open source courseware

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I have spent most of this weekend wrestling my course materials into the proprietary courseware framework that our university has invested in. The system, called Prometheus, boasts what may be the all-time worst user interface I've had the displeasure of working with in many years.

I'm taking the time to do this because, in my experience, criticism of a bad system is only taken seriously when the person doing the criticisim has made a good-faith effort to learn and use the system. So I'm using our Prometheus-based "myCourses" system to support both of my classes this quarter--one on-campus, one distance-learning.

So far, we're off to a bad start. Simple things that I ought to be able to do aren't possible at all--from moving a reading from one course meeting slot to another, to creating custom dropboxes for file submissions. The labels for sections and tasks are counter-intuitive, and the entire system seems to have been designed without regard for the user's needs (at least the faculty user...we'll have to see what my students say). While some of the Prometheus system is apparently customizable by "IT Administrators" at a given school, none of it appears to be customizable by the actual people who have to use it. I can't make it less ugly. I can't fix the UI problems. I have almost no control over the look-and-feel, which is a very large part of the overall "online classroom" experience.

It's the equivalent of being asked to teach all my classes in a dark, dingy basement classroom, with no control over lights, desk locations, etc. Sure, the "institution" has the ability to change it. But as the instructor, I don't. Blech.

What's worse, however, is that I realized after I was done that there's no way for me to make any of the course information publicly accessible--something I've always done with my syllabi. While there are some aspects of the courseware--like the testing and grading functions--that should be private, those are the exceptions. I resent using a system that won't let me share the basic information about the class with anyone who's interested.

Last year, I started building a PHP/mySQL system to generate my syllabi. You can see it in action with my web database, xml, and web design syllabi from earlier this year. But I can't show you this quarter's thesis prep or intro to multimedia courses, because they're hidden inside our proprietary system.

Why isn't there an open-source courseware package that's as easy to use and customizable as something like Movable Type??? Is that so very much to ask? I did some poking around tonight, and didn't find anything that really excited me. This is not rocket's a customized content management system (CMS) application. People make them all the time.

(Interestingly, Prometheus started out as home-grown "community source" software at GWU, but was purchased by Blackboard, a commercial competitor.)

Is there something great out there that I don't know about? If so, I'd love a pointer. And if not, I guess I need to start fleshing out my little homegrown system, and looking for people to work with me on it to make it more robust and usable in multiple contexts.

11 TrackBacks

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ugh, I had to use blackboard from the student side, it was pretty horrible. The system we had was hosted by blackboard, and even things like the server being up were not assumed. There was always a paper test just in case, a precaution which often proved necessary.

Here here, Liz.

Blackboard and WebCT have a stranglehold on academic CMS. I've talked with Ed. Tech @ UR, and they have pointed out that while the interface for WebCT and similar programs *stinks*, it is standard and easier to come into cold than HTML etc--so they see it as an improvement. I too wonder why there is no open-source version to speak of, because 1) the options now STINK and 2) there is to me an ethical conundrum in required corporate structures within the classroom (one reason why I encourage RTF files over DOC files--to avoid promoting Microsoft--though I do use Word's comment feature if I'm sure the student is using Word).


I worked on Harvard Business School's proprietary courseware work and have experienced Prometheus when I worked at Stanford Graduate School of Business. Courseware software is some of the most sophisticated and complex software there is. Much more to it than is apparant at first glance.

We have Webct and a proprietary system called CLE, and what I do is put most of the course material on my regular web space and just use Webct for the things that it particularly can do (and that probably should be private) like a discussion board, surveys, and grade distribution. I just put links from one to the other and it doesn't seem to be a problem (except reaching the limits the university puts on our web space). I put lecture notes on the web, and I do want them to be permanently available to the world (you can find them from the syllabi listed at )

Shelley, I know full-blown courseware is a non-trivial implementation. But I don't think it's any more complex than, say, a full-blown OS (like Linux), or a full-blown RDBMS (like mySQL).

I want courseware that lets me (a) separate content and presentation, and (b) differentiate between public and private material.

Pem, that's exactly what I did for a while. But I'd like a single integrated environment if possible. I want to be able to easily share my course materials with other instructors, based on an object-oriented approach (rather than copy and paste from page to page).

I've been putting my materials on the web for the six years I've been here--that's not hard to do. But making that information object-oriented, re-usable (for me and colleagues), and easy to maintain is a different thing entirely.

I was a good citizen when our ITS got Blackboard, and used it for a while. I'm done with that. It's too kludgy for almost everything, and it gets in the way of my main purpose in putting syllabi in HTML in the first place, which is to open-source my syllabi. I'll use it only as an integrated bulletin board and chat if I have a course where I'm going to do that.

Both Blackboard and WebCT are badly designed, and the main reason is backwards-compatibility. I'd love to see something like Moveable Type for courses spring up, but there are some basic problems. Not only do Blackboard and WebCT have the market sewn up, but any course-design software is going to have to be integratable with administrative computing systems, most of which are archaic and difficult to use.

Without basic problems, there's no justification for a grant money and graduate assistantships. :-)

I do think, however, that it's possible to build good courseware that doesn't interface with administrative systems. That can be a second stage. I'd be perfectly happy with something that lets me build object-oriented course materials, and share those materials selectively.

But Liz, the market differs. There's a huge market, and interest, in a database or OS, and therefore lots of people willing to work the problem. College courseware generates, as you can imagine, a lot less interest.

However, if you follow this link at SourceForge, you'll see some open source efforts --

UWE, where I study and teach, has four CMSs going. Blackboard, WebCT as well as two home-grown ones. Needless to say, it is a complete mess.

One of the homegrown ones is even worse than Blackboard or WebCT while the other homegrown one is a massive system implemented by a single 'mad genius' who no longer works for UWE.

It's completely undocumented so we can't update it or fix its bugs.

The end result is that nobody uses any of the CMSs unless they really have to. I'd suggest that we scrap all four and implement a new one in python and Zope but this subject is so heavily politicised here that getting involved in any way is guaranteed to get you into trouble.

Bah. Bureaucracies.

Shelley, I think there's a pretty big market of college teachers who are frustrated and unhappy with their current options for courseware.

I'm going to poke around the sourceforge stuff. I had looked at "whiteboard," which didn't look exactly like what I want. There may be other things that are a good starting point. Thanks for the pointer.

What I don't want to do is fall into the trap of thinking that if it could be done well, it's already been done--too often, that's not the case. Or that the big companies are always able to do the job better...MS proves that wrong on a regular basis. :-)

David Carter-Tod runs the Serious Instructional Technology blog which would cover this very subject. I'm not actually in academia anymore (having recently graduated) so I don't know the practical merits of anything mentioned there. I finished up my classes at the beginnings of WebCT deployment at my school, and as a TA everything I did was handmade.

I think the question really is: what do we want from courseware?

More significantly, what needs do we have that can't be satisfied by just cut-and-pasting a syllabus into Dreamweaver? I feel like I'd like to see a list of the needs that people imagine they have before I have some sense of what kind of software we're all wishing for.

Oh, a wish list is easy (for me). Some of what I want I already have in the php/mysql app that built my syllabi this past fall and winter:

* single template for design of syllabi, so that I only have to change one thing for the appearance to update
* basic info for the quarter--office hours, office location, contact info, add/drop dates--stored in one place, rather than on each static page
* an easy way to associate readings (links) with topics, and topics with class meeting dates--and rearrange the order of readings and topics as needed
* readings and topics for a given class stored separately from the class, so they can be re-used without duplication

I got most of that working for my syllabi, which made it really easy to have everything on one php template page, automatically generated tables of course meetings/topics/readings, etc. But it was a single-user system, with some rough edges (due to time constraints).

What I'd really like to add to that functionality would be:

* ability to re-use components (course desc/objectives, topics, readings) across multiple sections of a course taught by different instructors
* addition of features like messaging and/or discussion forums
* easy ability to import list of students for a course (from a tab-delimited file), and then use that information to quickly form and post info about groups online
* file-upload capability, so that I can create "dropboxes" for assignments and have them automatically renamed with student name and filed under appropriate directory

That's my off-the-top-of-my-head wishlist. I don't particularly care about tying into administrative systems, as long as I can easily import a tab-delimited list of students/IDs/email.

Will think about this some more, and still plan on looking at what's already out there.

Matthew--just took a look at "Serious Instructional Technology", and there's some great stuff there. Thanks for the pointer!

GPL'd Courseware:


Knowledge Environment for Web-based Learning (KEWL)

I haven't used either of these, but there are files available for download. There are many other courseware projects at SourceForge that seem to have sputtered out of existence before producing any files. A dedicated person could round all these folks up for another try or to contribute to one of the above. Just search for "courseware" on



I did take a look at sourceforge, and didn't find anything I liked. Whiteboard didn't do it for me, and KEWL is done in ASP, which I really don't care for.

But rounding folks up for a collaborative project makes a lot of sense.

For OS e-learning platforms go to opensourcecms where you will find Claroline and Moodle demos.

Hi, you can see a comparative analysis of open source course management systems on the site at There are others still to go in to the site - the mostly complete list of ones that I know about is at

I really like your wish list. I'm not sure you are going to find any single one of the existing open source ones that would address it, but some of the ZOPE based ones could probably be extended in those directions.

Gunnar and Scott, thanks. Will take a look later today at the sites you list.

I'm encouraged by the number of comments on this thread, and the interest/ideas that have been expressed!

For something simple and Linux based (PHP/mySQL)- have a look at An Australian based open source product. I am using it in a simplified manner in the development of Emergency Management programs.



"without the learner - you have no training" Nov 2001

Since the last few months I have been keeping a list
of Free and Open Source CMS's. I'm not going to post them here, because there are 67 of them. Perhaps you find something usefull.

You can find them here directly:

Middlebury College has developed a (soon to be, or at least intending to be) open-source course management system modeled on blogging software. Info is at . You can try it out using a guest login they provide.

My university uses its own course content management system, based in part on Prometheus but modified by the academic computing people to meet the needs of faculty and students.

I think the userface is ugly (utilitarian and uninspiring), and I have a vague sense that the options are very limited (if there is a way to customize features, I don't know about). But my inability to be more specific probably points to one of the main reasons why the system isn't better than it is.

A lot of faculty (myself included) haven't a clue about any of this. I think I am more web-ready than a lot of faculty I know, and yet I am shockingly ignorant of the basics (though perhaps just aware enough to know just how ignorant). I am talking about the humanities, of course it will be different in other areas. But I know many faculty who use email every day, but who don't even know how their accounts are set up (e.g., pop or imap?) and who barely register which email program they are using. They get academic computing to set them up, and they don't notice anything until something goes wrong, at which point they call academic computing to solve the problem.

If there are large number of faculty who will use the system without having even a basic grasp of its setup, then perhaps the system must be clunky and non-customizable and basically aimed at the lowest common denominator? And those running the sytem will not receive the kind of feedback from actual users that they would need in order to improve and refine the system (someone who doesn't know the difference between imap and pop is probably not in a position to offer useful suggestions).

I am sure this will change as more faculty become comfortable with computing and web technologies. But for the moment, I suspect the limited options of these course content systems has to do with the fact that they are designed to be used by people who haven't a clue what they are doing.

Maybe I am wrong about this (again, I don't know enough, barely know anything, to have a grasp on this). But would it possible to have a content management system that offered lots of customizable features for those who knew what they are doing, while at the same time providing a really simple and simplified interface for those who are clueless?

I'm the chair of the User Advisory Board for an Open Source CMS called dotLRN. Originating out a partnership between MIT's Sloan School of Business and the developer community for an Open Source web application toolkit called OpenACS (

Although dotLRN has been in production for the entire Sloan School of Business for a year now, we are still preparing for the release of what we'll officially call Version 1.0, tentatively due out over the Summer.

My personal assessment of where we are with the project right now is that the underlying architecture is truly outstanding but that the user interface still needs a lot of work and the feature list still has a few significant gaps in it. (For example, if you do online testing, we don't have the functionality for that yet.)

Now is the time when we on the dotLRN project would find your input especially useful. We need your gripes, your wishlists, and your questions. If you are interested in helping us out, you can read about dotLRN and then post your thoughts and questions to

I would be profoundly grateful for your input. If you want to get a sense of the personal philosophy regarding online learning that I hope our (new) User Advisory Board will come to embody, here are a few columns that I've written on related topics:

Thanks in advance for your input; we really could use your help.


Take a look at Moodle ( or Ganesha ( Ganesha is in French but is excellent.

For a more academic approach, take a look at UPortal (

For the grandaddy list of CMS/LMS software, check out this page:

Surely one of these 235 systems will suit your needs. The only problem with this page is that the opensource/freeware stuff isn't marked so you'll have to slog through a lot of web sites.

Some other open source stuff I've seen:

Spaghettilearning -
Claroline -
Classweb -
Eledge -
Manhattan Virtual Classroom -
Collaboraid -
Bazaar -
Bodington -
Mimerdesk -
MainlineWiki -
ATutor -

Some free systems:

Jones Knowledge e-education -
Xtention - (ASP, sadly)

Good luck!

We are coming with three pieces of technology that should help the higher ed marketplace:
1-A tool that xtracts PPT files to wellformed XML at the object level and seemlessly upload the files into certain LMS's. Then the PPT(slides & objects within) is searchable and reusable. This is ready today.
2-Desktop authoring tool that is as powerful as director, but much easier to use than PPT. All push button commands, even to add video, audio, or effects. It includes a plug-in architecture for testing and assessment. The output is XML and a media player that can play the XML back
3-A browser based tool that has most of the functionality of the deaktop tool




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This page contains a single entry by Liz Lawley published on March 10, 2003 12:21 AM.

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