City Colleges questioning spendy software

  • By Peter Sachs
  • Staff Writer
  • June 22, 2009 @ 12:00 PM

Students often take for granted the ubiquitous Blackboard system they use in many college classes to look up assignments and readings, submit papers and hold online discussions.

But the software is among several complex packages many Chicago-area schools use that can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to operate. Similar so-called “enterprise” programs, such as PeopleSoft, help schools keep track of everything from payroll to enrollment. They carry hefty price tags not only to buy them in the first place, but to upgrade them and hire staff to keep them running smoothly.

The City Colleges of Chicago spends $260,000 per year to have Blackboard host the online tools on its own servers, meaning that the City Colleges doesn’t have to dedicate personnel or high-end computers to the program. But when Blackboard required the district to spend another $11,000 on training for an upgrade this spring, that pushed some members of the Board of Trustees over the edge.

“We’re getting their equipment and then we have to pay to learn how to do it by going to a seminar?” board member Terry Newman asked incredulously at a March meeting.

Board Chairman Jim Tyree suggested at that meeting that Blackboard was nickel-and-diming the district.

Chancellor Wayne Watson responded that the company essentially had the City Colleges and many other universities over a barrel.

“Right now they’re the big boy in the tent ... all the major universities are using Blackboard and until another competitor comes in ... they’re going to continue to be that arrogant with their pricing,” Watson said.

But college technology administrators say cost is just one factor when it comes to deciding whether to keep one system or switch to another.

“It’s a constant review procedure that you’re going through,” says Susan Malisch, chief information officer at Loyola University. “You’ve got a lot of moving parts of technology and how the technology is changing … you’ve got the needs and requirements of the university that are changing.”

Loyola's technology department spends as much as a quarter of is $14 million yearly budget to maintain programs like Blackboard and PeopleSoft. But there are no easy ways to save large amounts of money on the programs.

For example, changing from Blackboard to free, open-source equivalents like Sakai or Moodle means administrators have to spend time and money to train faculty, students and staff how to use the new program.

Switching from one massive application package to another, especially when thousands of students and faculty use it every day, is far different from installing the latest version of Microsoft Word, says John Dozier, the vice chancellor of information technology at the City Colleges.

“A lot of people probably look at these high costs of maintaining learning management systems and make a lot of assumptions about, well, those costs are awfully high,” Dozier says. “There’s a lot more to it than uninstalling one and installing another.”

The district is beginning to look at whether it makes sense to host Blackboard on its own computers. But such a switch wouldn’t change how the program operates for most students, and it might not necessarily save the district any money.

“We know what we’re paying today, so when we bring it in-house, how many developers do we actually need to keep the system up and running?” Dozier says.

Daily News Staff Writer Peter Sachs covers higher education. He can be reached at 773.362.5002, ext. 18, or peter [at] chitowndailynews [dot] org.