning the process.

Proprietary vs. open source. Installation and implementation expenses
for proprietary CMS systems are additional costs beyond the license
fees for the software, notes Hancock, and “will require internal
experts to collaborate with vendor consultants to make this
successful.” What’s more, where integration with other applications is
required, the institution can be compelled to hire two sets of
consultants: the team responsible for implementing the new system, and
a second team that is expert in the existing application.

On the other hand, “If you’ve got a staff that has development and
integrations skills, Sakai will be very easy to work with to install
and implement,” claims Brad Wheeler, Indiana University’s associate VP
for Research & Academic Computing, and the Sakai Project Board’s vice
chairman. Phil Long, senior strategist for MIT’s Academic Computing
Practice, agrees that Sakai offers an advantage for those schools with
the in-house resources to do their own integrations, and/or for the
consultants retained to assist them. “You’ll be doing integration by
looking at an API you can see the other side of, as opposed to
wondering what on earth they were thinking of when they were writing
it.”

What about institutions where the staff is not prepared to take on the
systems integration role for Sakai? “If you run an organization with a
very lean staff, and want to rent those services as needed,” Wheeler
says, “then you’ll need to shop around among the SCAs to find someone
who will do your integration and/or help desk services for you. The
difference is that you have the options because of your greater access
to the source code.”
Strategic CMS Support

Past the tactical levels of CMS support, however, there are some
strategic factors that are also associated with the question of
supportability. How viable will Sakai prove to be in the next few
years? Can an open source product compete with the proprietary
companies’ dedicated development groups?

Share, and share alike. “Building the community is the key,” according
to Wheeler. “Within a very short time of Sakai’s release, one of the
schools came back and said, ‘Here’s what you need to do to integrate it
with MySQL.’ This is exactly what you get when you’re able to
coordinate the energies of a number of participants in a project like
this.”

Pick and choose. Echoing frequent comments in the Linux and other open
source software communities, several of the Sakai adopters stressed
that the access to the complete source code of the product meant that
much more would be done in the area of product enhancement. “Instead of
dealing with one company’s development team and their ideas of what is
important, you have the ability to do your own enhancements to fit your
needs, or to pick and choose from the things that the other schools are
doing,” said one university CIO currently transitioning away from a
proprietary CMS system. Commenting on the freedom that schools have in
the Sakai community, Wheeler notes that while there is a grade book
program specifically under development for Sakai, other schools or even
private companies might decide to do their own. “I expect in time there
will be two or three grade book programs that can fit into Sakai, so
that an institution’s administrators can choose the one they like
best.”
A Question of Certainty

For some, though, the key concerns about open source support seem to
revolve around a need for certainty. DMACC’s Watts is concerned about
what she sees as “volunteer” efforts for support in the open source
Sakai model. “Sometimes you do feel a little at sea, because you don’t
know who might be able to help, and you don’t have a single source that
you can go to, to ask your questions.” This may be one reason why DMACC
(a solid Microsoft client in other areas as well) chose the MS
Sharepoint system for its CMS needs.

Control is all. Patricia McGhee, a member of the Instructional
Technology group at the University of Texas at San Antonio, has a
different view. When asked about the most significant support advantage
offered by Sakai, she replies. “Control.” Scott Siddall, assistant
provost for Instructional Resources at Denison University (OH), agrees.
“We like to have choices,” he explains, then takes it a step further:
“Often, in fact, almost all of the time, proprietary vendors provide
inadequate support for their products.”

On his campus, Siddall isn’t concerned about the absence of a
single-source CMS support provider. “Getting software and support from
two different sources should not be construed as an obstacle,” he says.
“Some of the best solutions come from the meritocracy formed online in
the open source communities. More than half of the time, I get more
relevant, successful, and timely diagnoses from these resources than I
can from a commercial software vendor. We’re convinced that mission
critical systems can be based on open source solutions.”

Source code is key. In fact, says Wheeler, the search for certainty is
not limited to the open source model. “Under the traditional
proprietary model,” he asks, “What is the core way to hedge against
vendor risk? Escrow the source code! Well, that’s the very essence of
the open source approach, that you have the source code.”


The Larger Issue

Underlying the entire CMS support debate is an emerging discussion
about overall strategy. Many campus IT executives see this larger issue
as key, and Stanford University Director of Academic Computing and
Sakai Project Board Member Lois Brooks is one of them.

“The uncertainty we’re hearing about support is shorthand for the
strategic re-evaluation that we are undergoing in our institutions,”
she notes. “There is no one right strategy. School size, ability to
attract IT staff, other investments, and individual institutional
priorities all play in the decision-making process.”

Dollars and sense. Chris Coppola, President of Sakai Commercial
Affiliate rsmart group also sees the debate in broad strategic terms.
Under the proprietary model, he says, “So much money is being spent on
the software that very little is left over for proper installation,
customization to fit local business practices, training, other staff
development, etc. In fact, a primary reason technology [in general]
hasn’t had a larger positive impact on learning is because not enough
money has been left for the activities that can really make a
difference.” He adds, “A key part of the value proposition for open
source CMS is that a higher proportion of each dollar spent goes back
to the institution for things that will have an impact on bottom-line
results.” The debate is likely to continue for some time.

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