15 Sep 10 Open Source_Competition for e-learning vendors

e-learning is a segment that has registered exponential growth, and over the years, open source revolution is clearly making a mark. There have been many community efforts to bring Learning Management Systems (LMS), the industry’s prevalent learning technology, to the open source format. While Moodle may be the most popular of the lot, there are several such projects with unique USPs, including Olat, Ilias, Sakai Project, eFront, Dokeos and Claroline. LMSs are either developed in-house by buyers, or more often, licensed from e-learning companies. Commercial software is now primarily distributed in a product form by most providers, bundled with implementation and maintenance services. Open source applications on the other hand, being non-restrictive, can be customized for corporate users, universities, and other organisations.

What is open source?
Open source software source code and other rights (usually bestowed on copyright holders) are handed out under a software licence in the public domain. Individual users can then modify and redistribute the software, enabling application co-creation.

Filling the gap optimally – Open source
Companies incorporate e-learning into their ongoing training and development activities, while universities and schools offer e-learning opportunities to their full time and distance learning students. Over the last 3-4 years, there has been a steady rise in the number of users who have boldly experimented with open source technologies to aid their learning functions, from large corporate houses to Ivy League universities. The academic field has universities such as the Oxford Institute of Legal Practice, which has been using Moodle to introduce a range of e-learning elements such as webcasts, podcasts, chatting, MCQs, interactive materials, and portfolios to its students. Also, within the corporate segment, publishing companies such as CNET have used Moodle to deliver e-learning content online. While these efforts initially did stem from the relatively mature e-learning markets (the US and UK), word has definitely spread through online communities. Users in developing countries are now finding open source applications a viable solution to their many learning challenges. The recent economic turmoil made open source an important and viable option for many, as learning budgets were among the first to be slashed. As an example, the Moodle website shows increased activity in 2009 amongst users in countries such as Brazil, Mexico and Portugal. The reasons behind this rise can be better understood through a SWOT assessment of open source e-learning applications.

  • Cost savings – Customized e-learning solutions are expensive. The market comprising small organisations or start-ups (corporate/academic), in all geographies, with low (to nil!) purchasing power,  but strong need.
  • Crowd wisdom – Collaborative coding and re-coding allows countless improvements to be made by the world-pool of programmers. Also, technical issues are resolvable by consulting the collective learning experience of the community.
  • Customization – Being open source, users are able to include modifications and custom features available/capable of being developed, specific to their needs.
  • Control – Users are in control of their open source projects during development and implementation, as opposed to external providers, who may only offer some level of control during implementation.
  • Protection – Single vendor lock-ins are avoided.
  • User dependant implementation – Universities and corporate training divisions may lack the knowledge, resources or infrastructure to launch open source enabled e-learning programs straight out of the box.
  • Long term maintenance – Over time, users have to maintain in-house resources for maintenance and upgrades, as opposed to commercial arrangement.
  • Integration – These applications can be integrated with other open source based software, or custom applications. This will allow the technology to be kept up to date with market trends.
  • Commercial friendliness – The technology can be endorsed by e-learning service providers, enabling buyers to access external expertise, while still saving costs.
  • Specialization – As newer open source applications come into the market, there is a wide scope for specialization in different products (course authoring tools, LMS/LCMS, platforms and browsers, media creation tools) as well as user segments (IT, Healthcare LMS within corporate segment?).
  •  Aggressive commercial market – The global e-learning outsourcing industry is fiercely competitive, with several types of players from the IT field, HR outsourcing, BPOs, etc. While the industry hasn’t positioned open source software as competition, traditional LMSs are ultimately an alternative for open source environs.
  • Community dependant model – The core principle of open source is social constructivism, which will limit its growth and development (feature availability, interoperability, etc.). User queries/requirements may be left unanswered, depending on community contributions.

Implications for e-learning outsourcing companies
Open source e-learning has carved a niche for itself within the e-learning outsourcing industry. Service providers have varied views about its implications on their businesses. These are somewhat dependant on the position of the company in the industry value chain.

  • Large international players are generally supportive of open source technologies. For example, Blackboard in 2007, declared that it will not pursue patent infringement cases against open source projects and schools. As a complementary strategy, for targeting the Small and Medium Enterprises segment (which forms a significant part of the open source community), large e-learning providers are turning to hosted LMS solutions, which are more cost effective and competitive.
  • Medium and small international players (and even some large companies) are in fact expanding their services portfolios to include open source related services. These include companies like Kineo, Infinity Learning Solutions, Activica and many others. Services include integrating features for open source learning platforms, course content, consulting, implementation and ongoing maintenance for the technology.
  • e-learning outsourcing companies in popular offshoring destinations, however, have a different take on open source. It imposes a potential challenge to their value proposition against onshore companies – cost savings. Players in offshore locations are able to offer solutions at competitive prices for international buyer communities. But with open source applications available for free, the long term may see this niche segment as a strong competitor for offshore providers. The majority of such companies ValueNotes interviewed remained hopeful, and mentioned that the open source sector may result in further business for them after all. Corporates/universities looking at cost-effective learning solutions may turn to outsourcing the implementation/feature development/maintenance for their open source systems to offshore providers.

The future looks bright for open source software in the e-learning domain, with evangelist-like supporters, both among the service providers and buyer communities. With the range of technologies that are currently being employed, there is no one particular method that will address industry challenges. The integration and collaborative frameworks which are currently evolving among providers, users and ultimately, technologies suggest that it will always be a host of solutions that each unique user will be able to choose from to address his e-learning needs.

ValueNotes Research
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