Friday, June 24, 2005

Out of the box vs. building your own

One of the issues that often comes up for college IT departments, especially ones as small as ours, is whether to buy a solution or to build something yourself. On the one hand, buying a solution (a course management system, an image management system, other tools) often means stability and often available support. But often solutions are too expensive for us; the targets of these solutions are often huge universities who have tech fees and big budgets. On the other hand, building a solution ourselves might cost less, but costs more in people time. We only have one web developer, one instructional technologist, two system administrators.

The web developer's main job is maintaining the main college web site, focusing primarily on the top-level sites (admissions, public affairs, visitor site, etc.). So, for example, he's rebuilding the web forms that students use to request information to make sure they're secure and that admissions gets the kind of information they need to see if their publicity is working. He also develops new sites for departments as he has time (and he has students who assist him). In other words, he has little time to develop something for an individual faculty member.

I, unfortunately, don't have the kind of web development skills he has. I can't program. I can design a static site. But I don't have the ability to do php scripting (our preferred scripting language) in order to more sophisticated sites.

The system administrators simply give us the space and permissions to do our work, but again their primary focus is on key functionality, like email. Asking them to configure something just for a few professors is problematic.

An in-between solution to buying something but not building it yourself is to use someone else's product. For example, I could suggest someone use Flickr to keep track of their images and create sets there for presentation purposes. They can tag the images so they're searchable. It's a very nice interface--easy to use. However, then the objection comes that it's not attached to the college. It looks unprofessional to have to use a commercial product offsite. Same thing goes for blogging. If I can't get blog software installed and running on our servers, I might suggest that someone use Blogger or Typepad, but again, same objection.

It's frustrating for faculty to have to wait for either a buying decision or for something to be built. My philosophy is to give them the tools they need to build it themselves or allow them (maybe even encourage them) to use whatever is available out there that's already built. There are objections to allow them to build things themselves. What if they mess up? And then there's the almost corporate "we all have to be the same" problem. We all have to use Blackboard, for example. It stretches us too thin to provide other solutions.

It's a struggle and it's a struggle we go through almost every time a faculty member asks us for something fairly involved. I think each situation is going to be different. Some solutions are cost-effective enough to buy. Some are things that we have already built. Some are available as open source projects that we can modify. And sometimes, we just have to point them to ones out there, with our blessing.