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Upstart Course-Management Provider Goes Open Source

Instructure, a course-management software company that recently won a large contract in Utah, announced on Tuesday that it would make most of its software platform available for free under an open-source license.

Instructure is one of a wave of new entrants into an increasingly competitive market for learning-management software in higher education. The company’s year-old Canvas platform allows instructors and students to manage course materials, grades, and discussions online.

In offering its basic software for free, the company could offer new competition for Moodle and Sakai, the two main existing open-source platforms. Like commercial arms of those platforms, Instructure intends to make money from colleges by supporting, hosting, and extending its software.

In December, the company won a bid to provide software to a collection of Utah colleges that serve roughly 110,000 students, provoking a lawsuit from a competitor that lost that bid, Desire2Learn. The suit was quickly withdrawn. Instructure says it has signed contracts with a total of 25 colleges.

Josh Coates, Instructure’s chief executive, promoted the platform’s ease of use and its integration with outside services like Facebook and Google Docs. “I don’t consider what we’ve done at Instructure like rocket science,” Mr. Coates said. “But it feels like it because we’re sort of working in the context of the Stone Age.”

Mr. Coates is a tech-industry veteran who started Mozy, an online file-backup start-up that sold for $76-million in 2007. He said he viewed Blackboard, long the dominant platform, as vulnerable because, he said, its software was hopelessly outdated and its patents had been rejected.

To drive home that point, Instructure released a Web video on Tuesday that spoofs Apple Computer’s famous “1984″ advertisement that introduced the Mac. In the new ad, Big Brother is represented by Blackboard in place of IBM.

Mr. Coates minced no words in describing other competitors, either. Desire2Learn is “Blackboard Jr.,” he said; Moodle is “kind of kludgy”; Sakai is “off in left field a little bit.”

Blackboard and Desire2Learn both declined to comment.

Instructure’s officials said they hope its move into open source will help the software gain visibility and convince potential clients that they will not sell to Blackboard. But the open-source platform risks cannibalizing Instructure’s paying customers, and it will require the company to  sustain an active development community around its software.

Kenneth C. Green, who directs the Campus Computing Project, said Instructure’s decision would further splinter the open-source choices available to colleges. He said Instructure was part of a “third generation” of learning-management companies that are trying to challenge Blackboard for dominance.

Colleges are typically resistant to switching their choice of major software, Mr. Green said. Even if moving to open-source software like Moodle or Instructure would save money, he said, many college leaders believe sticking with Blackboard is the safer choice.

“There are still a number of CIO’s who look at that and say that sounds like a lot of money, but it’s not a lot of money against the political costs of migrating my faculty,” Mr. Green said.

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