By Phil Hill
Thanks for inviting me to this conference in Las Vegas, but I couldn’t help notice there is no After Party. Could you point me to the BbWorld conference instead? . . . What’s that? . . . Really?? Because I just came out of a product roadmap presentation where people were clapping, and not just for improved customer service but actual product usability and features that people want. . . . OK, OK, maybe you’re right . . . But the ex-WebCT folks were actually clapping the loudest. . . . WTH?
Blackboard’s user conference this year was unlike any previous BbWorld I’ve attended. After the WebCT acquisition in 2006, the user conferences tended to be love-hate events (love the show and good times, hate the acquisition of competitors and tin ear). After the 2009 acquisition of ANGEL and subsequent changes in the management team, the user conferences moderated to ambivalence. Many of the product announcements were exciting in the abstract, but it was not clear that product roadmaps and new features were directly addressing client concerns.
BbWorld 2013 was the first time that I’ve seen customers have such a positive response to Blackboard presentations. At least from a short-term roadmap perspective, the product changes presented this year seemed to hit the sweet spot of what current customers have been requesting. There was a sense of appreciation and relief from customers that Blackboard was listening and reacting to them. And that is no small feat.
Blackboard has long been the dominant educational technology company in terms of market share and influence, has expanded beyond the LMS to a rich suite of ed tech products, and has been a leader in pushing the ed tech market forward in mobile apps and open standards. But, they have not been as good at actually listening to customers, understanding their pain points, and focusing on truly improving product usability.
So the positive response to many product presentations (especially the Learn roadmap sessions) was significant. I was able to talk to several clients outside of the presentations, and they privately confirmed that many of the new features or usability enhancements appear to directly address user pain points. Inline Assignment Grading is a great example of an improvement in usability, as described in the help center:
Instead of requiring Instructors to download student-submitted files to view or edit those submissions, Instructors will now be able to view student-submitted files “inline,” i.e. in the web browser, without requiring any plug-ins, applets, or client-side applications. Additionally, annotations tools will be made available as part of the inline viewer, enabling Instructors to provide feedback – comments, highlights, and even drawing/annotation – directly on the inline view of the document.
This is not the sexiest feature to add, but it does provide a real improvement for instructors. Furthermore, Inline Grading is not just a new feature, but a change to the user’s workflow and user experience.
Bill Flook wrote about Blackboard’s management changes and plans for a turnaround in the Washington Business Journal (subscription required). This description also touched on an important part of the changes – removing company silos and integrating the user experience.
We know, pretty clearly, where Bhatt plans to invest, even as that focus has evolved in the past few months. In his July 10 keynote in Las Vegas, he doubled down on a strategy he first explained during recent interviews with the Business Journal: “We must accelerate investment in the core.”
That core product is Learn, a learning management system, or LMS. Such systems are the software backbone of online education, providing the platform for a host of teaching, learning and administrative functions. The vast majority of schools use only one.
Although Blackboard is far and away the single most used LMS provider in the country, it has hemorrhaged market share over the past few years. Key to stemming that is improving the Learn feature set. User interfaces need to be consistent and data needs to flow across products, Bhatt told the conference.
“And we need to come to market in an integrated and cohesive way,” Bhatt said.
He’s already set that in motion by consolidating all product development and management under two executives — Mark Strassman and Gary Long — from his time at 3D design software firm Autodesk Inc.
I have called out Blackboard as a company with its share of problems, and there are real problems remaining. In particular, while Blackboard has shown an improved ability to retain clients, the company has yet to win back significant clients from their competitors such as Desire2Learn and Canvas.
From what I saw at the conference and from the interviews with several company insiders, however, the strong impression I have is that Blackboard is not the same company it was even two years ago. There are true signs of a turnaround, and the ed tech market should be better for these changes. I plan to describe more of the company’s plans based on an interview I had with Jay Bhatt both at BbWorld and at the San Francisco offices in a future post.