Two years ago today, Blackboard made a dramatic change of course with a series of public announcements:
- Blackboard acquired two Moodle hosting and service providers — Moodlerooms in the US and NetSpot in Australia (although they had different business models).
- Blackboard created an Open Source Services Group, which helps “institutions successfully manage open source learning management systems (LMS) including Moodle and Sakai”.
- Blackboard hired Charles Severance (Dr. Chuck) to lead this new group, and he laid out much of the rationale in his blog.
- Blackboard canceled their end-of-life for the ANGEL LMS product, keeping it available indefinitely.
At the time I described these changes:
Most of the discussion in articles and blogs follows the meme of Blackboard entering open source, or even the meme of Blackboard acquiring competitors. I think the news is more significant than either of these two memes.
Blackboard just did a 180-degree turn on their strategy for their core LMS business. They have moved from consolidating all customers into Learn 9.1 to providing products and services that are almost LMS-agnostic.
Archive of Statements
Given this dramatic turn of events, I wrote an additional post that captured the public statements (press releases, blog posts) from Blackboard, Moodlerooms, NetSpot, and even Blackboard competitors for the purpose of checking to see if the acquisitions really did signal a true change in strategy and support for open source. This two-year anniversary seems the perfect time to check up.
Bb’s Previous Open Source View
Just how big of a change did the announcements represent? Consider Blackboard’s moves regarding alternative LMS solutions in the previous six years.
- Blackboard acquired WebCT, their biggest competitor, in 2006.
- Blackboard sued Desire2Learn over patent infringement from 2006 — 2009.
- Blackboard acquired ANGEL in 2009.
- Blackboard argues that Moodle is just meeting a minimum standard of competence as an LMS.
On that last point, note that less than three years prior to the acquisition of Moodlerooms and NetSpot, Blackboard publicly argued that Moodle was not a viable enterprise system, as described and quoted by Michael, in response to a study from the North Carolina Community College System (snippets below are quotes from Blackboard).
“The Moodle product roadmap offers only a short-term view into the direction of future product upgrades and is controlled by a single person, Martin Dougiamas.” [snip]
“Global innovation is by nature not static and moves at a rapid pace. Open source may meet some minimum standard of LMS competency, but only Blackboard can grow, adapt, and evolve with the customized and ever changing needs of your [NCCCS] students and faculty”
Bb’s Current Open Source View
Fast forward to March 2012, and Blackboard’s press release shows a remarkable change in its dealings with Dougiamas.
Leaders from each company recently traveled to Perth, Australia to meet with Martin Dougiamas, founder of Moodle and Managing Director of Moodle Pty Ltd, and present their plans. The meeting included Blackboard CEO Michael Chasen and Chief Technology Officer Ray Henderson, Moodlerooms CEO Lou Pugliese and Chief Architect Tom Murdock, and NetSpot Managing Director Allan Christie.
In a recent phone interview Mark Strassman called out the continued support for Moodle by stating:
It’s really clear that one size does not fit all, and we’re thrilled that we can help those who want Moodle, giving them a mechanism for support. Having different platforms for different types of customers makes sense.
Change in Management
In the past two years most of the senior leadership involved in the acquisitions has changed, yet the basic approach to open source seems to remain the same.
- Michael Chasen and Ray Henderson are gone from Blackboard (at least operational management of products, as Ray is still on the board), replaced by Jay Bhatt, Mark Strassman and Gary Lang (the team formerly together at AutoDesk).
- Lou Pugliese, David Mills, and Tom Murdock are gone from Moodlerooms, although Phill Miller remains.
- The original NetSpot leadership, however, has actually grown in importance in the Blackboard organization. Allan Christie is now General Manager, Mark Drechsler is now in charge of consulting services, and Stephen Watt is in charge of sales & marketing — for most of Blackboard’s products and not just Moodle support. This support includes bringing Moodlerooms services into Australia.
- Charles Severance recently announced his departure from Blackboard.
Statement of Principles
In terms of open source support, the most important document to review is Blackboard’s statement of principles signed by Chasen, Henderson, Pugliese, Christie and Severance (note that only one remains). This short document was directly aimed at countering skepticism about Blackboard’s actual intents with the acquisitions.
We are committed to supporting the growth, development and use of open source technologies in education worldwide. We expect to make significant contributions to the community to help ensure that open source options remain strong, reliable and sustainable for all. Our work will be guided by the following principles:
1. We will work in a way that supports and honors the values of the communities we serve, and will continue to participate and support important community gatherings.
2. We will continue contributions of code from products we support and from in-kind development activities conducted in partnership with community organizations like Moodle Trust.
3. We will continue to focus on supporting open standards through organizations like the IMS Global Learning Consortium to ensure interoperability and eliminate vendor lock-in for all LMS options, commercial and open source.
4. We will provide financial support for Moodle Trust and other open source organizations as our strategy evolves.
5. We will work to deliver innovative, visually elegant, and technologically robust education solutions to clients regardless of whether they are open source, proprietary, or a blend between them.
On principles 1 — 4, I would argue that Blackboard has met their commitments, with support for MoodleMoots, investment in data centers, contribution of code (LTI plugin, common cartridge backup/restore, outcomes system), and development and support of LTI 2.0 code. Principle 5 in my opinion is really a marketing statement subject to evaluation by customers.
Severance, in his departure note, pointed out his view of Blackboard supporting open source communities even beyond Moodle.
Blackboard is a great supporter of open source, Sakai and open standards, and it’s investments helped move Sakai 2.9 towards its ultimate release. [snip]
Arguably the most significant effort supported by Blackboard was my work on IMS LTI 2.0.
On the financial contribution (principle #4), there are some indications that this support is quite significant. At a recent presentation to Moodle partners, it was claimed that the Moodlerooms and NetSpot combined contributions to Moodle Trust was more than 50% of the total partner contributions.
NOTE: I have not been able to confirm this information from additional sources, and every person I asked during interviews declined to speak on the subject. I went back to the Twitter stream, and it appears that the original tweets (and therefore retweets) have been deleted. Open source does not equal open books, apparently.
Whether this information is correct or not, Blackboard has certainly maintained their financial support of Moodle through the partners program. If the information is accurate, however, there is a risk that Blackboard is contributing too much financial support for Moodle Trust.
Change in Emphasis
One change worth noting with the new Blackboard executive team is the change in emphasis on international markets. Jay Bhatt has stated to me that Blackboard has under-penetrated international markets, especially in growth areas such as Latin American and China. The company has pegged much of its growth potential overseas, and according to Bhatt Moodle is a natural fit in this role. Moodle already has a strong international base of users, and many markets cannot afford or support a full-scale Learn LMS deployment. The same could be said for U.S. K-12 markets.
Blackboard has also kept their commitment (to date) in supporting the ANGEL platform, which I described in more detail here. Some customers have pointed to this June 2012 message from Blackboard as somewhat of a mixed message for ANGEL clients:
Previously we had announced an end of life target for Release 8..0 of the ANGEL Edition LMS for October 2014. In order to ensure that you have sufficient time to plan and execute a move to Blackboard Learn 9.1, we are extending that end of life window beyond the previously announced EOL date. Blackboard will evaluate the decision on an ongoing basis and provide sufficient notice of any future change to plans for support. We plan to make select enhancements to ANGEL 8.0 over time to ensure that the solution is a viable platform until you are ready to plan a migration.
Nevertheless, it is two years after the announcement, ANGEL is still supported, and Blackboard’s management still encourages the usage of ANGEL. In a recent phone interview Gary Lang stated:
Customers are happy with ANGEL, people at Blackboard are still working on the software, and there is no end-of-life (EOL) planned. For many customers the LMS is not just about feature parity — some are religious about their choices — and Blackboard is fine with this choice.
Does It Matter?
While Blackboard has kept their word and made a major change in strategy, the question arises of whether that matters. According to the Campus Computing Survey for 2011 and 2013, Blackboard’s market share (combining Learn, WebCT, and ANGEL product lines) has continue to fall in the US over the past two years, from 51% of institutions to 41%. Moodle has risen from 19% to 23% (these numbers do not separate the market share of Moodlerooms clients, just usage of Moodle). Within US higher education, at least, Blackboard has not succeeded in stopping their erosion of market share, but they have tapped into a still-growing Moodle community.
It is difficult to evaluate the company’s fortunes in K-12, professional ed (corporate and for-profit clients) and international markets without reliable market numbers. Phill Miller and Allan Christie stated that Moodlerooms and NetSpot have continued to grow since the acquisition.
Bhatt, Strassman and Lang all emphasize that Blackboard is no longer primarily an LMS company. As Strassman indicated in our call, Blackboard is “expanding its purview beyond the LMS to the broader teaching and learning continuum”. As they do so, the company will focus on interoperability and providing choices in platforms.
At the end of the day, this story is not that dramatic. Blackboard has kept their word, followed their stated principles, and kept their support of multiple LMS solutions including open source over the past two years. What is more interesting is to step back and see this update as confirmation on just how big of a change Blackboard made two years ago.