Ilse's weblog of random thoughts



Change or adapt – the VLE dilemma in an economic crisis

The last months, numerous messages have circulated on the Blackboard mailing lists, posted by educational staff, mostly from the United States, whose funding have been seriously declined due to the economic crisis, and who desperately need to save money.  One of the first things that management often tries to cut down on are the huge software license bills, and the Blackboard licence fee is certainly no exception to that. It seems there are two ways to react to these funding issues.

Most of them were looking at open source software, like Sakai. However, I’m not convinced that such solutions will provide to be so much cheaper in the long end, especially not for large institutions. Sure, you don’t have to pay any license fee, but if you really take advantage of your new platform, evolve and adapt it to suit your e-learning needs, you probably will need a larger support team than when using a commercial our-of-the-box product. I’m not against Sakai and other open platforms, far from it, but I think it’s not always a cheaper solution, not if you still want to render staff and students the same functionalities and services they were used to. That doesn’t mean that Blackboard shouldn’t lower it’s prices, especially in a year of economic crisis, where they themselves seem to have made more profit than in the past. The Angel customers, some of whome shifted from Blackboard to Angels a couple of years ago to decrease their licence fees, will certainly not be happy if they have to go back and pay those huge amounts, now that Blackboard bought also that e-learning solution.

However, some instititutions are looking at the licence fee issue from a totally other perspective. Merv Stapelton, e-Learning manager at the City of Sunderland College, is well aware of the huge cost of Blackboard, but instead of looking for an alternative VLE, her institution decided to broaden the use of Blackboard, using it not only for teaching purposes, but also for more administrative goals. On the one hand, they are using organisations to support the communication between  staff teams, acting as document repositories, communication tool, project management tool, chat rooms for virtual meetings, and many more. On a next level, they want Blackboard to replace their staff intranet, by posting staff messages, important documents and other resources in a couple of organisations, available for all staff members. I know a couple of institutions in the Netherlands use the portal functionalities of Blackboard in a similar way.

I think this is not such a bad idea, and although Blackboard is primarily an e-learning tool, the latest versions sure can support a wider use as general document and project management system and portal. We have seen this happen in Toledo itself, that started as the virtual learning environment for K.U.Leuven courses, and over the last 8 years became the central student portal. Many staff members have created organisation to not only support their teaching, but also their research projects, their teams and administrative tasks. Perhaps this use will be replaced by Sharepoint in the future, but still, Blackboard didn’t do a bad job as ‘replacement’ management system up until now. And it had two big advantages over Sharepoint: it was the same application staff members were already using rather intuitively and (in most cases) found their way in, and it was not an extra strain on the Toledo support team, since staff could create and manage their own organisations. We’ll see what the future brings…

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