Features: June 4th, 2010

By Ray Lawrence

The search for efficiency savings is boosting the use of e-learning which has now become an established part of the public sector training scene. The cost of e-learning can be further reduced by using open source software, which unlike propriety software, does not involve the payment of licence fees. The author explains the benefits of e-learning and shows how public bodies have applied it successfully.

Open source software is becoming increasingly popular, indeed researchers Gartner project that by 2012, 90 percent of the world’s companies will be using it(i). And it’s not just businesses that are embracing it, many local authorities are exploring open source software in a bid to ensure their IT applications are flexible enough to meet their exact requirements and, of course, to save considerable amounts of money on licence fees associated with proprietary software. Open source can be defined as “both the concept and practice of making program source code openly available. Users and developers have access to the core designing functionalities that enable them to modify or add features to the source code and redistribute it. Extensive collaboration and circulation are central to the open source movement(ii). ”

Support for open source software in public sector

In 2005 the government-backed Open Source Academy project launched to encourage the use of open source software by local authorities; UKGovOSS now follows in its footsteps. In February 2009 the Government gave an official commitment to increase the use of open source software through the public sector in its Action Plan for Open Source in February 2009. The Government’s draft report on Open Source, Open Standards and Re-use said that ‘By 2011, public bodies will store and share records of their approval and use of Open Source software on the G-Cloud. The Government Applications Stores will hold Open Source solutions that are available for reuse in the public sector and by 2015 public bodies will review existing solutions available before going to market for new solutions(iii). ’

On the training and development side, open source learning management system Moodle is proving popular in commercial organisations, government and schools, and increasing use of elearning can help local authorities to move towards efficiency savings demanded by HM Treasury. A 2009 survey by UKGovOSS(iv) found that 64 percent of respondents thought councils should increase their use of open source software, with around half saying that their council planned to increase its use of open source by 2011. 75 percent identified cost as the driver for the changeover with software licensing costs alone representing 30-40 percent of some councils’ IT budgets.

Reducing costs

A BECTA report into costs of open source software (OSS) in schools(v)found that the annual total cost per PC was less for nearly all the open source software schools at both primary and secondary school levels. For OSS schools, cost per PC at primary school level was half that of non-OSS schools, and cost per PC at secondary school level was around 20% less than that of the non-OSS schools. Annual support costs in individual OSS schools varied widely, but on average were 50–60% of those of their non-OSS counterparts, except OSS secondary schools which had slightly higher costs for informal support.

Reasons for uptake of open source software
The five most important factors in councils’ decision to choose open source are(vi) :
• Lower cost
• No supplier dependency
• Functionality
• Easier to adopt
• Customisation

Open source software available ranges from databases to security tools, social software and CRM to project management. Using open source software such as Moodle to facilitate online training is particularly attractive for the five reasons listed plus it is continually updated and improved thanks to contributions and suggestions from its active and sizeable user community of 33 million(vii). The most sophisticated content management systems (CMS) such as Moodle now include Web 2.0 applications such as blogs, quizzes, forums and wikis as well as links to files and webpages. Currently a significant number of CMS are used primarily as repositories for content rather than being used to their full potential, but the next phase will certainly be to embrace these additional options.

Moodle is free to download and free to use and users can modify or extend Moodle to suit the needs of their organisation. It needs to be installed on a web server at the organisation’s premises or a web hosting company and is simply accessed by end users using their web browser such as Internet Explorer or Firefox.

Moodle is designed to be flexible and has a host of features available to users who can tailor it to the exact needs of their organisation. Modules on Moodle include:
• Assignments
• Calendars
• Content
• Forums and chat
• Monitoring activity
• Option to add newsfeeds to the site
• Questionnaires
• Quizzes and choices
• Resource links
• Wikis

Lincolnshire County Council’s experience with Moodle
Lincolnshire County Council invested in a hosted Moodle site in September 2008 to support its strategy of making better use of learning technologies. The Council’s senior organisational learning and development officer, Wendy Henry, says, “We spent a considerable time getting to grips with the Moodle functionality however we never really felt like confident Moodle users. I contacted consultants HowToMoodle after I met one of their customers at a Learning Technologies day and they expressed how confident they were in the use of their Moodle site.” The council took tailored course creator training from HowToMoodle based on the set-up of its Moodle site. A further consultancy day covered how to administer the site effectively. Wendy continued, “We really benefited from knowing more about Moodle to make informed decisions and we are now more confident in the use of Moodle.”

Other HowToMoodle customers in local government include: Colchester Hospital University NHS Foundation Trust, Kent Fire and Rescue Service, Leicester City Council and Newcastle-Under-Lyme Borough Council. Use of Moodle in schools, further and higher education, and government organisations such as NHS and fire service is widespread.

Tips on how to make the most of Moodle
To ensure smooth adoption:
• Deploying resources – create a central place where your trainees and educators can create, manage and coordinate resources such as PDFs and video clips.
• Assessments – CMS are fantastic tools for testing for areas such as compliance requirements. Moodle offers a complete suite of tools that takes away the administrative grind and makes it a fun and interesting and convenient experience for learners and trainers.
• Better collaboration and communication – use tools such as wikis and forums.

To introduce elearning:
• Talk to experts in the elearning field – including those who’ve implemented and consultants
• Talk to your trainers and trainees before implementation, to get them on-side
• Introduce elearning in pockets first
• Don’t be afraid to review your course or methods regularly

Ray Lawrence is Director of training and consultancy business at HowToMoodle www.howtomoodle.com

(i) Schwartz, J (16 September 2008) ‘Personal view: markets set free by open source’ www.ft.com
(ii) Lakhan S, Jhunjhunwala K (2008) ‘Open Source Software in Education’ Educase Quarterly No 2
(iii) http://ukgovoss.org/2009/12/02/open-source-and-the-draft-uk-government-it-strategy/ 30/11/09
(iv) Open or Closed? A survey of open source software in local government. Public Sector Forums. August 2009.
(v) Open Source Software in Schools. A study of the spectrum of use and related ICT infrastructure costs May 2005. BECTA.
(vi) ibid
(vii) http://moodle.org/stats/ March 2010