November 26, 2015

Is Blackboard Inc. really worth $3 billion?

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WebCT to BB 2

Baker, L., Roumeliotis, G. and Stone, M. (2105) Education company Blackboard seeks $3 billion sale – sources Reuters, July 28

Fleming, B. (2015) The Real Vision Behind the New Blackboard, Eduventures, July 31

Phil Hill (2015) Blackboard Potential Sale: Market timing, financials, and some thoughts on potential buyers, August 4

I have a special interest in Blackboard. In 1995, I gave a grant of $25,000 from the university’s fund for distance education to a young, untenured associate professor named Murray Goldberg in the Department of Computer Science at the University of British Columbia, to cover the costs of two of his research assistants who were finalising the development of WebCT, the first real LMS.  In 1999, WebCT was sold to ULT, who then in 2006 sold the product on to the current owners of Blackboard, Providence Equity Partners LLC, who further developed the product to its current state. So in a sense I was a midwife to Murray’s Blackboard baby. From a small acorn grows an oak.

So I was particularly interested when Reuters reported that:

Blackboard Inc… is exploring a sale that it hopes could value it at as much as $3 billion, including debt.

Now $3 billion is a lot of money for a company that specialises in software mainly for the higher education market. (It’s a lot of money for a company specialising in anything, for that matter). So what makes Blackboard think it is worth this amount to a buyer?

Blackboard Ultra

It’s probably no coincidence that Reuters reported this at the same time that Blackboard announced its new learning platform called Ultra. (Yes, groans from all the faculty who have just moved up to the latest version of Blackboard Learn). However, although I have not yet seen Ultra in operation, it is reported to be much more than just an LMS.  According to Brian Fleming, a senior analyst at Eduventures:

Ultra consists of an integration of three core products (Learn, Collaborate, and Mobile) into one coherent, responsive, and immersive platform. It includes a radically improved user experience (UX) and a number of improved workflows, including drag-and-drop capabilities, embedded grading tools, mobile communication features, and expanded analytics.

In other words, it’s more of a complete learning platform than an LMS. Fleming believes this makes Blackboard Ultra a:

product that is on par, if not prepared to outmatch, its most agile competitors (ahem, Canvas).

More importantly, according to Fleming,

Bb now has the foundation it needs to develop a comprehensive learning analytics platform unlike anything the education world has seen.

But before you rush out to buy Blackboard stocks, you might like to listen to this old midwife (especially as the company is private at the moment and isn’t publicly listed, so it has no stock to buy.)

Risks and opportunities

I’m not a financial analyst (for a good discussion of the financial aspects, see Phil Hill’s blog post), but I do know a bit about learning technologies, and here are some of the risks or challenges I see for Blackboard in the future that might influence whether or not you rush out to buy the stock of any company that buys Blackboard. (I doubt whether anyone actually contemplating buying Blackboard will read my little blog, but the advice is free.)

1. A maturing market 

There are signs that the rapid growth in online learning is beginning to slow down, if not flatten out. The Babson Surveys had been recording growth of between 10-20% per annum in online enrolments in the USA over the 10 years up to 2012. However, the U.S. Federal Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) survey showed an overall decrease in DE enrolments of 4% from 2012 to 2013. The biggest area was the for-profits, which declined by 17%. Even the Babson Survey recorded a slower growth rate in online enrolments in 2013.

There are technical reasons that make measuring the growth in online learning very difficult, and one year is not enough to determine a trend. However, the rate of students taking fully online courses in the USA (and Canada) is likely to slow in the future for two reasons:

  • there is a limit to the market for fully online studies and after 10 years of fairly large gains, it is not surprising that the rate now appears to be slowing down
  • as more and more courses are offered in a hybrid mode, students have another option besides fully online for flexible study.

However, offsetting this is the much bigger move to blended and hybrid learning, resulting in the use of online learning in campus-based classes. This is a much bigger overall market than the fully online student market, and has hardly been touched yet outside North America (Blackboard is actually used more for on-campus than fully online courses in the USA). As more and more institutions move to blended learning, so will the demand for software to support such course designs. So while the market is changing, the demand for some kind of platform to manage the online, and increasingly the on-campus components, is likely to continue well into the future. The market then may be maturing but there is still plenty of room for growth, especially internationally. At the same time, the product has to meet the demands of new blended course designs and not be merely an online platform somewhat adapted to use on campus. It remains to be seen whether Ultra can really respond to that requirement.

2. Increasing competition from other integrated platform providers

This is probably Blackboard’s most obvious (but not necessarily most serious) challenge. It is operating in a market with more than 50 direct competitors, and the list grows almost daily. Some of the later entrants, such as Instructure and Desire2Learn, have been taking a big bite out of Blackboard’s market in recent years. Learning platforms still require a relatively low-entry level of technology/software development and it is not difficult to design alternatives on the general theme. While Ultra certainly will help Blackboard to push back against its competitors, they too will not stand still in new software developments and approaches. So while the overall market may be maturing, the consolidation into two or three dominant players seems to be moving even further away.

3. Alternatives to course platforms

The design of Ultra in bringing together a range of disparate but proprietary products into one integrated, consolidated product or platform is being countered by moves to lighter, stand-alone, often ‘open’ technologies that the end-users (both teacher and learners) integrate on an ‘as needs’ basis. This can be seen particularly in the use of social media, such as blogs, wikis, You Tube videos, and mobile apps.

On the other hand, I have also argued elsewhere that the need for some kind of platform that enables learning materials to be stored and organised, limits access to registered students and appropriate teaching staff, provides secure assessment and learning analytics, and offers a central, single location for student work, is not likely to go away well into the future.

The question though is whether the kind of proprietary system such as Ultra is the best way to provide such a platform. Open source solutions such as Canvas and WordPress provide more flexibility and allow more easily for future technology developments and new teaching approaches to be incorporated.

Watch this space

These arguments of course may be actually just academic. No-one has yet made an offer and although suggestions have been made that Oracle, Microsoft or some other company with data-based products might be interested, Blackboard sits in a fairly small, niche market.

In the meantime it will be interesting to see how many institutions, having made the investment in Blackboard Learn or some other LMS, are willing to go through the major upheaval needed to move to a new platform such as Ultra. If I had $3 billion to spend, I’d wait and see – but then that’s why I don’t have $3 billion in the first place.


A new online learning platform from New Zealand

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The Open Polytechnic, New Zealand

The Open Polytechnic, New Zealand

Open Polytechnic (2015) Open Polytechnic launches online learning platform Lower Hutt NZ: Open Polytechnic

I’m not sure the world needs another LMS (sorry, an ‘online learning platform’) but this one, called iQualify and built from scratch by New Zealand’s major distance learning organization, has a number of features that advance LMSs to the next level, such as:

  • being designed from scratch for use on multiple devices (computers, tablets and mobile phones)
  • supporting multimedia content (text, video)
  • virtual study notes linked to course materials
  • interactive quizzes
  • inbuilt assessment tools
  • learning analytics.

Perhaps more importantly, the platform design is based on the Open Polytechnic’s ‘almost 70 years of expertise in learning design’.

The Open Polytechnic is marketing iQualify to employers, industry and professional organisations for online training. There’s not much detail on the iQualify web site, though.

I just hope this will not be yet another ‘in-house’ online learning platform design that hits the dust, such as the University of Phoenix’s adaptive-learning LMS that it has just abandoned. In the meantime, though, I can hear the groans all the way from New Zealand to Vancouver as faculty switch their courses over to the new platform. I wonder if this cost of change is ever factored in to LMS budgeting decisions.

I’d be interested in getting some views on this platform from users of the system.

Conference: Canada MoodleMoot 2015

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MoodleMoot 2

Most Moodlers will already be aware of this, but if you are not aware of, or are just moving to Moodle, or even just thinking about it (it is after all open source and free), this conference is a must:

What: A Moodle Moot is a conference all about Moodle. The theme for Canada Moot 2015 is Connecting with Moodle. There are three streams:

Some presentations are in French, some are in English and some are bilingual.

Where: Université de Montréal & Polytechnique Montréal in partnership with Canadian Moodle communities. Organized by (Moodle authorised partner).

When: Pre conference:Tuesday, October 20, 2015; Conference: Wednesday, October 21 – Friday, October 23, 2015

Who: Keynotes include:

  • Martin Dougiamas (the founder of Moodle)
  • Samantha Slade (PercoLab)
  • Yves Otis (Percolab)
  • Dave Cormier, University of Prince Edward Island, Canada
  • Bonnie Stewart, University of Prince Edward Island, Canada
  • Jeff Wilson, Executive Director,

How: Call for presenters: click here. This als
o gives a good idea of who has already submitted papers and the topics.

Register here. Fees vary from C$49 for a pre-conference half-day workshop to C$469 for the full conference. There is online access at lower fees than for the onsite attendance.


UBC develops an institutional strategy for learning technologies

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The Amalfi Coast

The Amalfi Coast, Italy

Bates, S. et al. (2015) UBC’s Learning Technology Ecosystem: Developing a Shared Vision, Blueprint & Roadmap Vancouver BC: University of British Columbia

I’ve not been posting much recently as I am taking a three week holiday in Europe (the photo is my view as I write this), but this report from the Provost’s Office at UBC is too significant to ignore.

What is it about?

The report basically sets out a vision and a set of strategies for the future development and management of learning technologies at UBC, a large Tier-1 research university in Canada. Although produced by a small Project Committee, it is the outcome of extensive discussions throughout the university and also externally with other institutions with successful learning technology strategies.

What is in the report?

1. Recognition of learning technology as an eco-system

A learning technology ecosystem represents faculty, staff and students interacting with their learning technology environment, composed of tools and services. There are dependencies in this ecosystem; between technologies, between technologies and services but also between users, technologies and services. The ecosystem is self-organizing, dynamic, constantly changing and evolving. Technologies are birthed, and they also are removed as new ones take their place.

2. Assessment of the current state of learning technologies

UBC uses a very interesting way of assessing the current state of learning technology within an institution, using the following conceptual framework:

UBC's current state assessment process framework

UBC’s current state assessment process framework

This has enabled the team to identify gaps in services, governance, funding and infrastructure.

Another interesting outcome of this process is that the report estimates that UBC is currently spending almost $10 million annually on supporting its LMS, of which 78% is incurred at a Faculty/academic department level, mainly in technical support for the LMS, the rest centrally, including licensing. Thus one technology tool is costing almost as much as the rest of the LT eco-system.

2. Vision and principles for LTs at UBC

UBC's LT vision and principles 2

3. Functions and services

Working group members identified functional gaps in the LT ecosystem, along with their relative importance. Similarly, members of the Working Group identified both phase-specific support required during LT life cycles, as well as support services required across the lifecycle. They identified which of the gaps required the most improvement and also prioritized them according to their relative importance.

4. Support models

UBC uses both central and local/departmental support models and because of the size and complexity of the organization, no major changes were suggested for support models (but see Governance below)

5. Governance

The working group found significant shortcomings in the current governance structure for LTs. In particular there was inadequate academic input into priorities for the selection and use of LT tools and services, and the student voice was not heard. The Working Group proposed a stronger governance model as a result.

6. Other issues

The report goes on to cover a number of other issues, such as a roadmap and success metrics and resource issues such as the need for better learning analytics and increased bandwidth.

Why this report?

Good question, Tony, and here I will have to speculate a little, as I no longer work at UBC. UBC has a long history in both distance education and learning technology development. In the early 1990s it received government funding of over $2 million to explore the use of learning technologies, one outcome of which was WebCT, the first learning management system to be widely adopted. Blackboard Inc eventually bought WebCT, and UBC still uses Blackboard Connect as its LMS.

In the early 2000s,  a ‘nascent’ governance structure for learning technologies was suggested, and in recent years governance has focused mainly on the transition from Blackboard Vista to Blackboard Connect. However, over the last couple of years, UBC has also developed a major flexible learning strategy which is now being extensively implemented throughout the university. There has been considerable frustration and dissatisfaction with the implementation of Connect which has been getting in the way of the flexible learning strategy, so I see this report as a way of fixing that disconnect (sorry for the pun.) Or, as the report puts it:

Faculty desire a greater choice of tools, so that the one with the best fit for the pedagogical purpose can be selected….the functional footprint of the LMS is shrinking over time though the footprint of the entire [LT] ecosystem is arguably increasing. We anticipate a shrinking LMS footprint while still envisaging the need for a core within the ecosystem.


Although specific to UBC, this report will resonate with many other institutions. It should be essential reading for any Provost concerned with moving their institution forward into digital learning, as institutions struggle with legacy technology systems. The report adopts a clear, evidence-based analytical approach to sensitive issues around management, technology choice, and pedagogy, even if occasionally the business-speak language grates a little.

So back to my glass of Prosecco on the sun-drenched terrace.

EDUCAUSE looks beyond the (current) LMS environment: is it a future we want?

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The future of educational technology? Image" © biotech01, DeviantArt

The future of educational technology?
Image: © biotech01, DeviantArt

Brown, M, Dehoney, J., Millichap, N. (2015) The Next Generation Digital Learning Environment: A Report on Research EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative

What is it about?

EDUCAUSE has published a very interesting white paper that:

explores the gaps between current learning management tools and a digital learning environment that could meet the changing needs of higher education.

What problem does the paper address?

The LMS has been highly successful in enabling the administration of learning but less so in enabling learning itself. Initial LMS designs have been both course- and instructor-centric, which is consonant with the way higher education viewed teaching and learning through the 1990s.

Higher education is moving away from its traditional emphasis on the instructor, however, replacing it with a focus on learning and the learner. Higher education is also moving away from a standard form factor for the course, experimenting with a variety of course models.

What solution does the paper propose?

A next generation digital learning environment (NGDLE):

although the NGDLE might include a traditional LMS as a component, it will not itself be a single application like the current LMS or other enterprise applications. Rather, the NGDLE will be an ecosystem of sorts….

It must address five domains of core functionality:

  • Interoperability and Integration
  • Personalization
  • Analytics, Advising, and Learning Assessment
  • Collaboration
  • Accessibility and Universal Design

All five are core functional dimensions of the NGDLE, meaning that progress toward the full realization of the NGDLE is possible only if the whole set is addressed…..

We will need to take what might be called a “Lego approach.” Indeed, if the mash-up is the way that individuals and institutions will assemble their own NGDLE, then one way to enable that model is to populate the landscape with a set of tools and resources that are NGDLE conformant. This would result in a toolbox of applications, content, and platforms that could be assembled in custom ways. The key is defining what is meant by “NGDLE conformance.” Legos work because of a design specification that ensures the pieces will interlock, while enabling a wide variety of component parts. For the NGDLE to succeed as we describe here, a similar set of specifications and services will need to be defined that constitute the conformance needed to make the Lego approach workable….

We are suggesting an NGDLE-conformant standard or specification, which would be based on adherence to a coordinated set of component standards. Once such a standard is in place, future investments and development efforts could be designed around the NGDLE specifications.

The culture of higher education teaching and learning must evolve to encourage and even demand the realization of the NGDLE. We need to adopt “NGDLE thinking,” whereby the functional domain set described above feels to us like a natural fit for any learning environment.


First, this is one of the most interesting papers on the future of digital learning that I have read for some time. I have had to shorten it considerably but I highly recommend reading the whole paper carefully. It contains many interesting ideas and a useful set of resources that could be directly incorporated into current teaching and learning. This is not surprising as it is  the result of ‘consultations with more than 70 community thought leaders’.

Now who am I to argue with 70 community thought leaders? Certainly I wouldn’t disagree with the shortcomings of current learning management systems, and I find Lego absolutely awesome, along with collaboration and common technical standards. I myself have previously reported that LMSs are a necessary evil, but need to evolve.

But on the second reading of the paper I started getting a really uncomfortable feeling. I’ll try and unpack that discomfort.

1. Be careful what you wish for

First, this seems to be much too much of a top-down approach to developing technology-based learning environments for my taste. Standards are all very well, but who will set these standards? Just look at the ways standards are set in technology: international committees taking many years, with often powerful lobby groups and ‘rogue’ corporations trying to impose new or different standards.

Is that what we want in education? Or will EDUCAUSE go it alone, with the rest of the world outside the USA scrambling to keep up, or worse, trying to develop alternative standards or systems? (Just watch the European Commission on this one.) Attempts to standardize learning objects through meta-data have not had much success in education, for many good reasons, but EDUCAUSE is planning something much more ambitious than this.

2. Is LEGO the right metaphor for a learning environment?

A next generation digital learning environment where all the bits fit nicely together seems far too restrictive for the kinds of learning environments we need in the future. What about teaching activities and types of learning that don’t fit so nicely?

We need actually to move away from the standardization of learning environments. We have inherited a largely industrial and highly standardized system of education from the 19th century designed around bricks and mortar, and just as we are able to start breaking way from rigid standardization EDUCAUSE wants to provide a digital educational environment based on standards.

I have much more faith in the ability of learners, and less so but still a faith in teachers and instructors, to be able to combine a wide range of technologies in the ways that they decide makes most sense for teaching and learning than a bunch of computer specialists setting technical standards (even in consultation with educators).

3. Model educational technology on human behaviour, not on computing

I am becoming increasingly disturbed by the tendency of software engineers to force humans to fit technology systems rather than the other way round (try flying with Easyjet or Ryanair for instance). There may be economic reasons to do this in business enterprises, but we need in education, at least, for the technology to empower learners and teachers, rather than restrict their behaviour to fit complex technology systems. The great thing about social media, and the many software applications that result from it, is its flexibility and its ability to be incorporated and adapted to a variety of needs, despite or maybe even because of its lack of common standards.

When I look at EDUCAUSE’s specifications for its ‘NGDLE-conformant standards’, each on its own makes sense, but when combined they become a monster of parts. Do I want teaching decisions influenced by student key strokes or time spent on a particular learning object, for instance? Behind each of these activities will be a growing complexity of algorithms and decision-trees that will take teachers and instructors further way from knowing their individual students and making intuitive and inductive decisions about them. Although humans make many mistakes, they are also able to do things that computers can’t. We need technology to support that kind of behaviour, not try to replace it.

4. Read the paper and make up your own mind

I think that despite my concerns this paper is really important. It offers one possible future for educational technology that we need to consider very carefully. I may be over-reacting in my response. You must draw your own conclusions from the paper – as I know you will. But do read it if you care about the future of education.