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Pausing for Investigation

December 3, 2010

The Utah attorney general’s office is investigating at least two public colleges for possible violations of state laws relating to how they have gone about shopping for lecture capture technology.

The attorney general’s office declined to give details about the investigation. But two Utah judges recently lifted a secrecy order on Lynn Packer, a local lecture capture developer, and Weber State University, which Packer has accused of fixing a request-for-proposal to favor Mediasite, a lecture platform made by Sonic Foundry, a leading provider of the popular technology.

“It appear[s] a reseller of Sonic Foundry’s Mediasite product was able to get Weber to rig bid specifications in Mediasite’s favor, thus locking out competing products like mine,” Packer wrote in a memo to Inside Higher Ed.

Packer's complaint has resulted in a lengthy legal investigation. Still, some experts contacted by Inside Higher Ed say that there was nothing unusual about the request for proposals that sparked it.

Under state law, public institutions must write RFPs such that they encourage competition among possible providers, so as to ensure that public funds are well spent. Utah assistant attorney general Jim Palmer is investigating possible violations of state antitrust laws, procurement laws, and/or ethics rules governing the behavior of public employees, according to court records.

Richard Hill, general counsel for Weber State, confirms that Weber State is a target of the investigation and has turned over more than 5,000 documents to the attorney general, and that the university does not believe it did anything wrong. Packer, the complainant, has also alleged that Dixie State College might be involved in similar improprieties. Dixie State lawyers and officials would not comment, citing a gag order.

In May, the attorney general ordered Weber State and Dixie State to produce records. Two other Utah colleges — Salt Lake Community College and Utah State University — were also served with subpoenas, along with several technology companies, including Echo360, a well-known lecture capture provider. Sonic Foundry was not named in the subpoenas (which Packer provided to Inside Higher Ed), but at least two of the companies that were named have acted as resellers for the lecture capture giant.

Sonic Foundry declined to comment. “We are not a party to this legal matter,” said a spokeswoman. Echo360 also had no comment.

Utah State and Salt Lake Community College confirmed that they had received subpoenas. The attorney general was looking for “documentation regarding any needs assessment and conversations we were having regarding a lecture capture system,” a spokesman for Salt Lake said. “They basically told us they’re out fishing to see what other institutions might have done” as far as procedures for purchasing lecture capture technology, said a Utah State spokesman.

Lecture capture — which enables colleges to video-record lectures, then store them in an online library along with any accompanying slides or other media, where students can view them anytime — is expected to be a boom technology in higher education in coming years. A recent survey by the Campus Computing Project found that 76 percent of campus technology officers consider lecture capture to be an important part of their plans for delivering instructional content. Textbook publishers have been partnering with major lecture capture firms, prompting some to suspect that they too expect it to become a crucial instructional platform. The lecture capture market did more than $50 million in business last year, and that figure may triple by 2016, according to a recent report from the consulting firm Frost & Sullivan.

Packer acknowledges that he may appear compromised by the fact that his own lecture capture product could not satisfy the RFPs at Weber State University and Dixie State College, which is what led him to lodge a complaint with the attorney general’s office. But the attorney general’s subsequent investigation, which has now lasted more than seven months, would seem to imply that his grievance might amount to more than sour grapes.

In September, the U.S. Department of Justice replied to a letter from Packer, saying: “When staff contacted Asst. Atty. Gen. Palmer, he stated that, in time, the Utah-based investigation may develop evidence of a multi-state conspiracy.”

However, two experts consulted by Inside Higher Ed were not convinced. Although the Utah attorney general has sealed the Weber State RFP as evidence for the duration of the investigation, Packer earlier had used an open-records request to obtain a copy, which he shared with Inside Higher Ed, which then shared copies with a vice president at a major lecture capture company not involved in the investigation, and with a technologist with a university that has been active in deploying lecture capture. (Both declined to be named, citing the sensitivity of the issue.)

“[I]t’s not evident to me that it was written in favor of Sonic Foundry,” wrote the university-based technologist in an e-mail. “They’re certainly asking for a lot in the RFP, and even Sonic Foundry doesn’t satisfy all of their requirements. Some of the requirements may imply that a dedicated appliance is needed for the classroom which would be in Mediasite’s favor. But this is a stretch.”

The vice president said he actually thought the Weber RFP was “lighter than most” and did not obviously handicap one company or another. “Essentially, all of the requirements are requirements we’ve seen before, with logical intent behind them,” the vice president wrote.

For the latest technology news and opinion from Inside Higher Ed, follow @IHEtech on Twitter.

 

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