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Standards Released for Free CMS

March 11, 2002

Research Group to Release Technical Standards for Its Free Course-Management Software

A research team that is building free course-management software plans today to release the first technical standards that provide the framework of its forthcoming software. Although the group is still months away from releasing a fully functioning program, its leaders say they hope that sharing their work so far will help build
interest and support for the project.

The software-development project, called the Open Knowledge Initiative, is a joint effort of several colleges and universities to develop software that will help professors build Web pages for their courses and manage administrative functions like grading and testing. In the process, they are developing a set of technical
standards, known among software developers as application programming interfaces, or API's, which are rules for how the software will operate.

The group hopes that other software developers, including commercial course-management producers like Blackboard and WebCT, will make their software compatible with the API's. That could make it easier for colleges to create their own software that would work seamlessly with the course-management software they
have already purchased or built.

The main reason colleges cannot easily share their software with other institutions is that each institution often has its own underlying way to verify user identities and to perform other functions, said Jeff Merriman, senior strategist for academic
computing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which is a key player in the project. If the colleges all used course-management systems with the same technical standards for those core functions, then it would be much easier to share

Today's release will include two major pieces of those technical standards. The details will be posted on the project's Web site.

"I think they're going to be useful in giving folks a sense of the direction" of the Open Knowledge Initiative, said Mr. Merriman, "and that's really our intention of giving them out right now."

Most of the remaining standards are expected to be posted over the next two or three weeks, he added.

The group also plans to create working software tools, based on the standards, that any college could use free, but those tools are not expected to be released until this summer.

The project is being closely watched by many college administrators, who see its forthcoming software as a possible alternative to expensive course-management systems sold by Blackboard or WebCT. Representatives of those companies have
said that they support the colleges' project and the idea of creating open technical standards.

"One major attraction of this initiative is that the software that comes out of it will be free," said Joseph Georges, a director of the California Virtual Campus, which provides technology support to community colleges in the state. "Many colleges are facing financial constraints that are going to affect all kinds of things, including their ability to pay for course-management systems."

But the project's developers -- led by MIT and Stanford University -- say they are trying to supplement, not replace, existing commercial software.

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