Mode DfES Learning Platform Wisdom

Jul 28, 2006

Miles Berry

an Usher’s Changing the Game blog reproduces in full the latest wisdom from the DfES via the Naace newsletter, this time from Colin Hurd, the “Head of Strategic Technologies”. Colin has thoughtfully outlined the DfES position in relation to Moodle, which in summary is along the following lines:

  1. We are not against Moodle.
  2. Government policy is to consider open source and award contracts on a value for money basis
  3. Becta recognise that open source represents savings in total cost of ownership (qv)
  4. We know open source, particularly Moodle, is popular
  5. Open source software is ‘unlikely’ to be in the framework agreement provision because it’s not supplied by the industry
  6. Schools need learning platforms that are “robust, reliable and cost effective”
  7. Schools shouldn’t be concerned about technical matters, or contribute to the development of open source code
  8. Schools will be free to choose Moodle if it meets the functional requirements and technical specifications and is provided by a “fully supported service provider”.

Ian’s comments are well worth reading, and I see that he’s started a thread about this over on There seems a glaring contradiction here between points 2 and 5 above, especially when you take into account the reference to Becta’s work on TCO savings for open source. I cannot see how they can claim that the only cost effective approach is to pay lots of money to the commercial sector to develop and host learning platforms when many schools, local authorities and even the odd RBC are making use of a freely available and freely adaptable VLE solution which goes far beyond the content delivery focus of Becta’s specification, and doesn’t need to show a return on share holders and venture capitalists investments. The absence of any evidence to back up the DfES’s position is increasingly glaring.

It’s also interesting to note DfES’s advice that the fullest benefit comes from using learning platforms that “can exchange information and provide a robust, reliable and cost effective service”, rather, one imagines, than ones which are built around the needs of teachers and learners themselves, and which can support such radical notions as communication and collaboration within the learner community and greater learner autonomy and voice. Of course, issues about open source reliability are well known, with systems like Linux, Apache and Bind having a very different reputation for crashes, security vulnerabilities and the like than that of Microsoft’s fine products.

Two weeks ago, at Becta/Futurelab’s workshop on innovation (qv), we were happily chatting through all that policy makers like Colin could be doing to encourage a culture of innovation in schools, and yet here we read the message that the “technical burden” should be taken out of schools’ hands, to the one-stop-shop of contracted, aggregated provision, where I imagine the potential contributions of teachers and learners to software that is tailored to their needs will be as welcome as it has been in C2K‘s managed service in Northern Ireland.

Most worrying though is the constraint implied by Colin’s concluding remarks:

if [open source software] meet the functional and technical specifications requirements and are selected as the tool of delivery by any fully supported service provider, then a school is free to choose an OSS, including Moodle-based, service. “

Which is, from a logical perspective, trivially true; however it is certainly not the case that this is an ‘only if’ statement, as the DfES acknowledged three months back in their statement to the industry:

“the mandatory functionalities that industry providers must be able to deliver to be included in the framework agreement do not also serve as a list of functions that schools, procuring from the framework, must purchase in entirety. Schools may choose any combination of functionalities from the mandatory and/or recommended lists to suit their needs. They might even choose functionalities not currently listed, as part of their need or ‘Statement of Requirements …Schools choose/specify. Companies on the framework and companies selling in the general learning platforms market will work to some commonality to provide the school’s requirements.” (emphasis added)

If the bulk of the funding for learning platforms is devolved to school level and not hypothecated, as the DfES have promised, then it will be up to headteachers to decide whether to pay for the service their LA/RBC/Commercial partner provide or to put the money towards the support, training, content and hosting costs involved with an open source solution in house. For many schools, the former solution space will, I’m sure, be quite adequate, but isn’t it important that they get to choose, and perhaps even adapt, the solution that’s best for them?