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Bye Bye Blackboard, Hello Sakai

Last week, I was part of a meeting that decided on a recommendation for Miami University’s LMS transition over the next year or so. We ultimately chose among four options:

  1. Blackboard 9 (stay with Blackboard, but move to next version)
  2. Desire2Learn
  3. Moodle
  4. Sakai
Interestingly, there was very little support, if any, for continuing with Blackboard. There’s just been too much frustration with both the software and the company. It’s hard to justify spending so much money on such a mediocre solution, particularly given current budget issues.

Our ultimate choice was Sakai. I can’t say exactly what it was that ultimately organized the consensus around the choice, but my own argument in the meeting was roughly as follows:

  1. all of the current LMSs are more alike than not
  2. the open source options (both Moodle and Sakai) give the institution greater control over our own destiny going forward, with more options for support, for influencing the direction of the software, and for deciding when we want to transition to new versions
  3. Sakai in particular has a really smart forward-looking roadmap in v3 which is shaped by the right, pedagogically-oriented, vision

For me personally the plans for Sakai 3 were a primary differentiator. The tight coupling of a new architecture placed at the service of a shiny new interface that is easy-to-use and flexible, and which is designed based on user-testing from the beginning, is, I think, the right direction. The widget and template-based approach has the potential to make it easier and quicker for new users to get going. The devil will be in the details of exactly how well they implement these ideas, but I am looking forward to seeing how Sakai 3 evolves.

Now the real work will start for the IT staff here. They’ll have to figure out the best way to transition course content from Blackboard, to train faculty and students in how to best make use of Sakai, and set up some kind of governance structure to manage our relationship with this new technology. I’m hoping this can include some mechanism to get IT services staff and interested faculty involved in the Sakai community, and contributing in different ways to its future evolution.


  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Nate Angell, bdarcus. bdarcus said: ? @mfeldstein67: RT @kthanos: Welcome Miami University of Ohio - newest #Sakai Foundation member. see also [...]

  2. Trace Urdan says:

    You mention cost as a deciding factor, but I had always understood that the total cost of ownership for Open Source was much higher than for a turn-key solution like Blackboard. Won’t the time commitments of your IT department go up considerably by choosing Sakai?

  3. Trace, the idea that anything that happens to be released under an open source license has an inherently higher TCO than Blackboard is a myth. Flat out. TCO of software has nothing to do with the license that happens to be attached to it and everything to do with (a) the quality of the code and (b) the quality and cost of commercial support. You have to do a bottom-up empirical analysis to get to TCO.

    A good way to get a fair comparison is to look at getting the platforms hosted by support vendors. In this scenario, there are no internal support costs other than faculty training, end-user help desk, and a part-time functional level admin. There’s no reason to believe that costs should be higher on any of these functions for Sakai than for Blackboard. (In fact, a study done by the University of North Carolina showed students and faculty using Sakai required less help than students and faculty using Blackboard, so help desk costs for Sakai might actually be lower.) At any rate, what’s the cost to have each platform externally hosted? Going by rSmart’s published pricing as an example, hosted Sakai costs for a college the size of Miami U is about $5/user/year for basic support or $6/user/year for premium support. Blackboard doesn’t publish their prices, but the numbers I have heard are generally significantly higher—sometimes twice as high or more. Even in a best-case scenario, they certainly are not lower.

    There are several reasons why the open source TCO myth exists. First, it’s a holdover from the early days of open source when most projects were immature and really did require some extra care and feeding. But that wasn’t a problem that was inherent to open source; it was just a reflection of the relative immaturity of the software at the time (and the fact that most of the projects existing at that time were targeted toward developers rather than end users). Second, the high-profile adopters of open source LMSs, like Open University UK and Indiana University, are schools that were going to invest a lot of money customizing their platform regardless of whether they went with open source or proprietary. They like being able to spend money that would have gone to license fees on customization. So the big TCO numbers from these schools don’t really reflect the averages. And finally, CIOs actively downplay the cost savings because they don’t want that found money to be taken out of their budgets. If you look at what LSU says about their Moodle adoption, for example, they made it clear from the beginning that any cost savings that they get from the platform itself would be plowed into additional faculty support and customization. It’s not that Moodle requires them to make these extra investments. Schools that are cash-strapped could just take the savings out of their budget if they needed to. But LSU’s IT management recognized that other areas were chronically underfunded (as they are in most places) and that the license/support cost savings they realized by moving to Moodle freed up money to invest elsewhere for a better total cost/benefit result from the same investment.

  4. darcusb says:

    Yeah, ditto everything Michael said.

    A few additional points:

    First, I want to make clear that I only speak for myself here, and that my role in this decision was as a technically-savvy faculty member. I had no role, for example, in budget projections and such.

    Second, just to be clear, I didn’t write that “cost” was a “deciding factor”; I was more referring to the notion of value there. The budget issues prompt the question not just of how much we’re spending, but what value we’re getting for those investments.

    Third, the anecdotal evidence I’ve seen suggests that Sakai does not require more support resources these days. Not only does the “myth” Michael notes short-change the open source alternatives; it also gives far too much credit to the proprietary ones. If you talk to faculty and IT staff here, they’ll point out they spend a lot of time dealing with bugs and eccentricities in Blackboard. In my own personal case, I ran into a bug that significantly negatively impacted a large enrollment course I teach.

    Fourth, we’re adopting more of the LSU model Michael mentions I believe, in that cost savings on licensing will be funneled into staffing resources. Even with those additional human resources, there will be cost savings. But again, this isn’t my area.