WebCT replacement decision still in works

    A committee of faculty and staff should have a decision by February on what will replace the out-of-date WebCT program that thousands of PSU students currently use to do their coursework online.

    Members of the committee have looked into a handful of options, but the two most likely candidates are an updated version of the current WebCT program, and Samla, a new open-source program developed by universities that school officials say is collaborative, free, and can be adjusted in-house.

    Open source is a movement popularized by the internet. It works as an asset to the production and development of the system it’s used in. Faculty, staff and students alike have expressed their concerns about the inflexibility of WebCT, which is used to administer hundreds of classes to Portland State students online.

    ”It’s definitely not a secret that people aren’t happy with the current software,” said Bart Massey, associate professor of computer science. Currently, it’s only possible to alter certain aspects of what students experience on WebCT during their online class sessions, because WebCT is copyright protected.

    Some think that Samla might be a better option because it’s an open-source program that can be tweaked to the needs of professors and students as much as necessary to customize the online courses.

    One of the main objectives of the new program, whatever the choice is, will be to help part-time and off-campus students feel a sense of belonging at PSU, even though they may rarely physically visit the campus, according to Massey, a member of the Advisory Committee on Academic Information Technologies, which has been charged with making the recommendation.

    Nate Angell, director of web communications in University Relations, said that sticking with WebCT would be choosing a company that has a monopoly in the market. The university would be at the mercy of that company, Angell said, should it decide to raise prices.

    WebCT recently merged with Blackboard, a company selling a competing product. Combined, the new company has millions of users, more than 3,650 clients and a large market share that Angell described as a monopoly.

    ”You don’t get the best technology or the best price with a monopoly situation,” Angell said. Another benefit of Samla, he said, was that its open-source program would allow the university to control the future of its technology use, a comment echoed by Massey.

    ”Control of destiny is important,” Massey said. “I imagine Cory Doctorow, who is coming to speak Thursday about copyright, will talk about the idea that if someone else controls what you can do with information, that information is hardly yours at all. With PSU’s online course content locked up in a WebCT system whose future is unknown (especially after the recent purchase by Blackboard), PSU is somewhat at the mercy of the WebCT developers when it comes to price and quality.”

    Doctorow, a novelist and founder of open-source company OpenCola, is coming to Portland state this evening for a free lecture arranged by Massey titled, “What’s the point of copyright?” It will be held at 5 p.m. in the Vanport Room (Smith Memorial Student Union, Room 338).

    Doctorow was not available to answer questions about his upcoming event.

    The new program to replace WebCT should be implemented by next fall if the scheduled planning continues.

    ”This is going to be a well-informed decision,” said Mark Gregory, associate vice president for strategic planning, partnerships and technology, of the work the advisory committee is doing. “I feel good about the process – but there will be winners and losers no matter what we do.”

    PSU Provost Roy Koch and Vice President of Finance and Administration Lindsay Desrochers will review the committee’s findings and make a final decision in February.