Trunk: Tufts’ Open Source Solution

This fall, students who open the familiar Tufts University home page will see something a little different. The “Tool Kit” feature still includes links to Tufts webmail, SIS, and Tufts libraries, but the bar that used to read “Blackboard” now reads “Trunk.” This seems like a very small change, and, to many students, professors posting information and assignments on Trunk instead of Blackboard is probably insignificant. So what, exactly, is the difference between the old Blackboard and the new Trunk? The short answer is that the Tufts Learning Management System (LMS) team sees one as an “end-of-life product moving quickly toward deprecation” and the other as a “professional environment [in which] to experience the most forward-thinking conversations.” The even shorter answer is: open source.
The long answer is somewhat more complicated; there are multiple differences between Blackboard and Trunk, just as there are multiple reasons for the switch. Rebecca Sholes, Senior Faculty Development Consultant for Trunk, explains, “We had to switch because the version that the school was using was going to be discontinued.” This explains the LMS team’s branding of Blackboard as an “end of life” product—the program literally was at the end of its life. But there are other, different versions of Blackboard that Tufts could have chosen for its online communication and information sharing system; and yet, the LMS Committee chose to go in a very different direction. This is how Tufts University made the jump into open source.
Open-source systems like Sakai, the one that Trunk is built upon, offer advantages that closed systems like Blackboard lack. For a long time, Blackboard had the majority of US universities using their system (66% in 2008, according to the Campus Computing Project), but, in recent years, this began to change. An article in a 2008 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education focused on why this shift was taking place. Unsurprisingly, the reasons highlighted in that article are the reasons that, since 2008, open-source systems have grown even more popular.
First, the most obvious benefit of open-source systems is that they are free. When Tufts used Blackboard, the school needed to pay for the licensing for the system. Open-source systems like Sakai, on the other hand, are completely free. This doesn’t mean that transferring information to the system, adapting the system to the university, and paying people to develop and update it, are free. But with Blackboard, those things cost money, and the licensing did, too. In the 2008 article, Scott Hardwick, assistant director of information-technology services on Louisiana State’s Shreveport campus, explained, “had we continued paying what Blackboard wanted us to pay, it probably would have been $100,000 a year,” but with their open-source system, the school paid only about $5,000 a year. Though the Trunk platform has a lot of special features geared toward Tufts that cost extra to build and maintain, Rebecca Sholes still cites the lower expense as one of the reasons for the switch to the Sakai platform.
Another advantage the university sees to open source is the opportunity for innovation. Sholes explains, “the [Sakai] platform can really be customized to meet the needs of Tufts…the system can be evolved and grow unlike Blackboard, which was a finite, closed system.” This ability to grow and expand is what draws many schools and other organizations to open-source systems. With Sakai, in 10 years Tufts won’t be facing the problem of obsoleteness that it faced after 10 years with Blackboard. The Sakai platform will continue to grow and expand as its thousands of contributors design new codes and share them with one another. Sholes thinks that, “a key piece of Trunk’s functionality is communication, which is going to be very important in the future.”
The LMS Advisory and Core Teams that wrote the strategy for implementing Trunk agree with this focus on the future. “Investing in [Sakai] ensures that we will be able to attract and retain skillful staff to support this service ongoing,” the strategy outline reads, “and means that the staff who work at Tufts will gain and use broadly respected skills, knowledge, and practices.”
In this case, “broadly respected” actually means “respected worldwide.” The Sakai platform is used at over 350 institutions around the world, including Yale, Oxford, Columbia, Cornell, and schools in Limerick, Cape Town, Toronto, Stockholm, Hong Kong, Glasgow, Guatemala, Madrid, and Cairo. It is also used by non-educational institutions such as the United States Department of Defense.
Starting this year, the customized version of Sakai known as Trunk will be implemented at the Tufts School of Arts and Sciences, School of Engineering, the Fletcher School, and Tisch College. These schools are the first to use the new system because they were those previously using Blackboard Basic. Other Tufts schools use different systems, so, while their need for change isn’t as imperative, the ultimate goal is to have university-wide use of Trunk by 2014.
While some students and staff may take a while to get adjusted to the new system, it is easy to recognize all the benefits that the Sakai platform offers. And while that little bar on our homepage that now reads “Trunk” may seem insignificant, it actually represents Tufts embracing the innovation of open source. O

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