Why is one not necessarily cheaper than two

Not unlike many institutions, at some stage in their use of e-learning, CQU finds itself in the perceived position of having two learning management systems (LMS):

  1. Webfuse – a locally produce system; and
  2. Blackboard version 6.3 (yes, that old)

It has taken long for some very logical people to make the observation, “One LMS would be cheaper than two”.

Surely, no-one could argue with that logic?

Well, I’m going to take a stab at it.

That basic argument is, “Yea, one is cheaper than two. But getting there is going to cost a lot of money.”

Then there’s this argument about efficiency from Stephen Downes.

Are they the same?

I live on a farm and we run a few beef cattle. Let’s imagine that we have two cars.

First, let’s imagine we have two Holden Commodores. If we decide we can do without the second one, obviously it’s going to be cheaper. Less running costs etc.

Let’s imagine we have one Commodore for taking the kids around and a cattle truck. Is it cheaper to have one? Not if we still have to transport cattle around.

The assumption at CQU is that Webfuse and Blackboard are both LMSes and they are both the same. I’ve argued in many places (including here) that these two systems are not the same. Some of the things which Webfuse does which Blackboard doesn’t include:

  • Web interface to CQU’s student records system.
  • Assignment extension system
  • Academic misconduct database
  • Results uploading system
  • Blog aggregation management
  • An online assignment submission system/gradebook that actually scales to large classes and integrates with various CQU information systems

If Webfuse were dropped, then there would be an additional cost, either through loss of functionality and/or the cost of replacing the functionality in another system.

You can’t simply do everything in one system in the other. We can’t take cattle to market in the Commodore.

What’s the cost of changing?

Which brings us to the other major problem with the “one would be cheaper” statement.

It’s only cheaper if you drop one (or replace both with another one). The act of doing this is not going to cost free. The lost functionality is one aspect of this argument.

At CQU there are large numbers of staff and students who use both systems. These people have spent time and energy getting to know the system, to know how to workaround their limitations, to figure out how they do what they want to do with these systems.

Moving to another system is going to take them time and energy. It is going to cost money. It may not show up in the bottom line of some budget spreadsheet, but it will cost money.

Plus, if the solution is to drop both existing systems and replace them with a new system. For example, let’s say Sakai. Then the technical and user support staff will also have to throw away all their skills and experience and learn the new system. More cost.

Then there is the cost that while all these folk are learning the new system they won’t actually be able to improve their learning and teaching. They’ll be expending all their limited time and energy learning to re-create what they did before in the new system, before being able to upskill.

Then there is the whole problem with large scale IT projects. They generally fail. Are generally never on-time, on budget or deliver what they promise. They cost and they waste money.

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