Open Source Alternatives for Blackboard & WebCT

As some of you have probably guessed, I often find myself in altercations with my colleagues about open source software, particularly when it comes to the oh-so-exciting-world of learning management systems like Blackboard and WebCT. My basic position is that public universities should think carefully about spending money on commercial software, especially when free open source alternatives exist that can do the job better.

However, is there REALLY a solid and realistic free open source alternative to Blackboard and WebCT? I'm thinking, well, of course there's Tikiwiki, Drupal and various other CMS, but are these packages contain all of the features and ease-of-use as the commercial programs? I have yet to closely examine the open course software packages like Moodle and Open Course. I'm sure there are hundreds of possibilities, but which one is REALLY the best and polished enough to at least make an administrator pause before giving out the old "lack of support/reliability" excuse?

I'm curious to know what your opinions are on this matter. If I were going to propose a university-wide replacement for Blackboard or WebCT, IS there an existing open source content management system that could really do the job, or does such a system still need to be built? I'd also greatly appreciate your advice for persuading administrators (and even colleagues) about the merits of open source solutions and why public universities ought to seriously consider them as alternatives to established commercial packages like Blackboard.



blacklilly, check out the Sakai Project.

Essentially it's the collaboration of MIT, Stanford, U. Michigan and U. Indiana, each contributing coders and beaucoup $$, current funding for the project stands at $6.8 million!!

It's also OKI compliant so it will jive with the MIT/HP DSpace DAM package. These FOSS tools are easily as good as Blackboard/WebCT. I went to a DSpace workshop at Brandeis last month, and they are working on v2.0 for 2005, which will feature, among other things, Creative Commons license validation. Thank god for MIT.

Thanks for the link, Zach. This is exactly the kind of project I was looking for.

Looks like they're using JAVA and JSP. Too bad. I'd really like to see more use made of PHP (since that's the language I'm most experienced with). :-)

this is just a guess, but sakai may be an enterprise class application that is really not meant for a single individual to install and use.

Now that you mention it Charlie, I haven't heard of Sakai mentioned outside of a campus-wide context. It is open source though, and there are two levels of participation:

1) pay nothing and use at will / own risk
2) $10K/year gets the institution tech support, access to conferences, secret handshakes, etc.

There's also Middlebury's Segue project which is LAMP based I think, so you a PHP person might at least be able to extract something useful from it.

Of course Drupal is amazing, and as we all know pretty robust. One aspect of Drupal that has always piqued my interest is that, as I understand it, you can have any PHP code dump into a custom "block," which gets really intersting if you're using MySQL too ...

I'm tempted now to make another post dealing with "CMS in Education: Which is the Best?" The topic came up in another context with one of my friends yesterday; he's asking me which of the oh-so-many CMS systems discussed here would best suit his needs. To be honest, I hadn't even heard of 4/5 the CMSs here, but I did spend some time exploring the matrix and comparing them. This matrix looks Drupal look very favorable, though it didn't make it into any of the "TOP" categories on the frontpage.

I compared Drupal and Tiki...Some interesting facts:

Drupal offers session management; Tiki doesn't. Drupal offers more types of support. Tiki offers quizzes and surveys--Drupal doesn't (but I'm betting you could add some free modules).

Sakai is definitely enterprise-focused with UMich, Indiana, MIT, and Stanford as the core partners. The installation is not bad if you are comfortable with Tomcat and Maven, but if you are looking for an easy to use and install PHP app, I don't think it is what you are looking for.

Sakai should have a public beta available in the next couple of weeks ( It is Java + JSF (Java Server Faces - new presentation layer) + Hibernate + OKI + CHEF Legacy Apps (old UMich CLE) + nice APIs.

But if Blackboard and WebCT (enterprise, campus-wide LMS) are your stated competition, then Sakai seems like the only logical open-source choice.

The best lightweight learning mangement system I have used is Moodle. They have an active developer community and a nice, modular architecture (similar to Drupal's modules).

My institution is in a year-long hunt for CMS and DAM packages that work for us. To quote a member of the senior staff "[sometimes] Colby is so far behind we're ahead" - I think that definitely applies in this case .

There's a team of IT folks here examining options, while I'm on the periphery pitching open source (Drupal, Sakai, DSpace). I can let you know what they end up with if you want -- much of the decision will probably depend on our particular institutional peculiarities, might still be useful info for you, tho. let me know. zechandl at

into custom pages. try the static page node type. if you have the admin permissions set to use php, you should see a switch somewhere to tell drupal to you are posting php instead of html.

i just don't feel like i can say this too often. if institutions would just figure out that joining open source projects means sharing resources--IT development resources with others--and that the larger the community grows--assuming it well managed--the better the product becomes, even resulting in accelerated development. i think that there is a critical mass in education where institutions start to see that and begin joining in.

now when, well that's anybody's guess. LOL

Just out of curiosity, if you were faced with a choice between Blackboard and Microsoft Sharepoint as a LMS for an entire first-year composition program, which would you choose and why?


We've been using it here at Cal State Humboldt for 2 years now, as our alternative to BB.

It's stable, fast, and feature equivalent to Blackboard 6.

And the support is much better, too:-).

I always point this out about Moodle, as people often feel OSS is going to mean less support.

However, our free support from is easily equivalent to what we get with our basic BB license.

And its PHP/MySQL based, with a fairly easy to code for API.

We added integration with our legacy student management system, heavily modified one module based on faculty requests (which is being merged back into the core system) and built several new blocks, in the past few months and our programmers have found it much easier to modify and build modules and components for than the other OSS we've worked with here (DCL, Scout, Postnuke, Xoops, and Xaraya).

Check it out:-).
Michael Penney

Please bear in mind that Blackboard is trying to enforce a patent that they took out in 2000 on the idea of virtual learning environments. Blackboard filed suit in the first patent court case against Desire2Learn at a court in rural Texas, in July 2006. While they say that they are not going after Sakai and Moodle, their patent if defendable, would present a serious threat to continued competition and variety in the LMS world. Please see this Wikipedia page on the history of Virtual Learning Environments / online Learning Management Systems and consider posting anything that you consider to be prior art.