Overthrowing Blackboard

The most recent Western Front, our Student newspaper, ran an article about looking for a replacement for Blackboard. You can read the article online here.

And now, a warning.

This is my personal opinion, it in no way reflects the official view of this department or any WWU entity.


The Computer Science department is apparently evaluating Moodle as a possible Blackboard killer. I personally cheer this research, since I don't particularly like Blackboard. Plus, it could shave a few months off of any replacement project that may come of this. That said, there are a few bits of the article that need some amplification or clarification.
Western’s computer science department is in the process of testing a new e-learning software this summer quarter that could potentially replace Blackboard sometime next year.
Eh, not really. And the reason for this is actually alluded to in the next paragraph:
“I think students tend to find [Blackboard] more frustrating especially when it goes down and they have something due for a class and cannot access it,” said David Bover, chair of the computer science department.
If Blackboard goes down for even a single day, mayhem ensues on campus. Blackboard is, for lack of any other way to put it, critical path for us. If it goes down, the learning function of this University is significantly negatively impacted. Any instabilities are noticed, as Dr. Bover pointed out. This is a system that has to be rock stable, and always there when you need it. We have very few systems in that class of service, and SCT Banner (our ERP solution) is one of the others.

What this means is that any replacement for Blackboard has to be at least as stable as Blackboard, and provably so. It needs to come with Enterprise level support with a rapid response option, something I'm not sure Moodle has. It also needs to support the load we throw at it, and provide at least Blackboard-equivalent functionality for the exact same or less in resource costs.

Our Blackboard infrastructure right now includes 7 physical servers (only three of which are VM candidates) and 2 network load-balancers. Also involved are a large number of people on the back end to handle the Banner integration stuff that happens behind the scenes to do things like create new courses, manage enrollments in courses, and maintain the user accounts inside Blackboard. This second group, the Banner integration, is where the second largest engineering challenge will be for any presumed Blackboard-to-Moodle migration project. This second group is also the one that is hardest for the CompSci group to evaluate work-flow for.

What's more, due to various requirements, we need to have the ability for students who challenge grades to have access to course-work and grade-book for the class in question. We need something like 3 years of archive for this, so we will have to be dual-stacked for up to 3 years after migration go-live in order to handle challenges to courses done while still on Blackboard. This archival blackboard install will require us to have software and at least 2 servers to support it.

Moving to Moodle will also require us to be a bit more nimble in responding to user requests. As the article says:
With Moodle, professors will be able to install plugins or create their own to fit specific needs for their course.
This will ultimately require a dedicated Moodle programmer somewhere within ITS. That's a staff position, which means budget. Due to how WWU's accounting works, we can't just take the hardware and software savings from Blackboard and convert it into a new FTE. Whether or not this FTE is a lateral transfer from somewhere within ITS already, is up to the migration project people whoever they may ultimately be.

In short, any Blackboard-to-Moodle project will not be run to completion by Fall 2009 even if CompSci comes up with a Moodle config that reaches feature parity with Blackboard, and looks to be just as stable. The Banner integration alone will require significant engineering on the part of ITS departments, and to be blunt the group who 'owns' Blackboard is seriously short-staffed right now and can't even think of a migration project yet. Load testing and sheer re-education on the part of Blackboard users will take a lot of resources and time all by itself.

The somewhat ironic part of this is that Moodle was brought to my attention a couple of Brainshares ago. At the time we were having serious stability problems with Blackboard, so several of us got kinda wistful-eyed at the thought of giving Blackboard the ole heave-ho. Since then I've heard that Moodle is beginning to eat into Blackboard's installed base, especially in cash-strapped Community Colleges. One can hope.

And in closing, a few hints to any of those CompSci people working on this project:
  • For the love of Richard Stallman, make sure the database behind Moodle is either MSSQL2005 or Oracle. We already run two RDBMS's, we will not be running a third *cough*mysql*cough*. No matter how politely you ask. Asking us to add a brand new RDBMS onto the critical path is simply too much to ask for. There is a slight preference for Oracle since that's what Banner runs in and that eases certain integration tasks.
  • Please answer the question of, "The system is in flaming ruins, and we're all flummoxed. Who do we call?" Because the reply we give to irate Professors wondering why they can't report grades matters a lot, "We're working closely with the vendor right now," sounds way better and more professional than, "We've asked some people in the community who know this stuff better than we do, and hope to have some answers soon." We have way more Professors (and students for that matter) who don't give a wet noodle for the ethics behind their software, just so long as it works right.
  • Please account for a test environment that functions identically to production. Since Blackboard is critical path, we actually have a test environment we do things like work through upgrade problems, validate configs, and troubleshoot errors out of production. This right now is a single box with MSSQL2005 and Blackboard installed on it, compared to Production where the web-servers, content servers, and database server roles are all on different machines. Blackboard allows this, but not all software plays nice like that.
Thank you. And remember, this is just me blowing wind, it doesn't represent anything like an official viewpoint of this university, this department, or this office.


since moodle can run on LAMP, couldn't you just cluster it using SLES? Better uptime, lower cost....

Better uptime and lower costs are half the reason to move to Moodle in the first place. However, we're not running anything critical-path on LAMP right now so we don't have the institutional depth of knowledge required to to it right. Linux we have, Apache we have, PHP isn't critical path but we have some people who are pretty handy with it. But we have zilch when it comes to MySQL. None of our DBA's have ever worked with it, and they're the ones who will need the (very expensive) retraining. This is why moving to a LAMP stack for something critical-path is very expensive for us. Replacing the M with, say, MSSQL2005 or Oracle will make it far cheaper for us.