Blackboard’s VP of Teaching and Learning, Valerie Schreiner, was kind enough to give Phil and me a fairly thorough update on the Ultra strategy on Wednesday. Their strategy is clearer to me now. That strategy, which I am about to share with you, is fairly coherent, reasonably interesting, and practically plausible in principle. There are still big execution questions that won’t be answered until we see what is released at BbWorld and talk to some customers. (More on this later.) But at least we have a better sense of what they are trying to do now.
We don’t usually spend this much sustained time focusing on one company and product, but since we are getting a lot of feedback from readers that it is helpful and timely for them, and since Blackboard has been extremely responsive in providing us with clarifications, we’re going to stay on this one until we feel that it’s been adequately covered.
Ultra Isn’t a Product
One of the reasons that the company is struggling to explain their strategy is that Ultra isn’t really a product. It’s not a thing that you buy. It’s more a set of design goals. That’s hard enough to communicate to customers when everyone in the company understands it, but I don’t think they really do—at least, not uniformly across the company. As a result, the “Ultra” label gets attached to both products and aspects of products, with the result of it seeming like Ultra is both everything and nothing.
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While Valerie didn’t explicitly describe Ultra for us in quite the way that I’m about to, my takeaway is that Ultra is the following set of design goals across all their products:
- Responsive design and mobile first everywhere
- Stream-based activity views so that people don’t always have to go poking around in individual course shells to find out what’s going on
- Redesign of the web-based course experience, and particularly the course authoring experience, around user workflows
I would add embedded analytics to this list, based on conversations that we’ve had with other Blackboard folks.
Creating a brand for a set of design goals is inherently fraught. Let’s look at two examples of how it makes communication of Blackboard’s strategy tricky for them. First, there’s mobile. Blackboard came out last year with a mobile app called Bb Student. It provides students with that activity stream view across courses and, of course, it’s mobile-first. (In fact, it’s mobile-only at the moment.) Furthermore, the company has made the product available for both traditional 9.x customers (which at this point is pretty much everybody) and their SaaS customers. People inside the company feel like they should be getting more credit for delivering on two major design goals (mobile first and stream-based activity views) as well as for delivering it to customers on the 9.x platform (which was more significant of a technical achievement than is immediately obvious).
There are a few reasons why they are not. First, LMS vendors have thrown out mobile apps in the past like they’re conference swag. They are shiny and cool, but they are not really presented as central. Customers don’t take them too seriously. Second, “student-centered,” like “mobile,” is treated as marketing thing. Schools are not often good at evaluating what “student-centered” really looks like. Bb Student will likely get credit with the customer base only after it has been out in the market for a while and schools actually see it making a difference for students.
But the biggest reason that Blackboard is not getting a lot of credit for Bb Student is that they made the mistake of mixing up their Ultra messaging with their SaaS messaging. Blackboard (and Jay Bhatt in particular) has sold Ultra as this great SaaS-based thing that is made possible by a shiny new architecture. The inference that both we and the customers we have talked to drew from that message is that anything coming on the current architecture is therefore some kind of “Ultra lite.” A pale imitation. Accordingly, Bb Student on 9.x came across as a backport for those poor folks who are stuck on the old platform. Which is everybody, since the new platform wasn’t available yet. Which reminds everybody that the new platform, the one they don’t have yet, the one that they hear is going to be so much better than the one they actually have, is overdue. Which reminds them that, while they are waiting for the new hotness that they’re not sure will ever come, they have complaints about the old and busted thing they have now. And they begin to suspect that those complaints are not getting addressed because everybody at Blackboard is busy working on the new hotness. The thing that they don’t have.
So, yeah. They really didn’t notice that student app thing, for the most part.
This is also what bit Blackboard hard on their gluteus maximus with the “Ultra theme” business. Valerie shared some survey data and other feedback showing that customers really are very interested in the Ultra design goals but are concerned about change management. The 9.x Ultra theme, which Blackboard created in response to this recent feedback, is intended to provide a stepping stone for faculty to experiment with aspects of the new course experience even while the school is on the 9.x platform. (I’ll share more details about what’s in 9.x and what’s not a little later in this post.) Again, folks inside Blackboard thought they would get credit for being responsive to customers and delivering on some of the design goals. And again, because the Ultra message got all mixed up with the SaaS message, what it sounded like—particularly in the absence of good communication even with their best customers about what’s happening with the larger Ultra picture—was “schools think Ultra is too simplistic and it’s not ready yet anyway so we’ll give them a theme that looks a little bit like Ultra.”
In order to understand what’s really going on, we have to disentangle the Ultra design goals from the SaaS product delivery. So what’s really going on with Ultra and SaaS delivery? I’m glad you asked….
Ultra and SaaS Delivery
Forget about Ultra for a moment. Let’s talk SaaS. Back in the summer of 2014, Blackboard promised a SaaS version of Learn. In general, well-run SaaS provides unsexy but very important benefits like better uptime, better ability to handle peak usage loads, and easier, more frequent updates. The company actually quietly piloted the SaaS architecture as early as October of 2014 with their MOOC platform. When it worked, they rolled out a limited release of the SaaS platform to some early customers. There were two major limitations to this release which, in turn, limited their appeal. First, they provided little in the way of integration or customization options. Second, the company was actively tinkering with the platform as it was being used. Most university customers wouldn’t be comfortable with these limitations. The reason that Phil and I have had trouble finding pilot customers is that most of them were K12. The next release of the platform, which would have the stability and flexibility that higher ed customers typically need, was slated for release in October of 2015. They missed delivery by three months and released in January 2016. That’s what the SaaS Plus/Advantage announcement was all about. The problem for them is that they missed the window for spring pilots. So now the earliest that we will see customers doing real production pilots on the SaaS platform is May.
Here again, their messaging killed them, though in a different way. The schedule I just presented in the last paragraph is entirely reasonable for a rollout this complicated. And in that context, a three-month miss is not a huge deal in terms of trust. If Blackboard had originally telegraphed this kind of a timeline when they announced their intention to deliver SaaS in 2014, they would have been fine. But they didn’t. They set the expectation that they would deliver in 2015. And then, when they missed, they didn’t provide any specific information about their progress. No customers we have talked to knew anything. Nor did we. While Jay told us back in the summer of 2015 that there were pilots, he never mentioned that they were K12 customers, or that the MOOC platform was running the SaaS architecture, or what the plan or rationale was. For some reason, the company chose to announce a delivery schedule that they should have known from the beginning that they had no chance of making. Then, having failed to deliver, they also failed to communicate the realistic and sensible plan they apparently had in their back pocket all along.
It’s hard to tell how much of this is because Blackboard as a whole was groping its way toward coherence and how much of it was because the executive team wasn’t listening to their staff. Something clearly went off the rails internally.
But let’s set that aside for the moment. Blackboard is on a path toward SaaS. They have released the first version that they believe is higher ed customer-ready and will have real customers piloting it in production by the summer. Separately from that, they have been on a path toward design goals that they have been calling “Ultra.” They released Bb Student, which delivers on some of those design goals for customers on both current and SaaS versions of Learn, and they have announced the intention to release a theme for 9.x that delivers on some of the design goals for the web version of the product. Where do these two lines intersect?
We have known for some time that the SaaS product will allow for both Ultra and traditional Blackboard course experiences, on a course-by-course basis. Here is some new information:
So what will Ultra on SaaS have that Ultra on Learn 9.x will not? According to this slide from Valerie, two things:
- The activity stream like the one that is already in Bb Student (and therefore available on mobile for 9.x customers)
- The new, simpler workflows
The 9.x customers will get the mobile applications, responsive design (albeit delivered a little later than SaaS customers), and nicer, cleaner look and feel (again, a little later than SaaS customers). I also believe, based on the briefing that we got last summer, that sooner or later the SaaS customers will get some analytics that will not be possible to deliver on 9.x. But Blackboard isn’t announcing anything on that front at the moment.
We also asked about the positioning of Ultra as being for teachers with simpler needs. Is this the vision for Ultra in the long term, or is it more about the fact that they don’t have all the workflows in place yet? The answer we got was mostly the latter. When it became clear that customers were asking for stepping stones to help faculty make the change over to the new experience incrementally, developer resources were diverted from new workflows to smoothing the path. Ultra on SaaS is expected to meet more sophisticated needs over time. That said, it has always been the intention of the company to use Ultra as an opportunity to strip out bloat. But one person’s bloat is another person’s essential feature. They intend to leave the traditional Blackboard course experience as an option for those faculty who need the niche capabilities that they want to move out of the way of mainstream customers.
What to Make of All of This
My first instinct when I saw the Ultra designs in 2014 was that Blackboard was engaging in some deep design thinking that could result in some meaningful differentiation that the market desperately needs. I still believe that. You can’t really get it from buzz phrases like “activity streams,” “mobile-first,” and “student-centered.” And you certainly can’t get it from the bloody mess of a job they’ve done with communication. But I have long had the sense that there is some really good thinking going on inside Blackboard, and Valerie went a long way toward reassuring me that, while it’s not yet clear that I was right, at least I was not crazy.
There are three big unknowns. First, however interesting their design thinking may be, is it productive? Are their ideas good ones? The main way that customers can test that out today is by taking the Bb Student app more seriously. Do some pilots. Actively encourage students to try it out. And if you do, let us know what you find out. The second unknown is, however good their ideas are, can they deliver polished products that work at scale? Bb Student is again one test of that, but we won’t really have the big test until there are customers using Ultra on SaaS in production, and until we see more workflows for Ultra being rolled out at a steady pace. And finally, however good their product turns out to be, will Blackboard be able to communicate to customers about what they are doing and what to expect? Given the new CEO, we will probably need a year to fully suss that out. BbWorld 2016 will be an important test, but there will be other tests before and after. If you count our conversation with Valerie Schreiner as one such test, she passed that one with flying colors. More of that, please.
Despite how tough we’ve been on them, Phil and I really want to see Blackboard succeed because we want to see all these companies and open source projects succeed. We want colleges and universities to have multiple good options. The company may have one more run at this before the customers start running for the exits. Our advice to customers is to pay close attention to what happens this year.