Universities and Course Management Systems

Steve Epstein responds to an article in Syllabus describing the purchase of a proprietary course management system. Epstein feels that universities should not purchase CMS because they would be provided for free by content providers (read: textbook publishers). Epstein states:

In doing her financial analysis, Pletcher reported that she "considered license fee, plus five years maintenance, plus installation costs." Missing from the analysis are the cost of faculty development and the cost of faculty support. While these costs will continue with any campus based CMS, they are not necessary. Moreover, the cost of the present system, $3.3 million over five years, could be reduced to zero.
The cost of a CMS system is not necessary because publishers will provide them for free. For several years, leading publishers have provided electronic content that can be imported into many leading CMS. If the school paid for a CMS, this content can be used with the college’s system. If the school does not pay for the CMS, the content can still be used.

This potential model, of paying for the content and not the delivery system, shows that once again the medium of the Internet is spawning new business models. Any purchaser of technology systems has to clearly understand what the possible business models are – or wind up spending $3.3M more than was necessary.

4 Responses to “Universities and Course Management Systems”

  1. Anonymous

    Re: Universities and Course Management SystemsHarold,

    Interesting perspective. During the heady days of the late 1990’s we watched companies like Blackboard and WebCT fight for market territory with easy pricing models ($5000 course management systems, essentially) and we thought that, worst case, if they did not become profitable, they would be acquired by publishing companies as vehicles for publishing content.

    But the landscape has changed in a surprising way. Both Blackboard and WebCT have become profitable at much higher annual licensing fees, and both offer their flagship products with powerful database (e.g., Oracle) support. Both companies have around 4000 clients and consortia.

    Publisher ownership seems unlikely as Blackboard has filed a S-1 for a 75 million IPO, while WebCT is owned in part by SCT (Major Higher Ed SIS Admin System Vendor) who in turn is owned by the large market aggregator SunGard (who recently acquired my own ex-firm, Collegis)

    But this question of “could $3.3 M be spent better at the institution” persists. Certainly that would buy a lot of support staff (instructional designers, faculty developers, system admins/engineers). We’ll see if the annual licensing ever ends up on “budget bubbles” – the plentitude of freeware CMSes in existence that feature good database support and IMS compatibility may force the issue in the end.

    Also watch for copycat interfaces to assauge faculty who may complain about changing horses midstream – ala Apple vs. Microsoft it’s been shown that “look and feel” is hard to defend. CyberLearning Labs “ANGEL” system looks a heck of a lot like Blackboard out of the box … switching over would cause minimal confusion for existing Blackboard users …

    • Anonymous

      Early Lead – What Caused ItHarold,

      As usual, the best technology is not the relevant thing. It’s the threat of bellicosity from faculty members if we ever switch from the established solutions (WebCT, Blackboard)

      But keep an eye on this. Faculty bellicosity may not be enough to restrict the temptation of freeware copycats that adhere to IMS content specs. Especially as it would free up (often) $100,000 USD per year in licensing.


      • Anonymous

        Place your betsMaybe we should create the equivalent of a hockey pool and place our bets on which model makes the most advances in the future. My bet is on the main players, at least for the next year, though I’d like to be proven wrong, as my tax dollars partially subsidize higher education in this country.

    • Anonymous

      Welcome David FrancisThanks David;

      I appreciate your insightful comments, as you’ve worked inside the industry, and probably have the scars to prove it. If any of us knew what was the perfect pedagogy, with the perfect technology, then we’d have the perfect business model 😉

      It’s interesting to see that WebCT and Blackboard’s early dominance of the industry has reaped the expected rewards, as many industry observers (me included) thought that it wouldn’t work because there was too much competition.


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