Ray Henderson has a post up about his sense of responsibility to customers regarding balancing innovation with mature products (careful refinements in features and support services to meet customer needs) versus innovation in new areas (bold thinking and experiments). It's vintage Ray---thoughtful, balanced, and customer-focused. And while Ray is always the first person to admit that words and deeds do not amount to the same thing, I suspect that Blackboard customers are going to be pleased to hear the company's leadership talking this way.
Ray also unwrapped a demo video of Blackboard's new iPad application:
Honestly, this looks like a promising app. If I were a student or faculty member heavily using Blackboard and had an iPad, I would want it. I would go further and say that if I were a student or faculty member heavily using Blackboard and thinking about buying an iPad, I might find this app to be an additional motivator to buy one. One common weakness of LMSs is that they don't always make multitasking easy. Blackboard's iPad app appears to help in that area. Of course, we don't know just how much functionality is covered, which is critical. But conceptually speaking, I find the execution to be appealing. The LMS may not be your bag, but if you have to use one heavily, then this may not be a bad way to go.
Let's tease out a few additional implications:
- Does this change my mind about whether native app development is better than HTML-based development for mLearning apps? Not yet, largely because I don't really think the iPad is a mobile learning tool in the sense that we have come to define mLearning. The tablet form factor with multi-touch capabilities (of which the iPad is the first example) is a whole new deal. It may use the same technologies as an iPhone or iPod Touch, (and it certainly is mobile enough), but from the user's perspective it is very different from a cell phone. I am not surprised that the large canvas benefits from creative use of native APIs for enhancing the user experience. I am not yet convinced that we will see the same benefits on the smaller canvas of the smart phone, although I am open to persuasion.
- Does this change my mind about the economics of mLearning apps? Not much. I agree with Ray that LMS platform developers have an obligation to their customers to try to innovate in this area. I'm just not convinced that said platform developers can do much to monetize it. I'm not up to speed on iPad app pricing, but I'm guessing that an app like theirs sold directly to consumers might go for $10 to $20 a pop. If they try to sell this app to schools at a higher price, or at a recurring annual license fee, I don't see what would stop some enterprising young developer---just like the kids from Stanford that Blackboard got to run their mobile division---from building his own and selling it through iTunes for less. I do think there is business for Blackboard and its peers in doing server-side mobile work integrating back-end systems.
- Looking at apps like this one, you could imagine LMSs becoming more like Twitter in the sense that everybody uses their own preferred client (whether native or web-based) and mostly ignores the original UI that is delivered by the application maker. It could be possible for students to use an LMS every day but never log into it or look at its interface. What interests me more is that the educational services (I mean that word in the technical, software sense) that the LMS provides can be disaggregated and mashed up with other apps. I could attach a class discussion thread to any web page, or put an evaluation rubric button on students' own blogs. The LMS as a monolithic user experience can stay as it is, fade into the background, or disappear entirely, depending on your needs, preferences and philosophy. This is one of the goals behind next-generation systems like Sakai 3 and Brain Honey and was always one of the goals behind the concept of the Learning Management Operating System.