Flinders replaces WebCT with open source system

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Flinders replaces WebCT with open source system

Blackboard acquisition an 'opportunity' for change.

Flinders University is in the final stages of a multi-year effort to replace its 13-year-old WebCT learning management system (LMS) next year.

The project began in mid-2009, as Blackboard phased out support for WebCT Vista – on which Flinders Learning Online (FLO) was based – after acquiring WebCT in 2005.

Staff saw Blackboard Version 9, launched that year, as a “new product anyway”, so the university decided to consider other LMS vendors.

Flinders spent 18 months scoping out its requirements (pdf) and considering LMS products from Blackboard and open source alternatives Sakai and Moodle.

David Green, director of Flinders’ Centre for Educational ICT said the latter featured better tools and a more suitable structure for presenting the university’s course material.

In addition, Moodle 2.0 was less reliant on Java browser technology than WebCT Vista. Green said Java-related WebCT problems kept “a person in a full-time job” at the university’s help desk.

Early last year, Flinders began working with integrator NetSpot to customise and implement the Moodle 2.0 LMS for launch in semester one next year.

It kicked off a pilot with 17 topics and a total of 950 students this semester. Feedback has been positive so far, Green said.

When the upgraded FLO launches next year, it will be used by more than 18,000 students and 1,000 academics.

Although Flinders requires all topics to have an online presence in FLO, staff are not required to attend training courses for Moodle 2.0.

However, Green said more than 200 staff have attended and another “couple of hundred” have registered to attend an introductory, three-hour Moodle 2.0 workshop so far.

The introductory workshop is a prerequisite for more advanced, two-hour workshops about managing groups, activities, quizzes, assignments and grading in the new FLO.

Flinders also offers more than 20 video tutorials about the new platform, each lasting between five and ten minutes.

Paperless assignments and other customisations

To date, Flinders has commissioned about 50 hours of software development work from NetSpot to extend and customise Moodle 2.0.

One major extension is an electronic assignment management (EAM) system, which took about 20 hours to develop. It will allow assignments to be electronically submitted and graded.

Project leader Grette Wilkinson explained that academics currently download students’ assignments individually. The new EAM system allows academics to download all assignments as a ZIP file.

Wilkinson said the university will look at adding online marking capabilities to improve the EAM in future, through a rubric add-on to Moodle.

In the meantime, academics will continue marking electronic assignments and sending comments to their students using Microsoft Word, Adobe Acrobat or through audio recordings.

According to Green, Moodle has “scope for extensibility” as an open source platform but customisations need to be carefully managed.

“A little bit of customisation certainly does help with usability [but] one does have to manage the customisation and you can’t go too far away from the core,” he said.

Besides building and hosting the new FLO, NetSpot is responsible for managing any changes and ensuring the platform’s security and reliability.

Earlier this year, Australian universities discovered vulnerabilities in the Blackboard Learn platform that could be exploited to change grades, download unpublished exams and steal personal information.

Flinders project managers said reports of the Blackboard vulnerabilities were unrelated to its decision to move away from the vendor.

Future FLO projects will likely deliver mobile applications for submitting assignments, clicking through presentations and messaging within six to twelve months, Green said.

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