The Friday Interview: Barry McMullin, DCU

2 Apr 2004

“It’s not rocket science; it’s grungy, it’s simple but serves a tremendously useful function. It removes barriers to communication that would otherwise exist.” Sitting in the café of the Helix, Dublin City University’s attractive arts and social venue, Barry McMullin (pictured) is reflecting on the impact a new e-learning system has had on the north Dublin campus.

The senior lecturer in electronic engineering has just concluded his five-year tenure as dean of learning and teaching at DCU. Given his background, it is no surprise to learn that technology played a central role in many of the initiatives undertaken during that time. Arguably the most important has been the deployment of a campus-wide virtual learning environment (VLE), which went live last October. Among other things, the system allows students to access lecture slides 30 minutes after a class, look up their lecture timetable and work together on projects.

Not only is the system possibly the best example of e-learning within the third-level sector in Ireland, it is also one of the few based on open-source software.

McMullin attributes the decision to go open source to the university’s technical leanings: it has strong credentials in disciplines like computer science, engineering and applied science. “In e-learning our aspiration is to be more than users of packaged technology but to be developers and researchers of e-learning technology. That can be done on top of a proprietary platform but our judgement was that is harder to do, and that we would prefer to work with an open source community,” he comments.

While open source technology has had many successful deployments, most of these have been horizontal applications running across various markets. Where the concept has been less successful is where it has been applied to vertical markets, such as education for example. This was the risk that faced DCU 12 months ago when it decided to abandon an off-the-shelf e-learning package it had been piloting and go down the open-source route.

Three open source platforms were intensively evaluated before a decision was made to choose a system called Moodle. By luck or design, it turned out to be the right choice because in the time since DCU has adopted it, Moodle has gone from strength to strength buoyed up by an enthusiastic developer community – an essential success ingredient for any open source package, McMullin feels.

McMullin is far from the stereotypical open-source nut in that he believes that open-source and proprietary software can both be the right choice – it really depends on the organisation and how the technology is to applied. But he nevertheless feels that the open source idea has certain inherent advantages over packaged software.

“In commercial software there is a certain dynamic which says that you want to longest possible feature list to differentiate yourself from your competitors. The danger is that you get this explosion of features that individually are of very limited value but each additional feature detracts from the useability of the overall system because it’s additional complexity that gets in the way. I would argue that there has been a reduction in the productivity in certain software systems in the past 10 years arising directly from the feature bloat. This happens to a certain extent in the open source world too but less so I think, because the open source community is a bit more ruthless about what people are going to actually use.”

Despite this positive experience with e-learning at DCU, the bigger picture of what’s happening in the third level sector in general is not so encouraging. A major disappointment for McMullin was the recent Government decision not to proceed with €10m funding for an e-learning programme for the universities. The idea was that a central e-learning agency would be set up which would ‘outsource’ particular components or module of the e-learning programme to individual higher educational institutions. There was also a possibility that the agency would have operated a national e-learning platform consisting of e-learning programmes catering for the third-level sector and potential other sectors as well, such as secondary schools and further education institutes.

Since December, when the Higher Education Authority announced the decision, the universities have been in a funding limbo, awaiting the outcome of ongoing discussions between the HEA and Government to see whether the plan can be reinstated or salvaged in some way.

McMullin is not hung up on funding – he sees as simply the catalyst that helps get e-learning projects off the ground – but he clearly finds the current impasse deeply frustrating, not just because of the considerable time invested by DCU and other third-level colleges in putting together a joint submission to the HEA, but mainly because of the opportunity that was there to create something groundbreaking and, more to the point, necessary.

He notes that one of the difficulties in trying to be innovative in education is the long cycle times – “you’ve got at least four years before you can make substantial changes to the handling of undergraduate education” – and he fears Irish universities may fall behind other countries in the application of e-learning technology if the Government does not commit to a long-term strategy for the sector.

By Brian Skelly