Open-source presents BC University with e-learning advantage

Cost and flexibility were key considerations when a BC university chose open-source software to upgrade its electronic learning system.

Faculty and IT staff of the Royal Roads University (RRU) in Victoria, BC said they considered proprietary software but found Moodle (Modular Object-Oriented Dynamic Learning Environment) a perfect fit for their e-learning environment.

According to Carrie Spencer, CIO of Royal Roads University, a large developer community would be beneficial in building applications for their curriculum. “Moodle is the system of choice because it has a robust and enthusiastic developer community.”

“It’s an opportunity for RRU to be part of a larger university community,” said Dr. Steve Grundy, acting vice-president of RRU. “We can reap the benefits of other developers’ research and they can benefit from our innovations.”

A Canadian technology analyst pointed out that RRU’s strategy has been gaining traction with a greater number of educational institutions lately.

“E-learning has become a very crucial part of delivering education today,” said Dave Marks, consulting director of IDC Canada Inc. in Toronto.

Marks said open-source software offers several key advantages over proprietary licensed-based products.

“The Moodle model wins out in terms of ease of deployment, lack of licensing fees, availability of applications and shorter learning curve,” he said.

Moodle is a free software package designed to help educators create effective online learning communities. It can be downloaded into any computer, yet it can scale from a single-teacher site to a 50,000-student university.

To date, Moodle has a community of more than 100,000 users, speaking over 70 languages in over 150 countries.

Soon after it was founded in 1995, the RRU was among the first institutions to deploy an online-based learning program.

Using in-house applications, the university offered students from across Canada and around the world, degree programs through a combination of online learning courses and short residencies.

Although very successfully used for several years, the in-house learning system needed significant upgrades to incorporate simpler communication tools that allow faculty members to develop and maintain their own courses.

The university’s original system was also hampered by limited functionality in handling newer applications.

Spencer said RRU also researched proprietary learning systems but found out the open-source model was cheaper and offered better agility and incorporating new developments.

“There was no up-front licensing costs attached to Moodle and access to the development community allows RRU to be at the forefront of technology.”“With Moodle we can enhance our capability in managing wikis, blogs, whiteboards and file sharing,” said Spencer. Enabling faculty to develop their own course materials was also another important factor in Moodle’s favour.

“We needed to improve the faculty’s hands-on ability in developing the curriculum environment,” said Tracy Roberts, RRU instructional designer.

Roberts said prior to using Moodle, faculty members developed their course materials using Microsoft Office and handed it over to the IT staff for “translation” into the system.

“With Moodle’s intuitive user interface, faculty members familiar with word processing products can create their own curriculum environments.”

The deployment last year of Moodle, is part of RRU’s three-year IT project to integrate the university’s student registry, financial system and learning systems.

The education part of the project is expected to account for 22 per cent the $4.2 million budget.

IDC Canada’s Marks sees open-source e-learning empowering students to participate and collaborate with a wider range of individuals.

“E-learning is not just reading a book online. It’s collaborating with peers who can be halfway across the globe.”

“The system will not dilute the role of the teacher, but it will enable students become their own teachers and become participants rather than mere recipients of education,” he said.

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