Setting a Mood in Adult Education

Studying BSD Unix

On June 4th 2006, Continuing Professional Education at NJIT begins a new program in Open Source Unix certification targeted at an under-employed adult population segment in Essex County, New Jersey.

This certification program has been offered since 2002 in both classroom and online versions, but this is the first time it has been delivered in a hybrid format to a specifically targeted audience using Moodle as the learning management system.

Based on the open source FreeBSD operating system, the program has three sequential segments: Introduction to Unix, Unix Administration I and Unix Administration II. Upon the successful completion of all three program segments, the students are issued a Certificate in Open Source Unix that is both issued by NJIT and endorsed by the FreeBSD Foundation. The expected completion time of the program is 6 months.

Moodle was chosen as the LMS over WebCT and Sakai because of its ease-of-use, and it's highly customizable interface: not its availability as "free" software. NJIT already licenses WebCT and uses it almost exclusively to deliver both credit and non-credit distance learning courses, but its rigid administrative environment was not well-suited to serve this curriculum to the population studying the certification track. While I have installed the Sakai demo, the production version and a customized port of Sakai to the FreeBSD platform, the time required to install the production version and customize the port (and in the future to maintain the custom installation), removed it as a realistic candidate to support the types of courses I'm teaching and the students enrolled in those courses.

The true cost of using any LMS cannot be measured in licensing fees, alone. WebCT is expensive LMS software, but it comes with some level of commercial support which can't be ignored in the online classroom environment. Many instructors have neither the time nor the skills to hack around with software installations to solve technical problems or add/modify features of the delivery system. For those instructors, an on-staff administrator/ programmer is necessary to support an open source LMS and the expense of employing an administrator/programmer with those skills must be factored into any institutional-wide deployment of that type of software. While WebCT at NJIT also requires an on-staff administrator, it is not an exclusive position, but a task that is managed by a staffer who has other responsibilities as well.

We were able to bypass some of the administrative concerns of using Moodle as our LMS because I am both the author/instructor of these course materials and a Unix system administrator. I have the skills to build, test, administer and maintain an open source LMS, and that probably makes me an atypical course instructor. And while I am an advocate of open source software solutions, I recognize the challenges of implementing those solutions in a production quality commercial education environment. Open source software should never solely be chosen based on its free licensing structure. There are costs in every deployment.


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