A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to attend the BbWorld conference and conduct a private interview with Chief Technology Officer and President of Academic Platforms Ray Henderson.1 What I learned is that the company is embarking on a fairly radical, high-risk/high-reward strategy of re-architecting both their platform and their business model. The implications of what they are attempting are much larger than you might infer from the press releases.
On the Surface: Yet Another Learning Object Repository
One of the announcements that got the most air time during the conference keynote was the release of xpLOR, Blackboard’s new Learning Object Repository (LOR). Up until now, the LOR has been largely a failure as a product category. The idea has been around for a very long time—at least as long as the LMS—but companies like Blackboard and Desire2Learn have only achieved relatively modest sales of them relative to their LMS business. Likewise, there is no open source LOR with anything like the traction open source LMSs like Moodle and Sakai have. There are a number of reasons why this is so, but probably the biggest is that LORs have not managed to solve the content discoverability problem that is their raison d’être. Instructors’ content needs are often highly specific, and they generally don’t have a lot of time to search for what they need. It’s a pretty demanding use case. Good search for learning content depends on rich meta-data tagging, good search filtering facilities, and a high quantity of niche content. Technologists can address the second of these three needs through software development, but the first and third come down to the users of the system sharing a lot of content and tagging it consistently and accurately. Since this puts a substantial burden on overworked teachers, and since LORs have traditionally been closed systems (thus limiting the number of contributors and number of contributions), installations of these products often don’t get the critical mass of high-quality, well-indexed content in order to be useful.
Blackboard clearly believes that something has changed. Interestingly, both the parent company and Moodlerooms were working on their own next-generation LORs separately before the acquisition. One clear driving factor is the shift of educational publishers to digital. If a substantial portion of the content in the LOR is provided by publishers looking to make a sale, then that content will very likely be tagged well and provided in large volumes—if they can get the publishers to play. This feels like an iTunes-style battle for the distribution channel. While Blackboard didn’t make any announcements about publisher relationships specifically with xpLOR, they have been consistently touting integration of publisher offerings with Blackboard (and did so again in their keynote this year). It certainly makes sense that they might see the current drive to digital from textbook publishers as an opportunity to overcome the historic barriers to making a LOR successful and collect a percentage of every sale. Of course, the publishers are very aware of the iTunes model as well and may be leery of letting an LMS vendor control their sales channel.
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A second thing that Blackboard seems to be counting on with xpLOR is the advances that have been made in sharing and tagging over the last generation of technology. I remembered being stunned by the uptake of del.icio.us (for a while), despite the fact that it was nothing new technologically and that it looked like…well…something ugly. The lesson there is that people are willing to share if the barrier to doing so is low enough. Delicio.us made sharing trivially easy and the benefits obvious. Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Instagram, and others have built on that insight. People are now used to sharing. If you get a chance to see the xpLOR interface, it’s pretty clear that Blackboard is trying to build on those lessons learned.
Third, they are leaning heavily on the maturity of IMS standards. xpLOR will integrate with any LMS via LTI. It also supports LTI as a consumer. So it is possible, for example, for a publisher to provide a tool or set of curricular materials—it’s getting harder and harder to tell the difference between the two—to xpLOR, and for xpLOR, in turn, to pass those assets on to the LMS via LTI. The benefit, again, is discoverability. xpLOR isn’t necessary to use the resource, but it might be necessary to find it. xpLOR can import IMS Common Cartridges. And it can store and provide QTI-formatted test question banks.
And finally, they’re taking advantage of the cloud to build something that encourages cross-institutional sharing (thus helping the discoverability problem by increasing the amount of content) while still allowing institutions to maintain a walled garden when they need it. xpLOR is not an installed product. It is a true multitenant SaaS offering, built using modern web-scale technologies such as node.js, MongoDB, and elasticsearch. Blackboard announced a second cloud-based offering called Blackboard Social. Like xpLOR, Social will be a multi-tenant SaaS offering that supports cross-institutional collaboration. Details are scant at the moment—I can’t find anything on either xpLOR or Social on the Blackboard web site—but Ray made it clear that these products will be available soon. Both will have basic services that will be bundled as part of the Blackboard Learn offering and both will have upsells for more full-featured versions of the product. Nor will these be the last true SaaS offerings that Blackboard will bring to market. An “xp”-branded SaaS calendar and discussion board are next.
That’s right. Blackboard has announced its intentions to peel off pieces of what have traditionally been considered core LMS functions and offer them as separate SaaS offerings. While Ray couldn’t comment on the details, it seems likely that these pieces will be true multi-tenant applications built on modern web technologies, and they will have some functionality that will be bundled with the core Learn product and additional functionality that will be licensed separately.
Why are they doing this? I think there are a few reasons. First of all, as Phil Hill pointed out, moving to a modern architecture on a true SaaS multi-tenant platform is probably an order of magnitude cheaper and faster than traditional enterprise software development. Blackboard’s big installed base on Learn is a millstone around their neck in this regard, because they can’t just throw out the old and start with a blank sheet of paper. Their XP strategy enables them to rebuild one piece of the platform at a time. Second, in addition to cost and speed to market, there are huge potential benefits to a true SaaS platform in terms of the value of the data that can be gathered. With analytics and adaptive learning being the huge buzzwords that they are, the future success of learning technology companies will largely depend on their ability to capture the data exhaust from students’ and teachers’ interactions on the platform and harness it to produce better learning outcomes. It is much harder to do that with a platform that isn’t true multitenant.
Third, it gives Blackboard more flexibility in terms of increasing the value of their base product versus increasing their ability to upsell premium versions of the product. If they are facing heat from increased competition, they can always add more features from their SaaS offerings to the base product. If they need more revenue, they can always save more for the upsell. This strategy is only possible if you’re providing software as a service rather than installed product. And finally, it allows Blackboard to respond more nimbly to new learning models. For example, Blackboard has gotten slammed pretty hard for their recent MOOC with Curtis Bonk, in part because CourseSites was not perceived by the participants to work well at MOOC scale. Laura Gibbs, a professor of folklore at the University of Oklahoma and prolific Google+ poster on instructional technology, wrote,
Blackboard Course Sites seemed remarkably unable to handle the large number of people who signed up – after wrestling with the thing for two weeks, I cannot imagine a worse learning platform for a MOOC than Blackboard.
The discussion boards were particularly reviled by some of the more vocal critics. While it is hard to know where this MOOC trend will go, it certainly is the case that Blackboard will be more able to respond to it if it can peel off discussion functionality from its traditional offering and rebuild it with a modern architecture and modern sensibilities about web-scale discussions. And if LTI-based integration allows them to sell this expansion of capabilities to schools using their competitors’ LMS products, then so much the better.
So if Blackboard does this, what is left of the core LMS? I asked Ray Henderson this very question. There were two pieces that he highlighted. The first was, effectively, the technological definition of a course. The LMS becomes the enterprise intermediary between the SIS and various learning tools. In a way, it becomes a kind of enterprise identity management tool. The second piece it provides is a grade book. Ray was very clear that grading is likely to remain an essential part of the core.
This view of the future of the LMS, which is very different from that of the other LMS players, would make Blackboard an increasingly direct competitor with SIS players. As I think about Ray’s description of the LMS core, it is all stuff that fits into Oracle’s wheelhouse. The add-on SaaS learning services are certainly differentiators if they can make those fly, but the strategy also opens up the market to specialist competitors. For example, a company like Quora or Branch (or Google, for that matter) could decide that it wants to compete for that discussion service business and add LTI integration.
Blackboard’s strategy is bold and is bound to shake up the market. Whether it will work is very much an open—and fascinating—question.
- As an aside, I did not know that Ray also holds the CTO title until I went to the Blackboard web site to check his title when sitting down to write this post. I don’t know how new that title is. [↩]