October 25, 2014

Blackboard acquires Elluminate and Wimba: the end of LMSs?

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Kolowich, S. (2010) Blackboard’s big buy Inside Higher Education, July 8

This article leaves me as depressed as a Netherlands soccer supporter. Elluminate follows another Canadian product (WebCT) into Blackboard’s maws, and Wimba as well.

I’ve deliberately waited a few days before commenting on this, because my immediate reaction was unprintable. At the end of the day, I found myself asking: does this really matter?

It does if you believe competition between commercial products is important for innovation and development. This further consolidates commercial e-learning software into an increasing monopoly, with the inevitable shift in the balance of power between Blackboard and its clients, resulting in even higher prices and less adaptation to individual customer needs. It doesn’t matter though if you believe the life of commercial learning management systems are limited, or that synchronous technologies aren’t very useful. So let’s unpick these things.

First, I don’t think LMSs are going away, although they are likely to change considerably. They’re not going away because they provide a number of functions that institutions and instructors find useful, such as integration of student records between administrative and teaching functions, and a ‘lazy’ instructional design model (just load up the LMS). Although we may see a gradual move away from transmission of information to more constructivist teaching processes, there is still an argument for a web based class site that however you describe it looks very much like a learning management system.

However, I do think this move will drive even more institutions towards open source learning management systems, mainly for price reasons, but also because of their ability to adapt more to individual customer needs, and especially their ability to integrate other open source tools as they become available.

Second, what are the implications for synchronous teaching? I have to say that I can’t get worked up about synchronous online teaching, because with the technology in its current state, it tends to lead to instructor control, with most communications between instructor and students, rather than between students. However, it is useful for meetings and for delivering keynote lectures, without having to travel. My fear is that Blackboard will now attempt to do what they tried to do with Desire2Learn, and take out a generic patent for all online synchronous teaching software, but they may not be successful. I think it will be difficult for Blackboard to stop other vendors from entering the field, because synchronous conferencing tools have wider use beyond education. However, if Blackboard shuts down Elluminate and Wimba, and incorporates Adobe Connect, then we will be in trouble.

The third issue is the extent to which instructors and learners will start to design and build personal learning environments relying entirely on non-commercial or ‘free’ web 2.0 tools. Although I think this will happen gradually, it will require a level of knowledge of learning theory and new web technologies that is beyond that of many current instructors or even institutions; in other words, an end run around Blackboard won’t happen quickly without better instructor training and better institutional incentives to innovate in teaching.

On balance, then, I think these acquisitions will have an overall negative effect on the pace of innovation and change in our institutions, but it won’t stop the long-term changes that are needed. Nevertheless, it’s a sad day for e-learning, and for Canada as well as the Netherlands.

For another opinion on this, see also:

Kim, J. (2010) Initial reactions to Blackboard buying Wimba and Elluminate Blog U Inside Higher Education, July 7

Comments

  1. Hi Tony,
    Thank you for another great article.
    Many organizations have made large investments in learning infrastructures and today find it difficult if not impossible to move to another system. For companies offering an alternative to Blackboard, aside from providing a better product for less cost than Blackboard, the number one priority they should have is being able to unseat incumbents such as Blackboard and implementing their system without any disruption to the customer.
    Cheers
    RJ

  2. Jacky Mostovicz says:

    Interesting article. Almost a year later, I still feel Moodle is high in demand, although Blackboard (+Elluminate) is clearly putting a lot of effort in marketing.
    I was part of a team which designed an online school using synchronous learning. We found Ellminate not to be reliable enough. We successfully integrated WebEx with Moodle, which is open-source and easily tailored to the client’s needs.

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