Active Learning Without Even Trying!

Just a brief break from the Open Learning Structure series to quote an actual promotional blurb from Blackboard:

“Ever wish you could engage your learners more without even trying?”

Yes – it actually says that. Call me old fashioned, but I remember the days when “engagement” by default meant you had to try or it just wasn’t actually engagement. But I guess the goal is a newfangled kind of learning where the instructor doesn’t even try.

Sounds good to me – collect a paycheck without lifting a finger! We can automate this whole process it seems.


Blackboard’s New Message: “We Can’t Stop You From Leaving, So We’ll Buy Where Ever You Go. Resistance is Futile.”

So a lot has been said about the Blackboard move into open source. After reading several posts, I still have to consider this move a bad one overall. At least for those of us that want better diversity and choice in the Ed Tech market. Let’s face it, no matter where you go, you can’t escape the touch of Blackboard.

They buy competitors that they can – Angel, WebCT, etc, etc. If they can’t buy a company, they force changes through lawsuits and patents (Desire2Learn). Open source used to be the “safe zone” from Blackboard, but now they are working to inject their ideas and footprint into the two largest open source projects.

Most of the new start-ups we have seen in recent years still seem to be trying too hard to not be Blackboard, or to be Blackboard with an easier to understand interface (i.e. the “educational version” of Facebook). But all of these companies still bear the big, hard to miss effects of Blackboard on their product. There are a few good ideas in Blackboard (mostly assimilated from other product purchases), and avoiding those ideas “just to be different” causes more problems than it fixes.

And I just don’t get what is going on with Instructure. I am trying to like them, but can’t ignore the fact that they are saying some things that don’t match up with reality. “People don’t like it [Moodle]?” Then why is it so popular? Why does it score so high in customer satisfaction? Why does every single person I have ever talked to at conferences about Moodle rave about it? Or how about this one: “We rarely see Moodle or Sakai make it to the short list of any education institution.” I agree with Sakai – but Moodle? I get why some people don’t like Moodle, but everywhere I go I always see it on the short list. Usually a short list of two – Moodle and Blackboard. I just don’t get these wildly hyperbolic statements. Or how about this: “Moodle and Blackboard came from the same decade, which was a long time ago.” Huh? The Internet is older than both, so would that mean it is time to give up on online learning altogether? I’m just hoping these are comments taken out of context.

Blackboard has shown that they can’t stop people from leaving their product, so they are going to buy wherever the former customers go. If you can’t beat them, buy them, right? This will push more people to go the DIY route outside of all LMS providers. Why choose a competitor that might just be bought? Why go open-source when some of the ideas you didn’t like in Blackboard might get added to the project in a few years? Or the company that you use for hosting just gets bought?

So now many universities are going to start looking anew to the DIY, artist-formerly-known-as-EduPunk, cobbled together approach of the open education movement, or MOOCheads, or whatever name the cutting edge people decide to call themselves. At some point, there needs to be a cool name attached to this movement, since Jim Groom went through that ugly divorce with EduPunk and all.

But, come on EduPunk… can’t you just open your eyes and see that you were wooed away by the promise of book deals and big money and became a corporate sell-out? You were such a cool name and idea… we need you back at this crazy time in history to be a rally point for those of us that want something different.

My personal prediction is that this latest move will push more universities to just abandon the LMS altogether. Let’s face it, if you don’t like Blackboard, that seems to be your only option now.

But maybe that Jim Groom is now Mr. Money Bags, he can just fund a new system that will give organizations wanting to go DIY a good starting place.

Yet Another Sign That the LMS is Dying – Blackboard “Embraces” Open Source

I’m a huge SciFi fan, but I have to admit there some Star Trek series I never got into. Star Trek Voyager was one of them. I did catch one episode that was pretty cool – it involved the Borg running into a species that was too much for them to handle. One scene in particular that I remember was a Borg soldier trying to assimilate an organic compound on the wall – with very little success. It just couldn’t understand that this goo on the wall just wasn’t assimilate-able and just keep sticking its interface in and out, never noticing that it wasn’t working at all.

To me, this is a pretty fitting description of what would happen if Blackboard ever tried to take over Moodle. They would just be this big corporation trying to assimilate something they don’t really understand.

But that would never happen, because you can’t buy an open-source project. Right? Oh, wait….

I guess they can (and did) buy a hosting provider for Moodle services. And now according to the press release, they are going to use this connection to start invjecting their tentacles… er… “ideas” into the Moodle project. Oh, and the Sakai project while they are at it.

(That sound you now hear in the collective sound of a million EduGeeks pounding their heads on their desks)

Blackboard even met with Martin Dougiamas of Moodle to get a start “in outlining areas where Blackboard can best contribute to the Moodle project as we set out on a journey.”

Don’t get me wrong – I owe a lot to Blackboard. I probably wouldn’t have my day job if I didn’t have to spend so much time explaining to people how to figure out the confusing thing that Blackboard refers to as an “interface”. In most cases, I usually end up doing most of the technical side myself, as it is just too complex for the average educational user to have time for. If an instructor has to choose between helping students learn and spending huge amounts of time learning how to get a test in Blackboard, I think they should go for the time with the student.

And now they want to send these interface and structure ideas back into Moodle?

So, is the LMS really dying… or being slowly chocked to death by The Borg? You be the judge.

The Battle For Openness In The LMS Market

Last year it seemed like every new LMS company was trying to position itself as the “Facebook” of online learning. Then Facebook started to make everyone angry (or bored, or both), and we saw that idea dry up pretty quick (well, for the most part). The new catch phrase battle seems to be heating up over the words “open” and “free.” Both Pearson and Blackboard are racing to establish either part or all of their services as open and/or free.

Many people have examined the concepts of open and free to see where various companies stack up. But of course, a lot of this is hard since few people have been inside of Pearson’s OpenClass.

Pearson is lifting the veil a bit more by releasing some screen shots of their OpenClass platform (although, anyone that has been reading this site for a while or attended one of my presentations with Harriet knows that mock-ups and screen shots of ideas are pretty easy to come by). The OpenClass screen shots look nice and they look like they integrate with Google well. But to be honest, anyone that wants notifications of new Gmail messages or Google docs can just as easily install any one of a large number of extensions for Chrome or Firefox or any number of browsers. Google docs are pretty easy to embed or add users to, so I know there will be a long line of people pointing out that you can already do what these screen shots show with just a few extra steps. Busy instructors will love this, of course, because saving steps and integrating products easily is always a welcome move in their world.

What we have shaping up here is basically a “Googlized” Blackboard with probably a healthy portion of Apple-esque eas-ability of use thrown in. That is not necessarily bad – these are all welcome steps forward for the LMS.

But it still only really brings us into the 1990s. What about those instructors that don’t want to use Google services? What about those courses that use specific web tools for specific reasons based on the specifics of the field they are in?  How hard will it be to plug in embed codes or APIs from non-Google services?

It might end up being very easy. But this is still not the open I am looking for. This is also not what I would consider the iPhone moment that the LMS market needs. Whether you build a system around Blackboard’s core code or around Google, you are still building it around a specific system and you will only be able to let in what that system lets in.

The whole point behind the “New Vision LMS” was that it needs to be built from the ground up to be open to any system that you could want to plug into it. The subway terminal concept could basically be that iPhone moment, if it is designed well. It would also be the true “openness” that I am looking for.

For different reasons, many of the usual uses for the term “open” are not exactly what I am looking for when I want open. They are all great, but I still think there is more. These uses include:

  • Open as in open source code. I’m a big supporter of open-source software. But you can still install open-source programs like Moodle and then clamp them down so tight that they don’t feel open to the users.
  • Exportable content. You can make your LMS software open by making it easy to export classes to course cartridges and other common formats. If you design your course well from the beginning it wouldn’t be that hard to re-design it in another LMS. So easy export is nice, but not that big of deal in my experience (and this is coming from some one who has had to migrate hundreds of courses from at least four different LMS systems through the years – open export formats are nice, but not  a necessity). If you place all of your content on sites like WordPress and then link to them, exporting isn’t that hard.
  • Free to Access Outside the LMS. Blackboard’s recent announcement that you will be able to make courses “open” is nice, but you still have to use the Blackboard system to design those courses. Some instructors want their content out there and free for anyone to be able to see. And there are still ways to do that inside of Blackboard and other LMS systems. In fact, I teach a course that technically works like that.

All of these are great, but to some degree we already have all of these somewhere. To me, a truly open system is one that lets you use any tool you want, and then that will be imported into the system and organized so that learners can follow each other easily. Which also means that this organized activity will be exported out in any way that students want so they can follow course activity using any tool they wish.

And of course, this system would need to scale easily from small courses of specialized learners to massive open courses.

In other words, we still need that tool that can organize Personal Learning Networks to allow learners to focus in on specific classes or assignments when they need to. But also a tool that easily integrates with other school systems (like enrollment, emergency notifications, grade tracking, etc).

That is the kind of iPhone moment I am looking for. Of course, the iPhone isn’t really what anyone would call open… so the metaphor breaks down if you look at it too closely. But I think you know what I am getting at.

Rise of the Franken-Video Conference

Blackboard recently announced that they have melded the two video conferencing services they bought (Wimba and Elluminate) into one service. The new service is being called a new version of Blackboard Collaborate. The usual language accompanied this news – they took the best of both worlds, tested it with universities, got feedback, etc. Blackboard always promises these kinds of things and delivers mixed results (at best). The thing that bothers me is that I never, ever heard a single person make a comment like “wouldn’t it be great if they mixed Wimba and Elluminate and kept the best of both services to create something awesome?”

And how do you mix the “best” of two services that do a lot of the same things?

I’m going to go out a limb and say that the people that went with Wimba probably went with it because they liked the way it worked over Elluminate, and those that went with Elluminate were the same in regards to Wimba. Mixing the two will probably just make everyone upset because now no one is getting what they originally wanted.  The problem with Collaborate is that you are forcing a product on the market that nobody wanted. That has never been a good idea. Anyone remember New Coke?

Another New Blackboard Competitor Arrives: Coursekit

Katrina turned me on to a new Course Management System called CourseKit.  The kicker about this one is that it was conceived and designed by three students with full time course loads because they weren’t happy with Blackboard.

First of all, I have to say that if students are having problems with Blackboard, to the point that they want to create their own alternative… that should say something. The point that it is three full time students creating this should make the rest of us stop and ask ourselves why we haven’t done the same.

So far, I like what I see from Coursekit.  They wanted it to be simple and fun, and they got simple and fun. It was designed to resemble Facebook and you can easily post links, images, and comments on the course wall.

The flip-side is that it is still another one-size-fits-all option.  If you want something different, you can post a link to it, of course (but you can also do that in Blackboard).  It still feels like it is a walled garden, even if the walls are getting lower.  But it is also still pretty new, so that may change.

There is a basic fundamental difference between this and the social learning environment (SLE) that we have been writing and presenting about.  In Coursekit, you still basically use the tools and interface provided to you in the box.  In an SLE, both the instructor and students choose to use whatever tools are out there and then tells the SLE where they are. The SLE would aggregate those and then combine them in one place to be exported to the interface that the students or instructor chooses (and everyone could have a different one).

But, that idea is still probably a few years from being accepted by even the bleeding edge folks (I say that knowing that most EGJ readers are probably miles ahead of even the bleeding edge types out there).  So, given the choice between complex and clunky and simple and fun, I would take simple and fun any day.

(sidenote: I do know that Moodle 2.0 has taken great strides in integrating with external sites rather than just linking to them.  It just has so many changes and I am so busy that it is taking me forever to wrap my head around it all.  Expect some posts about Moodle2.0 at some point in the future).

Reality Check For Blackboard

Seems like Blackboard’s legal battle to enforce one of its patents is finally over.  Patent No. 6,988,138 basically made the claim that Blackboard invented the idea that a single course-management software user could have multiple roles in multiple classes. The patent was initially granted but soon overturned.  Blackboard vowed to fight.

But so did the educational community.  Petitions were signed and multiple instances of prior art were cataloged.  Ultimately, I think it was the outcry and effort of millions of people around the world that brought about this final development.

I am no legal expert, but surely Blackboard can’t keep the $3 million-plus dollars it got in the original lawsuit once the patent is finally gone, right?

Anyway, this is hopefully a big reality check for Blackboard – don’t claim to invent something that you didn’t and then use that false claim to throw your weight around the educational community.  Hopefully, we will see a new, more humble Blackboard come out of this.

Yeah, I’m not holding my breath, either.

The Point in Education is to Collaborate and Learn, Not Just Buy Everyone

The Borg has struck again: this time Elluminate and Wimba are being assimilated. I can’t say that this makes me sad for either of those two companies. I have long held the position that synchronous tools destroys the killer aspect of online learning – it removes the ANY from “any time, any where learning.”  But I can’t say I see this as a positive for the overall education community.

This article on Inside Higher Ed examines some of the problems this acquisition makes: specifically, what does this mean for Blackboard competitors that are licensing either products? Considering Blackboard’s history of suing competitors that they think are encroaching on their territory – I am guessing that doesn’t mean very good things.  Blackboard is saying that they want to sustain those relationships – but who really believes that? No one that has kept up with Blackboard’s dismal record on doing that with past assimilations.

Even worse is Blackboard’s ability to integrate purchased products into their existing software.  Blackboard 9.1 is mess of mish-mashed concepts held together with a rather questionable string of logic.  Even their own trainers make fun of how little sense many things make in the control panel.

And this has all been mostly with integrating one LMS with another. Elluminate and Wimba are entirely different categories of tools than what they have been dealing with so far. How big of a mess is that going to be?

At one time I though monopolies were illegal in this country. Guess I just dreamed that chapter of poli-sci.  Even if legal, they are still bad ideas and even worse for a field like educational technology that needs innovation right now rather than one company that controls everything.

It is like the ancient educators created different tools to accomplish different aspects of learning, but in the secret Sauron created one master ring to eventually enslave them all:

One LMS to rule them all,
One LMS to find them,
One LMS to buy them all
and in the ‘borg bind them.

Blackboard v. Desire2Learn is Over – But Can We Really Move On?

For the few that haven’t heard yet – Blackboard and Desire2Learn have both reached an agreement to stop all legal activities against each other. And that is about all we know about it, because both sides are not revealing any reason or motive for this move. Many are happy to hear this and are proclaiming that we can finally move on in the educational world, instead of worrying about the future apocalypse.

Of course, there are those that see something ominous brewing in this decision, while others are just down right concerned.  Count me in the concerned camp.  Can we really move on, when we have no idea why we are moving on?  I am sure there are always a few lemmings that question where the group is heading, only to be shushed by the others. “Just be quiet and be glad we are getting such a great view of the scenery off of this…..”

I could be happier about this if I actually knew why it was over (even if I didn’t agree with the reasons). Did Desire2Learn just run out of funding for further action? Did Blackboard realize they were losing the battle and decide to get out before the P.R. nightmare got worse? Did Blackboard finally get a clue and realize their patent was bogus? Or maybe even realize what they were doing was hurting the educational community more than helping, and decide to do the right thing?

(had to pause for a second…. tough to ROTFL and type at the same time…)

But as many have pointed out, this settlement is probably going to be worse than any possible final outcome of the original legal action. Is Blackboard going to sue others now? Are they going to file more patents and claim to invent stuff that they really didn’t?  We have no idea.  What if you want to start a new company, with a fresh idea? Will you find yourself in the cross hairs of a massive legal team, just because you used an obvious idea that they claimed to have invented? If we don’t know why this process was stopped, we can’t even possibly know where to move forward. Too many land mines hidden out there now.

Anyways…. The biggest problem is that we see a clear example of Blackboard breaking a vow. They vowed to appeal this to the Supreme Court and then didn’t.  What does that say about their vows to not hit open-source companies like Moodle and Sakai with lawsuits? Better start watching your back some more, Martin Dougiamas!

Of course, Desire2Learn valso broke a vow: to fight this to the end. I guess it is just the Blackboard Effect. Heck, they even got the CEO of the once-rebellious Angel LMS to turn into a boring corporate suck-up, so I guess they can turn Desire2Learn into complacent zombies.  Who will probably get bought soon.  Blackborg indeed.

Are the Natives Ever Going to Get Restless Enough to Do Something About Blackboard?

I read an article about some new lawsuit Blackboard is filing against someone that they really shouldn’t because… well, the Borg has so many lawsuits out there now that I just can’t keep the details straight.  But the deal is… it’s another lawsuit.  That million dollars your institution is spending to use with Bb over the next few years is probably going straight into some lawyers pocket.  I’m gonna bet that Blackboard has now taken the number one spot in the “most litigious educational companies ever” list.

Are we ever gonna see change here?  Two exhibits to consider:

  1. Five Companies Google Might Buy Next

    Blackboard is listed as one of those companies (thanks Katrina for the link!).  That is probably not going to happen, but I find the Wall Street Journal’s description of the Borg particularly interesting: “Once a school begins using Blackboard software for their students there are high switching costs as class guides, exams, results, etc are all stored within the blackboard system.”  Wow – if a non-educational company only writes one paragraph about your company, and they choose to highlight one of your worst features… you gotta realize that maybe your business model has drifted too much over to the dark side.

  2. Mark Smithers posted an interesting list of various LMS Evaluations he found.  I haven’t read through every report on the list exhaustively, but I did notice some trends.  In all but one case where Moodle was evaluated against Blackboard, Moodle won.  In any case where there wasn’t Moodle but there were other platforms, Blackboard won.

So, the natives are getting restless, and people are noticing…. but is it enough?  Should we be happy that our institutional money (and by extension, our tax money when an institution is a state college) is going to a lawsuit happy near-monopoly?  What would it take to get Blackboard’s attention?  The Wall Street Journal article shows that everyone is starting to notice the questionable practices of Blackboard.  Mark Smither’s list might possibly indicate that there is another LMS option that is winning evaluations, but most of the other options out there still don’t seem to be gaining ground.  Do we need to get more people to realize that Blackboard is hurting education in general, or do we need to get Blackboard to realize that they need to change course?  Or is this just the immovable object meeting the irresistible force?

Personally, I just want to call for Blackboard to  give it a rest and move on.