Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Microsoft, Moodle & Ayers Rock

At the start of June I was invited to Microsoft's HQ in Reading to be shown some developments that the company has made in the area of VLEs/CMSs/Learning Platforms. I mentioned this briefly on Twitter and received a number of responses and direct messages speculating on what this might mean. Some were positive, some were of the "I've heard MS wants to kill Moodle with version nn of Sharepoint" variety, others said "Don't drink the Kool-Aid".

Microsoft, Moodle & us

Our relationship with Microsoft (or at least their products) in Bucks varies - naturally all schools use their products in some form and to varying degrees and prior to our use of Moodle on a significant scale most of the servers at Atomwide (who do our hosting) were, as far as I could tell, MS-based. When we started our Moodle project both our central Moodles & the schools' Moodles were hosted on Microsoft's IIS web servers. When the scale of the project increased, it became apparent that for a number of reasons the Moodle installations weren't running as well as they might have done. Over two years ago I wrote about how we switched to Linux-based servers and, as the project has scaled there appears to be no reason to switch back. The vague “real time reporting to parents” targets will (apparently) be met with a SharePoint-esque integration with Capita’s unweidly, as-open-to-the-rest-of-the-world-as-North-Korean-pop-culture SIMS and any SharePoint integration gives schools another chance to have a whole different set of interactions with parents, or completely confuse staff even further, depending on your point of view.

The (mainly) NDA stuff

So what was the meeting in Reading about? Well, two main subjects, primarily the work that Microsoft have been doing to begin to bring the worlds of SharePoint and Moodle together. It's still NDA, but as a first draft I thought it was an interesting take on things. Also at the meeting in Reading were colleagues from Swansea and Pembrokeshire, who are definitely starting at the other end of the scale from where we are - heavy users of SharePoint who are looking to develop their use of Moodle, whereas we're travelling in the same direction for reasons mentioned above. I can’t go into much detail (all will probably be revealed at some point in the near future), but I think that the Moodle integration & associated tools, though well intentioned, may be based on a model of Moodle use that’s not that widespread in schools. The forums on Moodle.org are a useful place to get support if you are in the developer/pathfinder/early adopter role, but aren’t necessarily the place where a regular teacher would share what they’re doing. Hence, I think the MS approach, while having much to commend it, may need some finessing before it turns into something that a regular Moodler (meaning a teacher in a school) might use in their day-to-day moodling - it may be too based on patterns of use described on the Moodle support forums. Those forums aren't where (for example) teachers in our schools in Buckinghamshire would describe how they were working, but as someone who started experimenting with Moodle before we adopted it it was there that I'd ask questions, but they were definitely asked from a situation where our use of Moodle was in beta - even if the software wasn't, and hence wouldn't be "normal" use cases.
The second part of the meeting (and, if anything can be judged by the amount of time spent on it, the less significant part) was concerned with what is (or was at that time) the forthcoming integration of Microsoft's Live@Edu services plugin for Moodle. Essentially this is a block which, if an institution subscribes to the Live@EDU services or has hosted Exchange servers (as many of our schools do), allows some integration with Moodle (single sign-on). The first thing in many people’s minds when they saw this was probably the MoodleRooms work on combining Google Apps and Moodle. It’s a very fertile area and offers lots of potential for future development – integration of Calendars (with Moodle Calendars, including Assignments, Quizzes and other events) feeding into a user’s Google or Live Calendar via the iCal/RSS-type Calendar feed.

Reading the tea leaves

Microsoft’s relationship with anything Open Source is hard to judge – clearly it has an interest (to put it in the bluntest of terms) in obliterating any Open Source products which compete directly with MS products, or even that operate in an arena that MS thinks it can make serious money in. However, the abundance of free tools from MS’s competitors (some large corporations such as Google, others more niche such as SlideRocket) means that simply taking out (or trying to buy) “competitors” one at a time won’t work any more; for every competitor removed another ten probably exist and are more agile than the one that rolled over and allowed Microsoft to tickle its tummy with a wad of cash. Hence there’s a need to embrace, or offer compatibility with, Open Source projects.
At BETT earlier this year I (nearly literally) bumped into someone from the Microsoft Open Source development lab at the Synergy Learning stand. Now, you may think that any OS development team from Redmond is probably located under the stairs and shares its space with one of those mop buckets on wheels and 50 tins of furniture polish, but I don’t think it’s quite like that. The Microsoft guy was clearly coming out of left-field (he had Moo business cards, not the standard issue MS corporate cards) and was talking about how his (admittedly small) team were looking at optimising things like PHP to run on MS servers (see the performance issues I mentioned above) and the like – stemming from what he saw as the demand from lots of organisations who use MS-based infrastructure to run Moodle simply and efficiently on top of this. MS’s worst nightmare might be that they lost out on the server market due to their systems’ poor performance running tools (like Moodle) that their existing clients wanted to use. The MS guy (if I still had his Moo card I’d namecheck him) was keen on Moodle and Mahara – but mainly keen that they ran on MS servers, which fits in with the model that Microsoft would want to go for large scale licensing rather than the odd school using MS servers here and there (would the larger scale model sit well within BSF, or would a smaller one be better? I'm not sure...).
This all seems like good news if you’re in to Moodle and the like – however, my mind keeps coming back to what a trusted contact told me about what a Microsoft rep said as part of a BSF planning process elsewhere in the UK – that Microsoft wanted to destroy Moodle and its like using SharePoint, that well known, pedagogically founded (don’t start me on that…), not derived from an office-app tool.
In my experience its very easy to find different faces of a large corporation saying completely different things – so I can sit in a room in Reading with some guys from Seattle who say that they embrace Moodle, while someone else hears in a BSF meeting that the Master Plan is to do away with the same. Meanwhile, I’m assured by a senior MS UK person that the presence of the guys from Seattle means that the local rep in the BSF meeting must be wrong – but will anyone tellthe rep, or has he maybe blurted out something he shouldn't have ? I’d see it that the guys from the States have recognised that the thing that they once categorised as a weed – invasive, alien to their plot of land, to be eliminated at all costs – actually brings diversity and colour to their monocultured, industrially farmed plot – whereas the local rep in the BSF meeting is still reading last year’s instructions from his chief gardener, promising that your lawn will be perfectly green and uniform (or probably covered with perfectly graded gravel) with a liberal application from the big green spray can labelled SharePoint.

Uluru on the horizon

Image by mingzhuxia used under a Creative Commons licenseSpeaking of which, a few indicators on the internet give another angle on what might be Microsoft's genuine view of Moodle - more like an annoying insect to be swatted away. Read that quote at the top of this post again - "I've heard MS wants to kill Moodle with version nn of Sharepoint". Now, if you recall, the local UK response is "Nope" - but then I had an interesting conversation with someone at the recent Open Source Schools conference. "Google Uluru" he said, "it's Microsoft's attempt to kill Moodle". Now, of course if you Google/Bing search for "uluru" you'll find your results dominated by Ayers Rock - Uluru is the Aboriginal name for this. So, a little more digging is required. Doing this finds the following:
So, what to surmise? Uluru is (in my mind) a direct like-for-like Moodle replacement which ties tightly into Sharepoint for those who are too scared to run anything which isn't Microsoft badged (Moodle) - or, from MS's point of view, those who might do and might end up exploring other server technologies (e.g. OSS) and dent MS's revenue stream - which would obviate the need for the MS guy with the Moo cards and his team since, as Blackadder would say, "Satan will skate to work" before Sharepoint runs on any OS other than Microsoft's latest one. I would imagine that Uluru would feature Silverlight heavily (or as a "value-added" option - "use Silverlight and you'll get a better experience") as Microsoft needs to increase the use of Silverlight, which currently doesn't register on many users' lists of core tools for a good online experience. Oh, and Uluru is a codename, just like all commercial tools have codenames while they're in beta/alpha, so "part of Sharepoint" or "Sharepoint Learning Environment" will be a better approximation.
So, what exactly is Microsoft's view on Moodle? I guess the answer is "that depends on who you talk to". Maybe the rep at the BSF meeting knows the true story (the "eliminate at all costs" view) and blurted it out, maybe the team from Seattle represent another view (that Moodle is something to be embraced) - certainly the work they've put in seems to suggest it. What do you think? If you've used Uluru and know Moodle, what's your point of view?

No comments:

Post a Comment