Prometheus Unbound: University Competes with Courseware Giants

Prometheus Unbound: University Competes with Courseware Giants

WASHINGTON
While officials at George Washington University (GWU) have long relied upon home-grown software tools to handle computing needs at the
Washington-based school, they didn’t anticipate that other schools might also want to put GWU
software to use for their own benefit. After
learning about Prometheus, GWU’s courseware that allows faculty to place course material on the Internet, Vanderbilt University officials in 1999 approached GWU officials about giving the customizable software a try.
More than a year after it was licensed to
Vanderbilt, Prometheus is in use by 30 college and university clients around the United States, according to GWU officials. Although school officials decline to release any figures on GWU’s investment in and revenues from Prometheus, the university regards the market interest and  deals as promising for a future for-profit spin-off company.
“(The Prometheus venture) is being incubated by the university,” says Bo Davis, the chief developer and managing director of Prometheus. Originating from Greek mythology, Prometheus is the name of the god who gave fire to
humankind.
The enterprise is currently staffed by 25
people with expectations that Prometheus will
employ a total of 40 by the summer, according to officials.
Davis says GWU is interested in attracting strategic partners to the venture not unlike the online distance-education consortiums that have sprung up in recent times, such as Columbia University’s Fathom project. The market environment for course management systems (CMS) developers, is stacked with competitors, including Blackboard and WebCT, the two best-known Web-based courseware developers. 
“We built (Prometheus) to meet the needs of this university instead of the marketplace (of colleges and universities),” Davis says.
Prometheus allows students in classroom-based courses to have online discussions, view posted lecture notes and conduct online presentations. A number of the client schools and GWU also use Prometheus as the software platform for their online distance-education courses.
Prometheus clients include Columbia Business School, Columbia Teachers College,  Wharton School of Business, the New School, New York University and Vanderbilt University.

OPEN ARCHITECTURE
Without the benefit of heavy marketing and promotion, Prometheus has attracted a following largely through word-of-mouth during the first year of licensing, Davis explains. College and university information technology officials say they like the software primarily because it’s more customizable than its commercial counterparts. The ability to customize Prometheus, allowing IT professionals to integrate it with other parts of a school’s academic and administrative computing environments is an attractive feature of the software package, according to its users.
“We were looking at courseware products, but wanted something that was more flexible than what was in the market,” says Dan Peters, an IT senior systems analyst at the University of Texas-Austin College of Engineering, noting that his college purchased Prometheus in the summer of 2000.
What makes Prometheus software customizable is that the programming code is open to its users. Peters says the “open source code” feature allows IT developers at any client school to build software applications that can work directly with Prometheus. Typically, commercial vendors develop and market software products whose source code closed and custom applications cannot be written by the user.
“We get access to the (Prometheus) source code by the license. This allows (us) to know how the application works and to create new ones,” Peters says.
In addition to Prometheus being open source code software for its clients, the users are obligated to share information about programming fixes and improvements with other Prometheus users, according to GWU officials. 
While open source code software products can offer tremendous flexibility to IT departments seeking to make modifications on software, customizing can complicate the adoption of software upgrades, according to Melanie Haveard, assistant director of information technology at the University of West Florida in Pensacola, which is also a Prometheus client school.
Haveard says that when client users make changes to open source code software programs they have to carefully document the modifications because software upgrades have to be modified as well.
“You have to stay on top of the changes you make to your programs to get the upgrades to work,” Haveard says. “But it’s worth it for the advantages you get (with open source code software).”
Higher education IT analysts have reported that even though the marketplace for course management systems is saturated with competitors it has been noted that enterprises offering open source code products could very well become major players in the market.
“Newer entrants such as Prometheus, a
‘community source code’ application from Intuitive Networks, a subsidiary of The George Washington University, are gaining traction and winning some contracts away from more established players. What this means is that in the CMS marketplace, the race is not yet over,” according to  Peter Stokes, executive vice president of Eduventures, a market research firm in
Boston.  



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