Internationalising online programs/Participation in OSS project

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The Open Polytechnic of NZ, Moodle

Description of Activity

In 2003 the Open Polytechnic of New Zealand was faced with the necessity to change learning management environments. It was supporting a majority of its distance education students on an in-house system that was unable to scale to the 35,000 Open Poly learners that were now being supported through hybrid courses. In addition, the Open Minds Online program, which was the Open Polytechnic’s asynchronous online division, was ending its relationship with NextEd, an Australian hosting and service provider, that used BlackBoard as its LMS. We wanted to provide a single learning platform for all of our learners and faulty, and wanted to benefit from what we perceived as significant benefits associated with open source software.

Being a small island nation, it made sense to seek out participation in an internationally supported project. After significant consultation within NZ and conducting an institutional requirements gathering exercise and product evaluation, we selected and lead a NZ-based consortium of 8 tertiary providers who selected Moodle.

It is important to note that the consortium was aligned with the ministry of education’s goal to deploy a virtual learning environment that could be shared across the higher education sector of New Zealand to reduce cost and increase access and participation in online learning. Being able to contribute to an OSS project and release improvements back to the community was a priority for NZ. The goal was to find an open source community that was stable and wanted them involved - Moodle fit the needs and goals.

The overall project and approach associated with OSS aligned with the Ministry of Education’s goals to enhance access, reduce physical plant investment, and decrease unnecessary costs from redundant licensing, allowing more elearning to take place. In addition, the local consortium met a high level goal to create incentives for inter-institutional collaboration within NZ.

The project also aligned with the Open Polytechnic who was leading the project:

  • increasing capacity to reliably deliver online learning;
  • to influence the nature of the software that was being used thus overcoming the challenges of working with commercial vendors that very little international presence at the time.

Other partners were 7 other polytechnics and 1 university. They were trying to achieve the same goals. Some also needed the support and financing of being a member of the consortium.

Benefits of Activity

Adoption of a robust international Open Source Software product provides opportunity for participation in a larger community. Moodle, for example has the “lounge”, I which you interact with others from around the world who use, contribute to, and develop Moodle capacity, asking and responding to questions that range from quite technical, to entirely pedagogical. Through their and other forums, one can tap into more experience than could possible exist locally. Some of the direct benefits for the Open Polytechnic included:

  1. Reducing the fiefdom mentality that existed with in each institution to have a common platform through the adoption of a common platform.
  2. The idea of it being external and international outside of NZ reduces the force of local politics.
  3. It raised the Open Polytechnic’s profile as an organization internationally through a small amount of risk taking.
  4. The project and our contributions to an OSS project were not just your self interest and singled a larger commitment to community development and the reduction of access barriers to education.
  5. The development of capacity to lead a multi-institutional consortia with international ties.

Success Factors

There are a number of factors that we believe will help this project along:

  1. The overall project was closely aligned with Open Polytechnic mission and goals.
  2. We received government financial support.
  3. The Ministry and consortia provided clarity of mission.
  4. The Ministry provided support and advocacy.
  5. It became unacceptable public image to spend money on an LMS with this initiative going on.
  6. Willingness at the Open Polytechnic to outsource for skills not possessed in the institution, ultimately depoliticizing the project so it didn't appear as an Open Polytechnic effort.
  7. Willingness to contract a strong and experienced project manager.
  8. Consortia had its own governance structure and project manager.
  9. Creation of to handle program management - this also provided project transparency for documents, discussion space and voting.
  10. Support from respected stakeholders within that larger OSS community and within the NZ higher education sector.

Organizational Readiness

This type of project is reasonably high risk. We were working with government dollars, had deliverables, and were leveraging the political capital across a number of tertiary education providers that normally did not play well together. Because none of us had very much experience with contributing to an OSS project, we sourced much of the skill, and managed the consortium:

  1. We had experience working with the Ministry of Education and had relationships with key stakeholders and policy makers in the Ministry.
  2. We had recent experience with a large-scale failed technology project that we learned from (this is one of the reasons why the Open Poly was ultimately – after some struggles -willing to outsource).
  3. We established discipline around accountability for resources and money through the project management team and consortium governance.
  4. Had a good understanding of online learning and the needs of learners to build upon.
  5. Open Poly staff didn't have the skills and experience to participate in an open source project. This was solved by partnering with an outside firm to fill this gap.

Exit & Risk Mitigation Strategies

The risks in this project were project sustainability and we shield our risk by participating in the OSS community.

  1. We migrated by creating a momentum that becomes part of how people do their jobs.
  2. We selected an existing open source community, it was a big enough community that others would keep investing, even if funding was a problem for an individual university or polytechnic.
  3. The whole aspect of being part of an international community is that it has support and robust community.
  4. To address the risk that a new president would come into the Open Poly that wouldn't have the same priorities: mitigated by working with the Minsitry because it was a ministry priority.
  5. There was an effort t create a sustainable business model by becoming a Moodle partner and develop public-private partnership.
  6. External hosting has risks: mitigated via service level agreements.
  7. Communication risks were mitigated through Eduforge as a communication tool.