Three Tests for the 'New' Blackboard

Today Blackboard announced that ANGEL’s Ray Henderson will be the new President of the Blackboard Learn division. This is great news. Ray is one of the best executives in educational technology today, known for his competence, his integrity, and his leadership in supporting open standards and openness in general. Does this mean a new beginning for Blackboard?

Many of us remember when WebCT’s Chris Vento was made Blackboard’s Senior Vice President of Technology and Product Development after that merger. Like Ray, Chris was regarded as a leader in the field. And like Ray, he was a champion of open standards. I remember listening to Chris, soon after the merger, speaking with great confidence about how Blackboard was committed to standards like Tool Interoperability, how openness was good for Blackboard’s business, and how it was a new day. A year later, he was gone. Blackboard is not known today for its leadership in open standards. Nor is it known for its leadership in customer service—something that the company claimed it was going to learn from WebCT and claims again that it will learn from ANGEL. Going by the tweets from the ANGEL user conference, Blackboard’s leadership wasn’t talking a whole lot this week about how Chris and the WebCT leadership helped to change Blackboard’s culture for the better. When the speakers mentioned WebCT at all, it seemed to be mostly to say that they underestimated how buggy the software was. That’s not change we can believe in.

So the question is whether Blackboard will prove more willing to be changed by Ray and ANGEL than they were by Chris and WebCT. Are they ready to learn? Time will tell. But there are three specific actions I will be watching for as early tests of just how serious Blackboard is about learning from ANGEL, particularly with regard to openness.

Before I get to the test themselves, though, let me head off at the pass some objections that I tend to get to posts like this one. It’s often the case when I advocate that a company should embrace openness that some commenter calls me naive for suggesting it. Clearly I don’t understand that these are money-making businesses, I’m told.  

Actually, I do understand. I have worked for private companies both large and small and have run my own successful business. I get capitalism. There are at least three reasons why it is not naive (or socialist) to suggest that Blackboard should embrace openness. First, they said they would. If you look on the company web site, the words “open” and “openness” are all over it. Blackboard is an “open platform” with “open APIs” (whatever that means). They have sponsored a site where customers can contribute open source building blocks. Openness is one of the things that they claim to admire about ANGEL (and, presumably, about Ray). Clearly, Blackboard executive management believes that being associated with “openness” will be positive for their brand. In order for that marketing strategy to work, though, people have to truly think of the company as open. If you want to be thought of as being open, one good way to make that happen is…I don’t know…to be…open? Second, openness is a broadly accepted business strategy. Why do the biggest names in software actively support a wide range of open standards and, increasingly, open source? If you are going to build a platform strategy, you need an ecosystem. In other words, you have to be willing to give away some potential revenue in order to grow past a certain size. And finally, companies should have values. There, I said it. Call me a pinko. Call me a wild-eyed idealist. I’m just one of those crazies like, I don’t know, the founders of Google. “Don’t Be Evil.” That’s a core Google principle, written on their web site for everyone to see. Capitalism need not be immoral. You can be very interested in making money and still decide there are certain things you won’t do. This should be particularly true when the “industry” you are serving is education. If you ask Matt Small and Michael Chasen about whether a company should have values, I’m pretty sure they will agree that it should. They will probably argue that Blackboard does have good values. We should all want them to be right about that.

At any rate, on to the tests. The first thing I will be looking for Blackboard to do is to drop the patent suit. Blackboard’s executive management seems to have convinced themselves that nobody cares about it anymore, that it’s a settled matter and, anyway, it has nothing to do with openness. But Ray knows that they are wrong. And, in fact, anybody who is reading the blog posts, the news article comments, and the tweets about the merger should know that they are wrong. Blackboard is perceived as a monopolist and a bully by much of the market. They purchased two of their three top competitors and are in the process of suing the pants off the third. They are seen to be deliberately removing choice in the educational marketplace. This harms the company in several ways. First of all, it negates any brand value they were hoping to get out of openness. Nobody is going to think of Blackboard as an open company as long as they are asserting their patent. An “open monopolist” is an oxymoron. Second, it has caused lasting brand damage. Right now, that damage is masked in the numbers by the fact that their competitors are perceived by large segments of the market to be non-viable choices. If that situation were to change, if competitor were to emerge that were perceived to be viable, Blackboard could face mass migration of their customer base. In crushing the smaller threats, Blackboard creates the potential for a much larger one. Fear is not a viable long-term customer retention strategy. It always fails at some point. Ray understands all of this. So I will be looking to see if Blackboard will take his leadership on it.

The second sign I will be looking for that Blackboard is learning from Ray and the ANGEL team is that they implement IMS Common Cartridge—including export—in the main Bb Learn product. Open educational resources is a coming (albeit slow) revolution in education. Enabling teachers to export content in an open, sharable format will enable the LMS (including Blackboard’s) to become a platform that facilitates this revolution. An enlightened businessperson would understand that being viewed by your customers as a facilitator of positive industry change is worth the risk of making it a little easier for customers to leave your product. This is probably one reason why ANGEL, under Ray’s leadership, became the first platform in the industry to support Common Cartridge import and export. Blackboard, on the other hand, does not make open content export easy. In fact, my understanding is that their course archive format is encrypted.

Update: A reader informs me that the WebCT course archives are encrypted but Blackboard platform course archives are not.

If Blackboard is serious about learning lessons from ANGEL, then they can show it by making bi-directional support for Common Cartridge a priority.

The third test of whether whether Blackboard is serious about learning to be more open is whether they implement IMS LIS across all their LMS products. This is actually an area where neither company has delivered the goods yet (although, to be fair, both have publicly committed to doing so). LIS will make customers able to get higher quaility integration between LMS and SIS at lower cost. It will enable them to pay less to vendors in consulting fees and be more able to migrate from one platform to another. What supporting vendors get in return for reduced consulting fees and reduced lock-in is reduced support costs and increased customer satisfaction. It’s one of those give a little, get a little things. If LIS moves forward expeditiously on both Blackboard and ANGEL platforms, I will take it as one sign that Blackboard is indeed becoming a more open company.

These are my tests. What are yours? What will you be looking for in the coming months to see whether the merger is a positive one?

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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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13 Responses to Three Tests for the 'New' Blackboard

  1. Patrick Masson says:

    While not an Angel or Blackboard customer, I am very interested in how “openness” can actually provide any organization an advantage in decision-making and thus become more responsive to those they support. First I think it is important to understand the difference between openness and transparency, two terms that I feel are often confused. Transparency is an organization’s willingness to share. A transparent organization will not only tell you what they are doing, but why and how. This can be very valuable as folks enter and assess an organization to determine potential value and alignment. Transparency increases knowledge by sharing success and, importantly, failures. Transparency allows the use and reuse of information and helps others further their own ideas by providing examples, evidence and support. Transparency is challenging for individuals and organizations: it takes courage to share your ideas, expose yourself to criticism; it requires honesty to admit your failings, report your problems and share your mistakes; it takes maturity to reflect on current practices in order to improve.

    But openness is even harder. Openness puts the direction of the organization into the hands of the community, transitioning organizational governance to a remote, decentralized and distributed model. Respectively, this means resources may be developed and administered off-site by organizations under no obligation to the organization (remote); governance and decision-making is not controlled by a single authority, nor is adoption, which is independent and informal (decentralized); development is undertaken by multiple self-interested groups as independent or collaborative efforts outside the direct influence of those that may rely on them (distributed).

    Openness is the willingness to but the direction of your organization into the hands of those who can best articulate needs – the end users. Openness transitions the role of senior management from “leaders” who define and implement a vision based on personal experience or expertise, to facilitators who create an environment were direction emerges based on collaboration and evidence.

    Open organizations need not be limited to open source developers. I used to ask “What version of Yahoo are you running?” in order to highlight how services can evolve based on use. Today Google is a better example. Google, and much of web 2.0 services, provide incremental changes, then assesses adoption/use to inform further development (decision-making). These small upgrades slowly extend functionality while mitigating risk. If an idea fails to capture the users (remember Google’s answer to e-bay, Froogle?), it can be pulled back before a heavy investment is made. Consider this: how many folks have ever been to Google training? I would imagine not many, yet we all know how to use Google’s vast services.

    I do not know if I can think of a benchmark for assessing an organization’s openness. But if one feels openness is important, it boils down to if they fell they are setting direction rather than being directed: consumers vs. collaborators.

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  4. Travis says:

    Michael,

    As someone who was at AUC and was able to talk personally with both Ray and Mr. Chasen, I wholeheartedly agree with your post with two caveats and a defense.

    First, I would favor putting continued quality of support or improvement of support, respectively, ahead of LIS. I am fairly confident that at least Bb is already looking at LIS as another, ‘value-added’, component. Angel’s XEI package is pretty slick by the way.

    Second, while Bb archives may be encryped there is a way to export an IMS package that can be imported straight into Angel, including quizzes. In fact, before publishers and test generation programs supported ANGEL, I could simply request/export a Bb cartridge. Same thing with the old WebCT CE 4.1 with CEMT. It is one of the reasons we picked ANGEL.

    In your defense, openness is a value that has many of us in the ANGEL community spoiled. I have been amazed at the creativity of solutions that have come out of the listserv and AUC presentations. I would dare say that a large majority of them require no changes to underlying code. Sure a few nuggets have been shared abd a couple code mods, but most are using the tools presented by the ANGEL interface. The point is not about changing out code on the backend, but about gaining a richer understanding of the mechanics of the platform. And that is just the software.

    When you talk about the openness of the company, they had no risk of losing product direction. Feature requests were welcomed if not encouraged. In addition to strong leadership from Ray and other execs, the entire organization had(still has) a shared vision of client relations, collaboration and innovation. Even in virtual environments, strong personal relationships help people get through tough times. The openness and engagement are functions of the culture and values of the company and the people that company employees. Make comparisons where you will.

    As to the D2L lawsuits, we have been told that it is because they have a genuine disagreement. That D2L copied Bb code and that the patents had to be defended so that Bb could protect it’s clients from patent claims by others.

    How does that leave moodle and Sakai? Well, jury is out. In less than thirty seconds I heard that they had been licensed to use Bb patents which quickly morphed to a commitment not to pursue patent claims against moodle and Sakai. Does the fact that moodle claims nearly 60,000 sites in 210 countries have any bearing? Even if only 1 in 10 are actual production instances, that is still a huge community. What about new OS products?

    btw Micheal, Thanks for letting me rant. I will be setting up my own blog when I get an extra hour in a day. Hmm. Careful what I wish for. Soon.

  5. Travis says:

    Just wanted to add that I do not mean to disparage Bb employees, but I have not had enough interaction to form an opinion. I do not wish to encourage a comparison of the employees of each unit. I just wanted to express my appreciation for the great experiences that I have had with the ANGEL crew.

  6. James says:

    Just to clear up some points. Blackboard Academic Suite and CE 4 backups are NOT encrypted. WebCT CE 6 and Vista backups are encrypted. Blackboard did not add this, WebCT did and the explanation was that publishers requested it and signed contracts with WebCT for it.

  7. jackjack says:

    Travis:

    “As to the D2L lawsuits, we have been told that it is because they have a genuine disagreement. That D2L copied Bb code and that the patents had to be defended so that Bb could protect it’s clients from patent claims by others.”

    I’m a technologist, not a lawyer, but I have read every word of the Bb patent, and as many of the legal filings, court opinions, USPTO papers, etc. as have been made public. There is a LOT of it.

    At my most generous, it’s very hard to imagine that anyone with a solid understanding of the patent could truly believe that it is legitimate.

    I sincerely hope that you were told “D2L copied Bb code” by someone who is simply misinformed; none of the court filings suggest such a thing and in any case the products are not in the same programming language.

    They might have meant to say that D2L copied Bb *concepts*, ideas covered by the patent; that is what the lawsuit was about. Another perspective is that Bb copied those same concepts from other people, and then requested and received a patent on those concepts.

    The USPTO evidently agrees with the latter idea, which is why they are in the process of overturning the patent.

    Note: I don’t work for Bb or D2L, but have some past experience with both. I don’t know much about Angel, but it sounds like it has been an awesome product and a great company to work with. I wish you and the other Angel clients all the best during this transition!

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  9. Thank you for the clarification, James.

  10. Greg Ketcham says:

    I hesitate to rubber stamp Travis’ recollection of comments made at AUC, but as best as I can recall Mr. Chasen said words very much to that effect during one “open listening” session. I also understand that despite urgings from AUC members to drop the D2L suit, Chasen and Bb seem determined to pursue it to the end. This “Bambi vs. Godzilla” approach is why many, many Bb institutions turned to ANGEL in the first place- because it was the unCola, the alternative to the market dominant force.

    Interesting comments regarding WebCT leadership. I won’t attempt to draw too many parallels here, but I will note that being involved with a resurgent national ISP that picked over the bones of it’s competitors through near surgical M&A efforts (in which I was involved), I lost count of the number of “new blood” executive level managers who came and went as we continued to swallow ever bigger fish. Hopefully a similar fate will not befall Ray Henderson.

    -Greg

  11. Michael,

    You’ve recently posed three interesting challenges for me and “the new Blackboard.” You asked whether we’d change our approach to the industry in some important ways. All require real thought and commitment, and I’ll share with you and your readers that I’m pondering these (and more) as I consider which positions I’ll focus on most in my early days.

    Today I’ve shared a related announcement committing Bb to standards like Common Cartridge, both import and export, and LIS. It’s an important call that speaks directly to the questions of citizenship that have been questions for our direction. It also speaks to the issue of effort Bb will put forward to opening our platform. See My blog for my letter to our customers and note to the eLearning community.

    I look forward to the road ahead on questions like these, working with my new colleagues here and with the community overall. In the meantime, never too late for you to join the conversation around standards at BbWorld in DC.

    Ray

  12. It’s a promising start, Ray.

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