CIO John Dubach has made the formal announcement about our new LMS system to replace the current Blackboard Vista system we call SPARK:

To the Amherst campus faculty:

I am writing today with information concerning an important change the campus will be making in its instructional technology over the next two years. As outlined in previous emails, the Blackboard company will
cease support for the current system behind SPARK, Blackboard Vista, in January 2013. Over the past seven months, a committee of faculty and staff has been evaluating options for the next learning management system (LMS) on campus. Based on their evaluations and further discussion in Academic Affairs and OIT, the Provost and I have decided that UMass Amherst will move to Moodle, an open-source LMS, over the next two years.

While recognizing that the transition to Moodle will be more complicated than moving to the alternative Blackboard product for both the faculty and the support staff, I believe Moodle better positions the campus for the longer timeframe. We did well in WebCT and its derivatives for approximately fifteen years, but the direction Blackboard has taken does not, in my opinion, offer a strong positive future relative to the needs of the campus. Moodle offers us opportunities for more local control and innovation. To use a geographic analogy, I see moving to the Blackboard product as moving deeper into a “box canyon”; going to Moodle may require some effort to get out of the canyon now, but will place us on a more expansive fertile plain for future benefit.

SPARK currently supports more than 1,100 instructors working in over 2,100 classes involving more than 23,000 students (each of whom likely is taking several SPARK classes). Converting to an open-source product such as Moodle will be a lengthy and complex project, requiring some reorganization within Academic Computing and elsewhere in OIT as well as the establishment of new oversight and advisory procedures. We are in the process of developing a transition plan and hope to be able to put out at least the first steps in such a plan to the campus over the next few weeks. Fred Zinn and Bo Mack of OIT will be leading the transition with Fred focusing on the application and Bo on the technical underpinnings.

Blackboard Vista will remain in service until the end of Fall 2012. In Spring 2011, OIT will operate a very limited pilot in Moodle to assess its features and determine what needs to be adjusted in order for it to match, and in some cases surpass, the features of the current Blackboard Vista system. Faculty interested in participating in the pilot and evaluations should contact Fred Zinn via email at Updates on the pilot and the development process will be posted on the Future LMS blog

I recognize the continuing concern over possible divergence of direction between the campus and UMassOnline (UMOL) regarding choice of LMS platforms. Unfortunately, we felt the urgency to make a decision for the campus did not allow us to await completion of UMOL’s review. I am confident that UMOL understands the dilemma of faculty who wish to teach in both systems so that, whatever direction UMOL takes regarding a LMS, they will work closely with us to make the transition between those worlds as seamless as possible.

Finally, I want to take this opportunity on behalf of the Provost and myself to thank the Future LMS Committee for their efforts in our review of LMS possibilities. We recognize the magnitude of the effort and also feel that the level of review was appropriate and highly informative.

John Dubach
Chief Information Officer

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