Computer buffs at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have constructed a new portal framework designed to give educational institutions more flexibility in managing both on-campus and distance education programs.

Called Caddie.net, the framework–which schools can download free of charge–supplies basic applications for course management and scheduling, while enabling users to build customized portals designed to meet the specific needs of a particular class or campus organization.

Developers are touting the program as more versatile and easier to use than leading commercial course management solutions, such as those provided by Blackboard Inc. and WebCT. What’s more, they say, the program will save schools money by cutting down on IT costs and streamlining the process of updating web services applications such as campus events calendars, class schedules, and student rosters.

John Williams, a professor of engineering at the university and head of the Caddie.net project, said the idea evolved from a need on campus for more flexible course-management tools and services.

“We discovered there were lots of different kinds of learning events going on around campus that needed support,” Williams said. But given the myriad of teaching styles and diverse needs of students, he said, a single, standardized solution wasn’t likely to give educators the flexibility they desired.

With that in mind, Williams and his band of researchers set out to develop a web-based environment that would make it easy for educators to incorporate their own unique applications and services into existing course-management software.

The result: Caddie.net.

Unlike traditional learning-management-system (LMS) programs, which consist of two blocks of software (an application layer and a database layer), the Web Services architecture employed by MIT is a three-tier system that lets users plug in their own modules and preferences without altering or changing the composition of the original database.

Or, as Williams put it, Caddie.net does not ask educators to conform their ideas to the contours of a single, off-the-shelf solution. Rather, it provides “a platform, or framework, that can be customized to individual needs and preferences,” he said.

For instance, if an instructor were teaching a lesson on computer programming and wanted to organize students into groups to discuss coding, most classroom-management solutions would not provide the capability to create a separate, customizable portal for each individual group–where students could log on to exchange ideas, save their work, and submit projects for grades.

Caddie.net, on the other hand, creates a “portal factory,” where a single course-management database essentially could be connected to thousands of student-operated portals–all with their own unique look and feel, Williams said. The idea is to share centralized course information, while working through separate portals to meet the specific needs of various users.

“A single, integrated database is great if you don’t have to make any changes,” he said. But educators using those types of solutions tend to have “very little control over extending their systems.”

That’s not to say more traditional LMS software soon will become obsolete.

Blackboard executives declined to be interviewed for this story, citing the company’s impending Initial Public Offering of stock, but Chris Vento, executive vice president of research and development and chief technology officer at WebCT, said the products his company offers to schools still far outpace the likes of Caddie.net in terms of functionality, speed, training, service, and support.

WebCT’s course-management solutions boast a number of teaching and learning applications not yet available as part of the Caddie.net model, he said, including a homework tool for students and an assessment metric used to help grade tests, to name two.

Another place MIT makes no attempt to keep up with its commercial competitors is in the area of customer service. Where Caddie.net is available merely for downloading, WebCT’s solutions–which can run from $10,000 to into the six figures, depending on the size of deployment–come staffed with full-service technology personnel whose job is to make sure educators understand how to use the technology, Vento said.

Although an open-source system might be capable of delivering more flexibility because of the number of portals it can support, Vento suggested educators should look at other interoperable products such as WebCT’s Vista 2.0–an eLearning system designed to support the existing structure, operations, and workflow of higher education institutions–in conjunction with Caddie.net.

“The two systems really complement each other,” Vento said. “Vista could serve as an integration hub” for Caddie.net and other solutions, he said, including complex student information systems and school library databases. That way, users could have access to the tools and services available with the WebCT product, even if those services are not yet available with Caddie.net.

“It’s all about adding value,” said Vento, who acknowledged that Caddie.net offers a few values of its own–not the least of which is its ability to provide cross-platform integration of applications.

Designed under an open-source framework, Caddie.net is extremely flexible in terms of the applications and services it will work with, Williams said–meaning an application built for RedHat Linux, for example, could be added to a course management portal supported by Microsoft.Net, the architecture on which Caddie.net is based. (Schools that want to download the beta version of Caddie.net, however, must do so using a Microsoft platform.)

Unlike traditional LMS software, Williams said, the more evolved Web Services framework is hierarchical–an attribute he says could represent significant savings for schools on the back end.

MIT has engineered Caddie.net so that lower-level administrators–secretaries, for example–can be empowered to update and change certain portions of the course database, such as class rosters and event calendars, without having to filter those changes through a higher level technology staffer–someone whose time, Williams said, is generally more expensive.

Under the Web Services model, technology personnel effectively could spend more time writing programs and fulfilling higher level tasks, while empowering educators and administrators to update databases and correlate schedules, he said.

The system does have its share of drawbacks. One problem with Caddie.net–at least, in the near term–is its overall lack of security. Although MIT says it has developed a password-protected application that schools can download to secure different portals and databases, this application is not available as part of the beta version.

Developers said they wanted to make the beta product as transparent as possible, so users could get a sense for how the system operates. Eventually, Caddie.net will include the ability to encrypt all sorts of data–from students’ grades and names to homework assignments–if users so choose.

Schools looking to download the product for widespread use, however, might want to wait for a later version. As with any new technology, Williams said, there have been some complaints about downloading glitches and other problems, which developers say they hope to have resolved when the final version of the product is released some time this summer.

Currently, Caddie.net is being used to manage more than 300 courses at MIT, Williams said. It also has been picked up by Gaukin University, a 15,000-student Japanese university system, and Hibernia College in Ireland.

MIT developed the concept through a grant from Microsoft.

Another for-profit eLearning company, Jones Knowledge, has offered its “e-education” online learning platform to schools free of charge since December 2002. Unlike Caddie.net, however, e-education is designed specifically for creating, administering, and delivering courses online.

Links:

Massachusetts Institute of Technology
http://www.mit.edu

Caddie.net Portal Factory
http://iesl.mit.edu/web/default.aspx

WebCT
http://www.webct.com

Blackboard Inc.
http://www.blackboard.com

Jones Knowledge
http://www.e-education.com