The Spirit of Blackboard Lives On

Well, I guess Blackboard is not dead… and not really even dying. Struggling a bit, yes – but still in pretty healthy shape.

But I seem to be seeing the “spirit” of Blackboard re-producing itself in many of the new start-ups that are trying to knock Blackboard down. Sure, they don’t have the money to be like the Borg and assimilate every company in their path, but that is not the “spirit” of Blackboard that seems to be living on.

Nor is this really the core problem that many have with Blackboard. Before the assimilations, there was another issue some didn’t like. Of course, there are actually several problems that I have heard people express with Blackboard. For one, there is the confusing announcements and lack of direction for the company (“Wait until you see version 9, aka Blackboard Next Generation.” “Oh wait, Next Generation will have to wait until after version 9.” “Next Generation? Never heard of it.” Or how about “get ready for the end of Angel.” “Oh wait, maybe not”). Another set of problems revolves around the patents and the lawsuits and the questionable path they walked down with those. There are many different issues I have heard, but these all seem to stem from one core issue I have heard the most about Blackboard.

They do what they feel is best with their products… something that often is not what educators really want. In fact, some have pointed out that many features look like they never even consulted an educator when programming it. Some feel like they are dealing with this old, lumbering dinosaur of a program that you either get on board with or get out of the way.

Despite what some people think, Blackboard is not made up of slow, ancient, ignorant monkeys pounding on a keyboard until something resembling a product magically appears. I have interacted with many people that work there, and they all seem to be enthusastic, bright people with a passion for making a good product.

And if you take Blackboard out of an educational environment/mindset, you can see that much of it is actually brilliant design… just not always for educational contexts (even the most adamant Blackboard haters have to admit that a few things do actually work well). You see, Blackboard has come to be known in some circles for having this attitude that they know what is best for us; that they can give us a good product because they have an “outside perspective.” They have been perceived by some to have a problem with listening because they “have a vision that they feel others need to also adopt.”

This is pretty much the exact same attitude that many educational start-up companies are adopting.

So if many of these new educational companies look and act just like Blackboard did in the late 1990s… where do you think they will end up in a few years?

What we really need are educators involved in these projects and companies… at the core of these companies… maybe even calling the shots at these companies.

That is not to say that we don’t need the brilliant outsiders, also. But they need to bring the ideas to the educators and see how it works for them, not tell them what vision they need to adopt. Educators, especially those that use technology, are usually more than ready to jump into new ideas… if they are convinced that they will work. If you have a vision that want to adopt, they will jump all over it. If a company is having an uphill battle getting educators to get on board with the vision… the problem is the vision, not the educators.

I had a conversation recently about an instructional design colleague that now works for a big gaming company. I can’t mention very much of the specifics because I don’t know how much of the conversation was insider info. But I was surprised that an instructional designer could have such a prominent role in developing games that you see all over Facebook. Apparently, the company behind this game was surprised about how much they didn’t know about their own customers and how much an educational perspective could improve their product.

I’m talking about a popular company that has grown larger than any educational upstart in a lot less time. The lesson? Listen to the educators and you will have success.

Okay, a bit of hyperbole there, but I at some point you need educators in the mix. What I think we are seeing is two different paths that currently dominate product development in the educational world:

  1. My Way or the Highway: start off with a slick product that dazzles people at first, but then quickly grows stale as you refuse to do what your customers want. Or start getting into Instructional Design too late in the game… once the ship is too large to turn.
  2. Collaborative Experimentation: come up with a product that is not perfect, but well-loved by those that use it because it incorporates feedback from those that use it most from the very beginning.

Basically, I have no problems with companies in general trying to create a product and selling it. Many great products have come about that way that I use every day. I just see too many new educational companies starting off with the “My way or the highway” attitude, and we already have more than we need of that mindset. Open source programs are collaborative by nature, but not everyone is up for the DIY route. I have heard good things about Desire2Learn being collaborative – I just wish more companies would take that route.

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