A handful of leading universities have developed a new consortium to raise awareness and increase the use of a free, open-source software platform for managing courses, content, collaboration, and online learning.

The software, known as .LRN (“dot-learn”), was originally developed for use at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). It is a completely free, open-source application suite and development platform reportedly capable of: managing course syllabi, calendars, and class lists; offering community support tools such as surveys, polls, bulletin boards, and file storage; and managing learning and content with assessment tools and testing modules.

“Any institution, whether a K-12 school or institution of higher education, that is unable to get or unable to afford what it needs from a commercial [product] should look at .LRN,” said Cesar Brea, a member of the board of directors for the .LRN Consortium.

MIT’s Sloan School of Management embraced the open-source .LRN platform, which has been used to enroll more than 10,000 students.

Through a largely grassroots effort, 25 major universities and 250,000 students worldwide use .LRN so far to support the learning process.

“The consortium is a formal, not-for-profit program to raise awareness and to raise money to develop the software faster than a pure grassroots process,” Brea said. By establishing a formal consortium, organizers hope to reach more people sooner.

The MIT Sloan School of Management, which has been using .LRN since 2001, runs nearly all of its classes and clubs on .LRN under a project known as SloanSpace. SloanSpace has become Sloan School’s primary means of providing class management and community support. It receives about 1,250 log-ins per day and has enrolled more than 10,000 student and faculty users.

Although MIT has spent roughly $500,000 to deploy and maintain .LRN, the project reportedly has cost only one-quarter of the total price that would have been charged by a commercial software provider.

“We have benefited tremendously by utilizing .LRN as a central element of our educational technology infrastructure in the MIT Sloan School,” said Steven D. Eppinger, a professor, deputy dean, and chair of the Educational Technology Task Force at the MIT Sloan School.

“It integrates course management with collaboration support for online communities. We have been pleased with the flexibility and cost-effectiveness that .LRN has afforded us so far,” Eppinger said. “We look forward to seeing its further innovations.”

In addition to the online communities, Sloan’s professors use .LRN as their platform for publishing course content, posting events, collaborating in team areas, and running simulations.

Cost and flexibility are the top reasons schools should consider using .LRN, said Al Essa, chief of the information office at MIT Sloan School of Management.

“.LRN provides tools and capability to meet the needs of an entire community. Equivalent commercial systems are cost-prohibitive. .LRN is the largest and most successful open-source project that delivers [community learning],” Essa said.

Nearly 40 application modules of the .LRN system are reportedly deployed at two dozen universities and research organizations on five continents. Some of these applications include content aggregation, content syndication among universities, learning simulations, bulletin-board discussion groups, assessment, web logs, and class notes.

The University of Bergen in Norway, for example, uses .LRN to power its student portal–an online place where students can access their schedules, store files, and read and post messages for their courses. Galileo University, in Guatemala, chose .LRN for its ability to scale and grow with the school’s needs. At Galileo, .LRN handles all aspects of assignments, grading, discussion groups, bulk eMail, and calendaring.

Built on OpenACS (Open Architecture Community System), .LRN runs on Linux, but it could also run on a number of applications, Brea said. Schools can change and adapt the software specifically to their needs–and it’s also available and used in multiple languages.

Enterprise versions of .LRN, such as those made by WebCT Inc. and Blackboard Inc., tend to be more expensive because they have to balance profits with development costs. “Institutions here are not trying to make a buck. They are trying to develop what they need,” Brea said.

.LRN is an initiative separate from another MIT-related eLearning program that eSchool News reported on in April. (See “MIT develops free course-management platform.”) There are some small firms that offer support for .LRN in the same way RedHat and other firms support Linux, Brea said.

Links:

.LRN Consortium

MIT’s Sloan School of Management http://mitsloan.mit.edu