Course server expands

Yale’s Classes*v2 server added new features and doubled its user base this summer, despite recent patent litigation that has cast a shadow over the academic media industry.

So far, more than 900 undergraduate classes and several graduate schools at Yale have abandoned the original, homegrown classes server and adopted Classes*v2, an open-source computer program that streamlines the University’s online administrative services. Classes*v2 is scheduled to completely replace the original server by next fall, but information and technology services officials said they are keeping an eye on a patent lawsuit that has some concerned about similar programs.

Blackboard Inc., a leading developer of academic administrative software, was granted a broad patent late last month and subsequently sued a Canadian competitor called Desire2Learn Inc. for alleged infringement. The litigation is focusing on commercially licensed software rather than freely available open-source programs like Sakai, on which Yale technicians based Classes*v2. Still, some industry experts have expressed concern that open-source programs might be targeted for lawsuits next.

Chuck Powell, the University’s director of academic media and technology, said that there is no specific evidence to suggest that Blackboard will go after open-source programs, but that the suit is generally worrisome.

“Some would make the case that Blackboard has created one of those way-too-expensive patents that allows them to claim things that are common usage as their intellectual property,” Powell said. “Across all of higher education, there is a growing concern about patents that are too broad and being misapplied.”

Blackboard spokeswoman Melissa Chotiner defended the suit, saying the company is simply protecting programs that it spent millions of dollars to create. She said she could not make guarantees about future decisions, but that the company does not plan on using the patent against open-source initiatives.

“We see open source as a complement to commercial support platforms such as Blackboard,” Chotiner said. “It really wouldn’t make much business sense for us to go after open source.”

Open-source programs enable administrators to customize features and settings at will, as Yale has done since adopting Classes*v2 last year. During the summer, Information Technology Services added an option for posting grades and a “wiki” tool whereby students can edit online posts. The server is also piloting a feature linking class pages to online library resources, Instructional Solutions Manager Gloria Hardman said.

Powell said many courses — nearly double the 462 that used the server last semester — have been moved to Classes*v2 because of its enhanced features. The server also provides tools that allow administrative and research groups to collaborate with other groups.

“It benefits faculty, students and staff to end in one place to do their work rather than go to various places to use different tools for different parts of their life,” Powell said.

The School of Management switched to Classes*v2 a few months ago, and the School of Public Health is currently in the process of changing over.

The server has reached about 90 percent of the user community, Powell said, but the last 10 percent will probably be the most challenging because of some professors’ technological needs. Powell cited professor Michael Frame’s fractal geometry class, for which Frame has built an online collection of 25,000 files.

Frame, who has discussed Classes*v2 as a member of the University’s Teaching and Learning Portal Committee, continues to use the original classes server because the new version has been unable to support his large Web pages.

“It was not developed originally to house Web pages, and those are the only things I use in teaching,” Frame said. “The other features aren’t of any interest to me.”

This semester, Hardman said, Classes*v2 is also piloting a program whereby professors can incorporate their Web sites into the server and control who can access them.

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