January/February 2003 // Tools
The Bazaar Online Conference System: Athabasca University's Alternative to Proprietary Online Course Delivery Platforms
by Susan Hesemeier, Mawuli Kuivi, and Mike Sosteric
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source (http://ts.mivu.org/) as: Susan Hesemeier, Mawuli Kuivi, and Mike Sosteric "The Bazaar Online Conference System: Athabasca University's Alternative to Proprietary Online Course Delivery Platforms" The Technology Source, January/February 2003. Available online at http://ts.mivu.org/default.asp?show=article&id=1034. The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

With the development of the Internet and the World Wide Web, instructors and students alike have begun to see the implementation of computer technology in many aspects of education—from Web discussion boards that supplement in-class lectures to courses that are fully delivered through online methods. Online course delivery and conferencing systems have indeed shown us an amalgamation of technology and education, especially in the realm of distance education. But although online course management systems (CMSs) have been available for almost a decade now, many instructors are still not using them to any great extent.

This phenomenon could be a result of the high cost of proprietary course delivery applications, rather than just a lack of media and information literacy (Oberg, 1993). Although other factors do play a part in accepting and incorporating a new technology into educational course delivery, the high cost of good-quality online CMSs is a factor that many studies have not taken into consideration. Blackboard, to name one of the most popular proprietary systems, sells its use of a course Web site and 25 MB of storage space at $295 a year per course developer. This is just a base amount, though. It is very expensive to customize or add features to suit a user's own needs, and costs will skyrocket if such customizations are required.

In addition to the cost of customizations, the base cost of online course management tools has been on the rise in recent years:

Some academic-technology officials say they're experiencing sticker shock over recent pricing changes by Blackboard and WebCT, two leading providers of course-management software. Colleges that until recently paid a few thousand dollars a year for the companies' products—which help professors build course Web sites and handle administrative functions—are now being asked to pay tens or even hundreds of thousands for the latest systems. (Young, 2002, ¶ 1)

The high cost of proprietary online CMSs may effectively block the inclusion of computer-mediated components in courses. Perhaps more instructors would use online course management tools if they were available for free. The solution to this problem would be a high-quality, free online course management and conferencing system. But because anything free is often considered too good to be true, the quality of such a product might automatically be doubted.

Athabasca University has developed the Bazaar Online Conference System, an online course management and conferencing system that is free and high-quality. Inspired in part by the open source movement, which presses for free and accessible software on the Internet, Bazaar's features include many useful and important resources typically offered by the more popular and expensive proprietary systems.

What is Bazaar?

Bazaar is a flexible course management system that delivers courses online and provides various discussion tools for its users. It incorporates a host of essential educational delivery features that are completely extensible and openly accessible. Bazaar is a particular cut above the rest because its flexibility allows course instructors and developers to customize not only Bazaar's appearance, but also the types of resources and features within Bazaar itself.

Bazaar has performed excellently when examined against other course delivery platforms, whether freeware or proprietary. What follows is a description of some of Bazaar's features as they relate to distance education studies and analyses of online education tools. These comparison points are based on key terms for the analysis of CMSs from the Centre for Curriculum, Transfer, and Technology, now part of the EduTools Course Management Systems Glossary (EduTools, 2002).

  • Administration: Bazaar has easy-to-use administrative tools (Exhibit 1) for course developers and instructors. They can, for example, add resources to course pages from a drop-down menu or upload user lists and grade sheets.
  • Analyzing and Tracking: Bazaar provides facilities, such as user polls (Exhibit 2) and sign-up sheets (Exhibit 3), for the statistical analysis of student-related data.
  • Authorization: Bazaar offers tools that assign access and other privileges to specific users or user groups. Course developers can use "locks" and "latches" (Exhibit 4), which grant or decline access to users.
  • BBS File Exchange: Bulletin Board Service (BBS) is the ability to exchange files with other users asynchronously (i.e., without users being signed in at the same time) by uploading and downloading files over the Web. On Bazaar, both students and instructors can post files of almost any format. Course developers also can add an assignment drop box (Exhibit 5) to receive date-stamped assignment submissions online.
  • Bookmarks: Bazaar allows users to create, display, manage, and update placeholder bookmarks (Exhibit 6) that identify locations within Bazaar, and to create folders for easy bookmark management.
  • Chat: Course developers can create multiple Internet relay chats for real-time (i.e., synchronous) user exchanges (Exhibit 7).
  • Course Customizing: Bazaar contains many different templates that give pages a unique appearance and structure (compare the Bazaar home page to the Pan-Canadian Pathways home page, for example). Instructors also can submit their own customized templates (see the English 255 home page at Athabasca, for example).
  • Multimedia: Bazaar supports images, audio, video, and media types not based solely on text. Instructors can post multimedia files, with links to software needed to view a specific file type (e.g., QuickTime for video files).
  • Newsgroups: Newsgroup headers (Exhibit 8) from CNN or magazines such as Slashdot can be added to Bazaar resources.
  • Presenting Information: Bazaar has in-page formatting features, such as the ability to arrange pages into sections and categories to organize course resources and information.
  • Remote Access: Bazaar administrative users can make changes to their resources from any location, simply by signing in to the system with their user ID.
  • Searching: Users can search Bazaar on the basis of word matching, either within or beyond the user's current browser page. Bazaar also employs site maps (Exhibit 9) to easily display its contents and page links.
  • Web Browsing: Course developers can create HTML pages within the Bazaar system that do not contain any Bazaar templates; they may also create links on Bazaar pages to non-Bazaar Web sites.

For a detailed comparison of Bazaar's features to those of other inexpensive or open source course delivery and conferencing systems, see Exhibit 10.

Developers at Athabasca University currently are working on additions to Bazaar that would extend its abilities as a CMS. Planned additions to student management features would allow instructors to determine how many times students visited certain pages and to monitor student participation in specific sections of the course delivery system.

Why Bazaar?

Bazaar is Open Source

Software programs that are "open source" allow developers to freely download and customize the code that runs the program. Institutions and individuals can modify and add to the code that runs the Bazaar Online Conference System or, if they wish, just use the version that Athabasca University has developed. The open source feature also allows Bazaar to be integrated into multiple platforms and local information systems, such as student databases and university communication portals, which enables these systems to more easily meet the needs of individual users.

Bazaar is Easy to Integrate into Other Systems

Bazaar is easy to integrate into other systems and customize because it uses an object-oriented programming (OOP) application program interface (API). This means that developers do not have to deal with unrelated sections of code in order to add a new feature to Bazaar. Developers can easily add components without affecting those that are already in place.

Bazaar's customizability and extensibility are in line with a shift in today's educational environment—namely, that more modular and extensible systems and programs are replacing those that suit the needs of only specific users. One example of this shift is the movement from HTML and SGML to the extensible mark-up language (XML), which is emerging as the lingua franca of mark-up languages for Web pages. XML is popular because it allows users to create and define their own "tags"—the containers that hold the information browsers read in order to create a Web page. The popularity of XML and other extendable systems attests to the movement for greater freedom in educational environments through the use of extendable, customizable tools and information delivery systems.

Bazaar is an Excellent Research Platform

Because Bazaar's source code is freely available, it has the potential to serve as a research platform for the investigation of object technologies. Bazaar's object-oriented structure, and therefore its ability to easily store objects for retrieval, makes Bazaar a useful resource for organizations that promote the use of learning objects in online course delivery. Learning objects are educational resources that can be used in a number of courses because they have supporting information that gives context to their content. They range from images with descriptive background information to course management tools that may be accessed and harvested by course developers for use as instructional resources. The Canadian Core (CanCore) Learning Resource Metadata Application Profile and the Campus Alberta Repository of Educational Objects (CAREO) are examples of organizations involved in the production, management, and accessibility of educational learning objects. For a new database of learning objects (currently in development), CanCore will use Bazaar to improve storage and enhance access.

Bazaar's Code is Mature

Unlike many other open source programs with code that is available for review and customization, Bazaar's code is mature. This means that Bazaar has reached a stable form after more than 3 years of development. Bazaar's code has been tried and tested; the system therefore can be downloaded and extended with no concerns about its stability.

Bazaar Has Support and Documentation

Assistance with the implementation and use of Bazaar is available from the Distance Education Projects and Technological Help (DEPTH) Department at Athabasca University. For questions about the University's work with learning objects and course management systems, please contact the DEPTH manager, Mike Sosteric. Any technical difficulties or general questions about Bazaar should be addressed to programmer Mawuli Kuivi. The latest versions or updates of Bazaar's code are available from the Sourceforge developers page. A list of organizations and programs that use Bazaar is available, and anyone can view feedback or post comments (anonymously or otherwise) about the system through online user polls.

Documentation for general, administrative, and developer use is available on the Bazaar main page. The tutorials provide excellent guidance for those new to the course delivery and conferencing system. These resources and the features listed above attest to the fact that high-quality educational resources are available for free with the support and documentation that one would expect from more expensive, proprietary course management systems. We hope that the existence of Bazaar and other alternative systems like it will enhance and encourage the overall use of educational technologies.


EduTools. (2002). Course management systems glossary. Retrieved September 22, 2002, from http://www.edutools.info/course/help/glossary.jsp

Oberg, O. (1993). Another literacy for the 21st century: Media and information literacy. ira Connections 8(1), 9-11. Retrieved October 14, 2002 from http://www.slis.ualberta.ca/oberg_literacy.htm

Young, J. R. (2002, March 19). Pricing changes by Blackboard and WebCT cost some colleges more—much more. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved September 22, 2002, from http://chronicle.com/free/2002/03/2002031901u.htm

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