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.
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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?