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MANAGING ICT Learning platforms:

One of the big questions when it comes to learning platforms is should you pay for a service provider or should you go it alone with an open source option? We hear the case for each

Open source

Ian Usher, e-Learning co-ordinator Buckinghamshire County Council’s School Improvement Service

When an author or commentator wants to highlight the differences between “commercial” and “open source” tools, some standard statements are often made about these broad categories to attempt to reinforce differences between the two. Such statements normally take these forms: “Commercial products are well supported, proven,

popular and are the route you should go down if you’re serious about (insert function). Quality and usefulness are directly proportional to how much you pay for something.” And: “Open source products are unsupported, flaky,

unreliable and unproven. They are interesting, but only if you are at the geeky end of the spectrum, or have a room of tame geeks at your disposal. They’re cheap – and remember, quality and usefulness are directly proportional to how much you pay for something. Using something which is non-commercial is an indication that you’re not serious about the task that it’s trying to perform.”

False distinction

This is a false distinction for a number of reasons, so let’s deal with some of them, starting with the “quality and usefulness” one. It goes without saying that any school can take on an

open source tool and use it well and effectively, or do the same with a commercial tool. However, to read some of the marketing from

commercial learning platform providers you might think that you can parachute a glossy product into your school and transform learning without the need for good leadership, thoughtful and committed staff, and an inquisitive and dynamic learning environment. In such an environment, any tool, used well, can

make a difference (1 – see further information for a link to all references), even the ones which do not involve your bursar signing off on a five or six-figure contract. The “open source vs commercial” dichotomy is

a false one, as to use an open source tool effectively requires spending at least a little time or money – and “commercial” simply means “someone makes money from it”.

Choice vs closed source

A better way is to see it as a choice (2) between “closed source” (where you as a user have a negligible influence over the direction of what you are using – if at all) and “open source” (meaning you as an educator can influence, shape, and – if you want to – even help build the world’s most popular online learning tool). Imagine asking Microsoft if they wouldn’t mind

changing the way PowerPoint works because your staff or students always struggle with an element of it – unless your surname’s Gates or Ballmer (or maybe even Jobs) that’s unlikely to happen. With an open source project, you can really influence the direction of travel.


A properly resourced school nursing service is required to help schools meet the government’s health and wellbeing objectives.

Research published in the British Journal of School Nursing (BJSN) shows that more school nurses are needed to meet these objectives and ensure school children receive the health care and support they deserve. Therefore

the BJSN has launched a campaign to increase the number of school nurses.

For more information on the campaign visit Support the campaign or send us your views at: 10


MORE The “free” aspect of open source is often cited as a

demeaning characteristic – if I had a pound for every time I have been told that we as a local authority only offered Moodle (an open source tool and the world’s leading virtual learning environment) to our schools “because it was free or cheap”, I would be a rich man Actually, I would probably have enough to pay

for about a week’s subscription to some of the more expensive commercial alternatives to open source solutions.

Quality, not price

We use Moodle due to its quality – not because of its lack of licensing fees. Choosing Moodle has given us genuine freedom over our own destiny. We can change it or implement it if and when we

want to and pair it with what we like (integrations with SIMS (3), other management information systems, Google Apps for Education (4), Microsoft’s Live@ edu (5), Adobe Connect (6), Microsoft Office (7), and many other tools). Our schools can start to use it when they are

ready to, not simply because they have paid out for a significant contract whose clock is ticking. Using Moodle as an example, you can pay for as

much as you would like to, including: • Training – someone to help or show you how to best use the tool.

• Hosting – a third party to host the software unless you want to host it in school.

• Support – someone on the phone to talk you through how to do something; or none of these.

• You are in control. The critical thing is that you are not paying for all sorts of things which will not benefit you.

As a long-time advocate of Open Source options

for learning platforms one of the most interesting times for me was February 2010, when the parent company of the StudyWiz learning platform hit financial difficulty (8). While the StudyWiz platform survived, this

raised an interesting question over the implications for schools and authorities if a provider were to go under. A school using Moodle via a commercial host which encountered the same problem could simply move its data to a new host and carry on, as they are using what is effectively a lingua franca of online learning.

Global connections

I have had the privilege of supporting all sorts of schools in using learning platforms effectively and have lost count of the number of staff I have worked with who have used Moodle in Singapore, Spain, France, and Belgium to name a few countries – and have been able to bring their resources with them

SecEd • June 16 2011

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