One Thing Blackboard is Doing Right

After Monday’s post on my confusion with Blackboard’s overall Learn strategy, I thought I would follow up with a reminder that there is one really important area where there are strong early signs that Blackboard is doing something right in a very important area: learning analytics. Learning analytics is one of those areas where there are many, many people talking and very few who are actually making sense. Blackboard has been hiring people that I usually call up when I have learning analytics questions and want to talk to somebody whose answers will actually make sense. To start with, they hired John Whitmer, who I have praised on this blog before. To get a flavor of who he is, here’s a talk that he gave when he was still back working at CSU:


If you’ve heard John give a talk post-hire (as you will have a chance to do a little later in this post), you’ll know that he is just as straight-talking, funny, and insightful now as then. And from our observations both at BbWorld 2015 and since, he appears to be in a position of significant influence within the company.

More recently, the company has hired Mike Sharkey to run their whole analytics group as part of their acquisition of his company, Blue Canary. Like John, he is one of those all too rare people who is both very good at explaining how learning analytics work and very comfortable calling BS on hype. It was a little tougher to find a recording of one of Mike’s talks for some reason, but here’s one of him when he was at the University of Phoenix:

Also recently, the company acquired X-Ray, a learning analytics product that was developed for Moodle and that Blackboard eventually intends to make available for Learn. Although the product itself is interesting, one of the motivations for the acquisition was that it included creator Sasha Dietrichson. I haven’t met Sasha yet but he has a reputation similar to that of John and Mike. I actually had the pleasure of attending Blackboard’s international launch event for X-Ray. I held off blogging about it because, in my opinion, the product still needed a little polish as of that event, but it’s worth bringing up in this context. You can see the whole event, including John’s presentation of the product, here:

(I recommend that you fast forward past the annoying animated commercial at the beginning.)

We haven’t yet seen these hires bear fruit in big ways (except arguably with X-Ray for the Moodle customers), but there are all the early indicators of a coherent investment in an analytics strategy that could turn into a major differentiator. So far, most of Instructure’s analytics work has been limited to making data available for others to use. And the last time we checked, D2L’s analytics strategy was stuck in the mud (although we are overdue for an update in that department and will be looking into it again soon). Furthermore, one major advantage of the new Learn SaaS architecture is that it provides infrastructure for learning analytics that would just not be possible on the older architecture. It’s hard for the company to tout that now when they don’t yet have products that show off the benefits. There is little question at this point that Blackboard grossly underestimated the amount of time it would take them to get the new architecture ready for prime time.

It’s possible that part of what we are seeing going on with Blackboard’s communications…er…strategy is that their product announcements (if, indeed, Ultra is a product) were so far out in front of delivery of any demonstrable benefits that it’s hard for anyone to explain the point of them without sounding completely pie-in-the-sky. Jay Bhatt felt a need, for whatever reason, to make grand pronouncements about how Blackboard was going to “transform education.” We criticized him for those comments at the time, but it’s looking increasingly likely that the damage he did through this penchant for grandiosity was more far-reaching than we imagined. But my larger point here is that, when I say that I am confused about what is going on in Blackboard, I really mean it. There may yet be a baby floating in this tub of stinky bathwater.

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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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