Blackboard’s Big News that Nobody Noticed

This week was both D2L’s FUSION conference and Blackboard’s BbWorld. The conventional wisdom going around is that there was no big news out of either conference. In Blackboard’s case, that’s just not true. In fact, there was an astonishing amount of very significant news. It’s just that Blackboard didn’t do a very good job of explaining it to people. And that, by itself, is also news.

The big corporate keynote had to be one of the strangest I’ve ever seen. CEO Jay Bhatt ran through a whole long list of accomplishments for the year, but he only gave each one a few seconds as he rattled through the checklist. He mentioned that the company has a new mission statement but didn’t bother to explain it. It took nearly an hour of mostly talking about big macro trends in education and generalities about the categories of goals that the company has set before he finally got around to new product announcements. And then commenced what I can only describe as a carpet bombing run of announcements—a series of explosions that were over by the time you realized that they had started, leaving you to wonder what the heck had just happened. Vice President of User Experience Stephanie Weeks gave a 10-minute talk that was mostly platitudes and generalities about goals for students while some truly significant UX work that her team had done played on the video screen in the background, largely unexplained. There was something mentioned about cloud. Collaborate without a Java plugin! A new mobile app. Wait, another new mobile app, but something about jobs. Wait! Go back to the last slide! I think that was…. Is it over already? It seemed like simultaneously the longest and shortest keynote ever.

Phil and I had a chance to talk to Jay about it later in the day and asked him (politely) what he was thinking. He said, “I don’t view BbWorld as a selling conference. At all.”

Wait. What? This is the Blackboard conference, right?

Apparently it was. This executive team is nothing if not earnest about wanting to talk about the real issues in education. In fact, they’re so earnest about it that they’d rather talk about that than sell you their product. As a result, what was announced in Vegas stayed in Vegas. They made a serious mistake with their keynote plan. But as far as serious mistakes go, it was kind of awesome. And revealing. In and of itself, it is a strong indicator that, having begun a major cultural shift under Ray Henderson, the Blackboard of today is under Jay Bhatt is a very different beast than the Blackboard of five or six years ago. Many of your assumptions about what the company is and what you can expect from them probably aren’t safe ones to make anymore.

Anyway, it’s not surprising that people observing the conference from afar (and even from anear) missed the announcements. So what were they?

Major UX Overhaul

In the past, a “major UX overhaul” for Blackboard typically meant “we moved around some stuff in the admin panel and put on a skin that looks 5 years out of date rather than 15.” Not this time. The new UX is very different. It takes a lot of design cues from iOS (and, to a certain degree, from Windows Mobile). Forget about the 15 different submenus. They’re moving everything to a single-page model with contextual overlays that fly in when you need them. Workflows have been greatly simplified, and many of them rethought. As I sat in on a demo later in the day, I’m pretty sure that the woman in the row in front of me started crying when she saw how much easier it is to import content from an old course.

To be fair, this isn’t shipping code. “Oh, Michael,” you’re thinking about now, “How can you be such a sucker as to fall for the old vaporware bait and switch?” Well, Phil and I spent some time in their UX lab. We were given access to what was clearly a live system (as was anyone else who came to the UX lab). The UX guy managing the lab gave us a script and warned us that this is still a system in development so if we wanted to see what is actually working today we should stick to the script. But of course, we didn’t. The workflows covered by the script were significant, and a lot that wasn’t on the script was also actually already working. This is real, folks. It may not be done yet, but it’s credible. And if the alpha we saw was any indication, it’s not crazy to imagine that Blackboard could raise the bar on LMS UX design by the time that they release. I kid you not.

Underneath all of this, some serious technical work has been done. Blackboard UX is now 100% separated from the business logic, using Node.js to deliver it and putting presentation code in the browser. Also, the new UX is fully responsive. It dynamically adjusts to the size of the browser window (and device).

Even more impressive was the overhaul of Blackboard Collaborate. The Java plugin is gone.[1] It’s been replaced by a simple—dare I say elegant?—WebRTC-based UX. We saw a live demo of it. If Google had designed Hangouts specifically for education, they probably would have built something like what Blackboard is showing off. And it works. We saw it in action.

The UX overhaul would be a pretty significant development all by itself. But it wasn’t all by itself.

Blackboard Learn Is Going to the Cloud

Wait. What?

Phil and I are still trying to nail down some of the details on this one, particularly since the term “cloud” is used particularly loosely in ed tech. For example, we don’t consider D2L’s virtualization to be a cloud implementation. But from what we can tell so far, it looks like a true elastic, single-instance multi-tenant implementation on top of Amazon Web Services. It’s kind of incredible. And by “kind of incredible,” I mean I have a hard time believing it. Re-engineering a legacy platform to a cloud architecture takes some serious technical mojo, not to mention a lot of pain. If it is true, then the Blackboard technical team has to have been working on this for a long time, laying the groundwork long before Jay and his team arrived. But who cares? If they are able to deliver a true cloud solution while still maintaining managed hosting and self-hosted options, that will be a major technical accomplishment and a significant differentiator.

This seems like the real deal as far as we can tell, but it definitely merits some more investigation and validation. We’ll let you know more as we learn it.

Bundled Products

This one may sound like a trivial improvement unless you’ve ever actually dealt with Blackboard’s sales force and trivial to implement unless you’ve ever worked in a big software company with lots of business units, but Blackboard has ended the practice of separately licensing 57 different products, each with its own sales rep and price sheet. In some cases—like xpLOR and myEDU—they’re merging the functionality into the core product. In others, they’re creating tiers of service.

Here’s how their website currently describes the tiers:

  • Learning Core: Bb Learn. (But remember, they’re merging previously separate offerings into it.)
  • Learning Essentials: Everything in Core plus Collaborate.
  • Learning Insight: Everything in Essentials plus Analytics for Learn
  • Learning Insight & Student Retention: Everything in Insight plus “retention services.” I didn’t catch this at the conference, but if it’s what it sounds like then the company is beginning to move away from differentiating between products and services and toward integrated solutions.

This should deliver more value to customers with less hassle.

Other Stuff

Those were the big announcements, but there was a lot of other stuff that floated by. It seems like they’re doing significant work on their mobile app, separate from the responsive UX work. I didn’t get a chance to even see what that is about. They’re working on a content store in partnership with MBS Books that could be more significant than it looks at a glance. There was some sort of jobs or career mobile app that whizzed by in the keynote. And who knows what else.

When I take a step back and look at this as a whole, a few thoughts run through my head. First comes, “Yeah, they had to do most of this in order to compete with Instructure. The holes they are filling are fairly clear.” Next comes, “I really didn’t believe they could pull some of this off at all, never mind as quickly and well as they seem to be doing it. Time will tell but…wow.” Then comes, “How the hell did they manage to get through a keynote with all of this in it and not blow people out of their chairs?” And finally, “Who would have thought in a million years that the LMS space could become interesting again?”

But there you have it. This is just a news post; the implications for Blackboard and the market are many and significant. Phil and I will have more to say about it in the days and weeks ahead. For now, the take-home message can be summed up thusly:

Game on.

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  1. Many Bothans died to bring you this enhancement. []

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About Michael Feldstein

Michael Feldstein is co-Publisher of e-Literate, co-Producer of e-Literate TV, and Partner in MindWires Consulting. For more information, see his profile page.
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20 Responses to Blackboard’s Big News that Nobody Noticed

  1. I agree, where were the jump-ups-and-cheers!! .?

  2. It wasn’t a “show.” I’m not saying I’m missing Chasen, but I DID miss Ray.

  3. pmasson says:

    Bundled Products: “This should deliver more value to customers with less hassle.”

    (I can’t believe I am going to use a Time Warner Cable advertisement to make a point, especially one that arguably does not genuinely reflect TWC’s business strategy, but…)

    [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z78RU7_zbbg&w=560&h=315

    For institutions with centralized IT/online learning support, that are trying to support multiple organizations/campuses/departments, a bundled approach may not offer the flexibility in service and cost benefits that a shared service model could.

    Ideally different units/campuses all working through a centralized support group can choose the specific systems they want to use as part of their courses/programs, contracting (and paying for) only those systems then want. Many small programs may only want the LMS and not other services (Course assessments, grading, and plagiarism prevention through SafeAssign Enterprise surveys Social learning and Blackboard’s Global Learning Network, Global Learning Object Repository, Portfolios ), or might already have in place preferred solutions. These organizations will now be paying for unused capacity if they choose to partner with centralized services.

    I think this model is great for Bb (reduced internal costs and increased adoption–albeit forced) and campus administrators who are looking for a “turn-key, out-of-the-box solution” and ease in procurement and contracting, but at the cost of teaching and learning tools that might better align with campus/faculty/pedagogical/program goals.

    Also, I thought we were moving to a distributed model of tool integration and interoperability (think IMS), not bloatware?

  4. Patrick, I suspect we’ll start seeing increasing differences between Instructure on the one hand, which is trying to be a lean, mean, LMS machine, and Blackboard on the other, which is trying to move up the value chain by becoming an integrated solutions provider. Which is better will depend on your institutional needs.

  5. Michael Evans says:

    And what on earth IS going on with D2L? I’m awaiting your comments with much anticipation!

  6. kevin dowin says:

    Excellent synopsis of the event. Although I was sceptical of Blackboard supposed focus on the learner, I thought that they are headed in the right direction.

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  11. Clint Brooks says:

    I wasn’t able to be at Bb World this year, so I certainly can’t judge the specifics, but my colleague was and his reaction seems mixed at best. My first thought is to wonder how many of these proposed UX changes were run by the broad user base for feedback, BEFORE deciding on a direction. When I read that these changes are major and surprising, it suggests to me that a very limited part of the user base was clued into them. This is exactly the attitude at Blackboard that needs to change. Interface changes need to be developed through broad interactions with the user base, and with as much feedback as possible. This feels like the kind of change Microsoft made when they went to Windows 8, and we all know what a disaster that was.

    The problem I have is not change, but the idea a software company can significantly and successfully redesign their product without consistent and broad input from users. That’s a rare bird.

  12. Clint, I suppose it depends on what you mean by “consistent and broad input from users.” In my experience, it is possible for a company—especially a company the size of Blackboard—to do very substantial usability and user acceptance testing and still have the majority of customers not be aware that they are doing it. There’s a big difference between doing a lot of controlled testing with a significant but limited number of users, which can often yield good results, and putting something out for what amounts to a referendum by the entire user base, which rarely works.

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