July 31, 2015

Blackboard adds on open source service

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© BeyondHollywood, 2012

Today Blackboard issued a strange letter to clients announcing that, in parallel with its existing proprietary platform, it will be offering a new business to support and host open source learning management systems, and also the acquisition of two teams to help guide that work, Moodlerooms and NetSpot.

The letter states:

We are committed to continuing our deep focus on quality and innovation to make sure Blackboard Learn meets your needs—now and into the future. But we also know that different approaches to online learning require different strategies. So we’re broadening our focus to help clients select and manage the right technologies within and beyond the LMS to support all aspects of the student experience. 

Our new effort, the Blackboard Education Open Source Services group, will support clients using open source learning platforms with guidance from the leadership teams from NetSpot and Moodlerooms that bring deep expertise in this area. At Blackboard, these teams will operate independently as separate units to support their clients. We’re also announcing today that Chuck Severance, a longtime leader in the Sakai community, will join Blackboard to guide our efforts to support clients using Sakai. 

Is Blackboard eating its own tail – or growing two tails? If so, which tail will win? Talk about hedging your bets!

Blackboard launches learning analytics pilot

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Blackboard Inc. (2012) Blackboard opens field trial for learning analytics solution, Jan 10

From the press release:

Blackboard Inc. has partnered with several colleges and universities that will test-drive its new solution for learning analytics, the company announced on January 10. The institutions will pilot the new solution – Blackboard Analytics™ for Blackboard Learn™, and provide feedback to the company.

Blackboard plans for the solution to provide a complete view of teaching and learning, monitoring usage patterns and data in the learning management system (LMS) along with information from the student information system. The real-time and longitudinal data generated by the system would be used to help better engage students, measure and improve learning outcomes, and assess the adoption and use of online learning tools.

A number of four-year colleges and universities and two-year community colleges are participating in the field trial, including the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, Seton Hall University, Grand Rapids Community College and Montgomery County Community College. All of the institutions currently use Blackboard Learn 9.1 for learning management, and will provide feedback on the solution as well as how they use the information it generates to help shape final development of the product.

The solution is built on the Blackboard Analytics™ platform, which provides immediate, highly customizable access to data analytics from across the institution through dashboards, predefined reports, and guided data exploration. Blackboard Analytics was launched in 2011 and is now used to guide data-driven decision-making at over 150 higher education institutions.

Blackboard plans for Blackboard Analytics for Blackboard Learn to present both course-specific and institution-wide data over time. The information would also help individual instructors better identify and help at-risk students at the course level, while enabling administrators to better understand the impact of online learning and justify expenditures and investments at the institutional level.

Blackboard plans for the analytics solution to offer integration with all the leading SIS platforms and can be customized to integrate with other SIS solutions. The new product is scheduled to be generally available early this year.

For more on Blackboard Analytics, click here



See my next post: Do we have too much innovation in e-learning? (Coming shortly) and also e-learning outlook for 2012: will it be a rough ride?

Promo for Blackboard Mobile

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Stoller, E. (2011) Blackboard Mobile: With a StartUp Mentality, They’re Making Waves on the West Coast Inside Higher Education, October 27

This is a blatant promo for Blackboard Mobile. However, there are some interesting video shorts, which give an indication of the wide range of institutions that have implemented Blackboard Mobile.

The videos show a range of student affairs applications, which in themselves are valuable. However there were no examples of how mobile learning was directly used for instruction, in terms of redesign to develop the affordances of mobile learning – rather than just making the LMS platform available by phone, as useful as that is.

More on the acquisition of Blackboard

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Boyd, R. (2011) Blackboard: A Tale of Two Companies Seeking Alpha August 29

Farmer, J. (2011) Investment bankers and Blackboard’s future, Part 1, If…. e-Literate, July 2

Back in July, I wrote about the implications of the then potential acquisition of Blackboard by a private equity company, referring to Jim Farmer’s market analysis.

Now another financial analyst, Robby Boyd, has issued a scathing critique of the financial status of Blackboard. Whether or not you agree with his analysis, he provides some interesting comparative figures about the pricing of Blackboard license fees.

Blackboard’s fees are often negotiated individually with each institution and vary depending on the level of service and functions/tools provided, but Boyd estimates costs for higher education institutions in the range of $20-$30 per student per year for Blackboard users, with more towards the lower than the upper end of the range. However it’s difficult to know how reliable his figures are.

Boyd’s point is that Blackboard charges much more for US military contracts than for higher education, and that Blackboard’s profit comes primarily from the large, high-cost contracts with the military. He also argues that Blackboard’s share of the higher education market is rapidly diminishing, citing a large number of major higher education institutions ‘who have announced plans to quit Blackboard.’ (This certainly reflects a trend in my own province, British Columbia, where now only three out of 24 or so post-secondary institutions are now using Blackboard.) Boyd argues that

The reasons for this exodus are naturally varied–and include pricing–but for the most part, however, they boil down to dissatisfaction with a nearly decade old software framework seen as, well, obsolete.

In particular, he argues that newer products, such as Instructure, make better use of new technology developments such as social media. What Boyd underestimates though is the inertia in higher education institutions which are often reluctant to upset faculty by making radical changes in online software which, at least in the short term, means more work learning a new tool, and possible snafus when the first courses on the new platform open.

Where does this leave institutions wanting to make a decision about learning management systems? Apart from increasing their unease if they are Blackboard users, probably not much better placed. In the end what really matters is how institutions and in particular individual faculty want to teach. Any LMS can probably do the job.

The real question is whether you need an LMS at all, given the range of tools now available. My own view is that LMSs do provide a useful way to organize teaching materials, but the more they enable the easy integration of other tools, the more likely it is that the quality of teaching, in terms of student engagement and participation, will increase. Frankly, without a major re-design, this leaves Blackboard at a disadvantage, so the question is, will the new owners invest in a better product, or will they look for a quick exit?

What does the acquisition of Blackboard mean for higher education?

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LMSs - a course in a box?

Affiliates of Providence Equity Partners, a private equity company, are in the process of acquiring Blackboard Inc, the owner of one of the major learning management systems in higher education. Blackboard is considered to have a market value of about $1.4 billion.

Jim Farmer, Chairman of Sigma Group Inc., provides a comprehensive analysis of the implications for higher education in a guest post in Michael Feldstein’s blog, e-Literate:

Farmer, J. (2011) Investment bankers and Blackboard’s future, Part 1, If…. e-Literate, July 2

I leave you to read the analysis, but if your organization is running Blackboard, I would be quite concerned. For instance, UBC has just announced that it is recommending Blackboard Learn as its new learning management system, subject to Provost approval and contract negotiations. I doubt if this decision was made in the knowledge that Blackboard would have new owners, although whether this information would have changed their decision is moot.

Providence Equity also has a large stake in Sungard, which owns the Banner suite of services used by a large number of colleges for financial services, HR and student services. Private equity companies are often looking for ‘synergy’ between their investments, so integrating Blackboard with Banner for instance is not an unreasonable speculation.

Farmer speculates that one way to increase their return on investment is for Provident Equity to increase license fees, but Farmer recognizes that this may be difficult, given that there are a number of alternatives in the market, such as Desire2Learn or open source systems such as Moodle and Sakai. However, it should also be recognized that there is considerable inertia in the HE system which makes the possibility of relatively large annual increases being absorbed rather than go through the disruption of moving all the learning materials to another system (which seems to have been the deciding factor at UBC). For instance, Oracle has managed quite hefty annual fee increases of over 15-20% the last few years without losing any business. Once locked into these large proprietary software systems, it is extremely difficult to get out.

In the long run, though, I suspect it is highly academic (sorry for the pun) who owns Blackboard . Over time, I think institutions will gradually move away from the course-in-a-box model of online learning epitomized by learning management systems into more flexible and open systems of learning that allow much more freedom to teachers and learners to create their own learning environments and materials. The technology is already there, it just needs assembling and organizing, and linked to a compelling educational philosophy or pedagogy. In the meantime though the convenience and lazy thinking that LMSs support will ensure that change comes very slowly, even if the price does rise considerably.

For an alternative, more optimistic view on this acquisition, see:

Kim, J. (2011) Providence Equity and 5 Steps for a Successful Blackboard Buyout Inside Higher Education, June 26