Blackboard, the Hopeless Optimist

The nets are ringing today with the shot heard ’round the LMS: a federal appeals court finally invalidated Blackboard’s silly 1999 patent.  I  have to admit, at one point I had lost hope that sanity would ever prevail in this case.  This is far from over, but at least someone out there in our court system can actually read prior art and do the right thing.

What a second.. far from over?  Sadly so, that is probably the case.

(pause for pathetic sigh)

Blackboard is so far vowing to press on.  Which should be really shocking: this whole case has generated a ton of negative press for the ‘borg.  I say ” should” be shocking, but defiance has become the common reaction from Blackboard. Normally I would quote some weird statement by some senior officer at Blackboard about now, mock them for how they think we are stupid, and then end with a cutsey Blackboardwalla video.

But that’s been done a million times here, and I have grown tired of Blackboard’s insistance that they have any intellectual property disagreement with Desire2Learn.  Or anyone for that matter.

Maybe resistance really is futile.  If you try to run to a competitor, the ‘borg will end up assimilating them someday.

But, really… how long can a poorly run business stay afloat in this economy?  Much wiser companies than Blackboard have vanished overnight because of their minor missteps.  Bb is making massive mistakes and has still managed to hang on.  Might be something to consider if you are thinking of sinking any more money into any form of the Bb LMS.

In Honor of Katrina and Shaun

Katrina and Shaun have made the trek to dangerous country this week: BbWorld 2009! They have sent back the following video report of the event:

Shocking and entertaining all at the same time! Remember you two – don’t drink the Kool-Aid!

EduPunk Movement Gains More Attention

If you haven’t already read the interesting article on how some colleges are weighing using blogs instead of Blackboard at The Chronicle, check it out here:

Colleges Consider Using Blogs Instead of Blackboard

It has a fairly balanced look at both sides of the issue. The last paragraph proves my point that I have made over and over again about Blackboard: the people in charge just don’t know what they are talking about.  Here is the direct quote:

Blackboard is trying to keep up.

Michael L. Chasen, the company’s chief executive, has told The Chronicle that the latest version of the software integrates some Web 2.0 tools and still offers plenty of features that blogging packages can’t match, like online gradebooks.

Good point.  Except, of course, for the fact that WordPress has a grade book plug-in (well, two actually). And some really cool social networking plug-ins, too.

My question has always been – why do you need an LMS or program of any kind?  Why limit your students to just a blog or a LMS?  Why not create a simple platform that aggregates whatever tool they use into one spot for easy of collaboration accross tools?  That has been the question we have been asking with our New Vision for Learning Management Systems idea, that will hopefully morph into an open source project soon.


I forgot to also respond to this legitimate concern raised in the article:

Some professors asked whether it was possible to run a blog that only students could see, noting that they had concerns about making course activities public.

The short answer is, in WordPress and a few others, yes.  The University I work for installed WordPress MU for anyone (student or teacher) to use.  They were easily able to connect it to our university system – you log in with the same ID/password you use for email, and your blog is automatically set-up. Custom blogs for, say, groups or departments can also be created.  There are also a few instructors that keep it private for only their classes.  Our IT department was able to connect specific blogs to specific class rolls.  But even if you can’t do that, there are plug-ins that let you authenticate with users you want and then only authenticated users can see the blog.

A Glimpse At The Future of Online Education

Are you tired of the way LMS programs are going?We’ve formed a group at FaceBook to air gripes and discuss ideas for something new –  a continuation of our series on a new vision for Learning Management Systems.  Join the group and add to our discussion – you can find it here:

FaceBook Group for a New Vision for the Learning Management System.

Blackboard Tries To Improve It’s Image by Assimilating Angel?

I guess it was inevitable. As much negative press as Blackboard garnered over recent legal actions (in addition to the negative experiences some of their customers are always complaining about), they had to do something abut it.  I can see the board meeting now:

“We’re taking a beating over this lawsuit. What can we do to improve our image?”

“We need to do something that people like. And, Bob – no more stealing Start Trek jargon to name our new software versions, okay?”

“sighhh….. but NG sounded so futuristic and cool!”

“Maybe in the 90s! But focus – we need to do something good for our image.”

“I heard the other day that people like angels. Maybe that should be the new name for our next software version.”

“I like it! People want to make us out to be devils, let’s force them into calling us angels!”

“Oh, wait… I think we have a competitor named that already.”

“Even better! We can just buy them and get their image without doing any work! Just like we did with WebCT!”

I was really shocked when Katrina told me the news. Yes, she is still active in the Ed Tech world – even though we rarely hear from her here. She did recruit Shaun after all… so she is helping in some ways :)

But I just can’t see the logic behind this purchase, even from a twisted business CEO pointy-haired boss perspective.  From what I have read, a huge chunk of the people using Angel chose Angel because they were fed up with Blackboard.  Why do you want to acquire such a huge population of users that have proven that they will change software when disgruntled… and they were with the company you bought because they hated yours in the first place? Not to mention the fact that Blackboard is saying that eventually the two products will merge.  How? They are so vastly different.  That just doesn’t seem possible.

And let’s not forget how bad they botched the WebCT purchase.  Oh, wait… they are saying they learned a lot from that and will do better.  But… wait… WebCT wasn’t their first purchase. Prometheus anyone? If they didn’t learn enough from that one to help with WebCT, don’t count on them having learned enough from WebCT to make the Angel acquisition any less painful.

I just can’t help but thinking of Dilbert whenever I read anything from Michael Chasen of Blackboard.  I love how he pointed out that there is more competition now in the LMS market than there ever was… because new ones are starting every year.  Yep, there is a greater number of competitors, so that means greater competition, right? Nope – that means nothing for competition when those new options are just competing for the same small slice of customers that won’t go with the bigger options.  Percentage-wise, this purchase essential creates a monopoly.  One can only hope this will not be approved by the FTC.  But, then again, they should have never approved of the WebCT purchase.  So I’m not holding my breath on that.

Why NG Has To Knock Our Socks Off

In general, I would say that I believe in equal standards.  Treat all people as equals.  That works best when you are talking people.  When it comes to corporations, there is a lot of room for differing standards.

Of course, I am not talking about regulations – all companies should follow all that apply.  When it comes to new services, new products, new features… you just expect more from certain companies than you would for others.  You can’t compare your locally-owned grocery store to a Wal-mart for example.

I was thinking this morning that would also apply to Blackboard’s NG, or whatever it is they are calling it.  Apparently, they don’t do versions anymore.  But the next whatever spills out of Bb headquarters will have to not just be good… it will have to knock our socks off.  Not just in features, but in easy-of-use, originality, and educational potential.  Here is why:

  • Money.  With somewhere around 80% of the market share, Bb gets more green than anyone else by far.  Don’t give me anything about costs, or economy, or overhead, or even mis-used funds.  “To he who much is given, much will be expected.”  No, it was not Spiderman’s Uncle that said that…
  • Boastful commercials.  You made them.  You stuck them online.  You hyped your own product.  Don’t make it smell like something your dog left on the lawn this morning (you can thank a “friend of mine” for that stinky analogy….)
  • Lawsuit.  If you are going to sue someone else for copying you, you better prove to us that you can do better than the company you are suing.  Your consumers are not copyright lawyers (even though you seem to think we are too stupid to be one)… so we don’t have to care about the outcome or who did what.  To us, you have to prove that you are worthy of even filing the lawsuit in the first place, or our money goes elsewhere.  Well, at least our respect…
  • Competitors.  Your competitors have put out better products without near the same resources you have.  NG is already starting out behind the curve in many ways because of whatever you call this current vers… er… release.. no… ummm…. yeah….  Anyway, you are still releasing new features that existed in other programs years ago.  And you are lucky they didn’t copyright those ideas.
  • Web2.0.  Web2.0 changed everything else online.  Learning Management Systems are still basically the same as they were 10 years ago.  It’s about time for a new model people.  Oh, wait… that sounds familiar….

Of course, these are also the same reasons why Bb might also not do that good of a job:

  • Money.  Scare people with the thought of how much it will cost to change to another LMS.  They’ll cringe so much at your inflated figures that they won’t care if this new version is awesome or not.  Just save me from the evils of a five minute course conversion.  Oh, wait… it’s only 5 minutes?
  • Boastful commercials.  Who needs to deliver on hype when you can just let people watch your commercials and have their opinion fed to them?  It’s worked for Coke for decades, after all….
  • Lawsuit.  You win a baseless copyright application and then win an even more baseless lawsuit in a rocket docket pro-big-business court.  You can probably do anything you want to from now and get away with it.
  • Competitors.  No one is churning out any Bb killers any time soon, but they are supplying you with cool ideas.  Wait for them to churn out some more and then claim them as your own.  Microsoft has made no bones about that working for them for years.
  • Web2.0.  It’s all hype anyways – so who cares about changes?  Claim “sound pedagogical principals” and snobbishly tell people some gibberish about how this 2.0-hype just doesn’t cut the pedagogical cheese.  Sounds pretty stinky, but that one has worked for traditional schools for over 100 years…

Now, despite my cynical nature, I do think Bb has a chance of pulling this one off.  No one outside of the Jobs-cultists really thought Mac could make the iPhone incredible when they first heard of it.  But Apple beat expectations and pulled out a winner (despite what some say, they don’t always do that).  Despite what some same about Bb, they might pull out a winner, too.  But anything less that than an iPhone level game changer will probably be an ultimate let-down… so the stakes are pretty high.

Close Encounters of the Blackboard Kind

For my day job last week, I was part of a meeting with a Blackboard rep.  He was a nice guy, but still a salesperson.  A good salesperson at that.  I know there are good sales people out there, but beyond the good ones that I have met, I find the rest of them tiring.  Of course, I know many of them have to spit out the required company propaganda line every where they go – whether they want to or not.  Because of this, I am sure they usually find solace in the fact that most people don’t know much about the truth behind what they are talking about, or maybe even that mots people don’t know if their product lives up to the hype or not.

Maybe they just should have never let me in to this meeting.  Blackboard rarely lives up to its hype in most cases – mainly because they have too much hype (that no one could ever live up to, to be honest).  So having me in a meeting, knowing this about Bb hype, and I have a bad habit of not keeping my mouth shut = not a good combination.

The meeting got off to sluggish start with the rep trying to tell us that Bb is not using the term “version” any more.  That in itself is not that bad of an idea… but terribly impractical in real life.  How do you communicate anything in the IT world without using the world version?  We found out just how impossible… and ultimately frustrating for the person pushing that idea… this can be.  Actually, it was quite entertaining for us… not so much for our rep.

Then, of course, we spent a good chunk of the meeting looking at “new” features we already knew and used.  Common sales rep mistake – assuming your people don’t know anything.  Finally, I was nominated to speak up and let him know he was showing us features of a version (what other word could I use there, really?)  that we were already using.  Of course, instead of switching gears to NG, this inspired him to find something we hadn’t seen.

I have to take a minute and point out that I don’t intentionally try to make people look bad.  Just be careful in what questions you ask me – I will answer you honestly if you ask me a direct question that puts me in a corner.  Here is an example: this sales rep then showed us the rating and feedback feature of the Bb discussion forums.  Then he looked right at me and asked “Bet you haven’t seen anything like that before, huh Matt?”

What I was thinking was “yes, I have… several years ago in Moodle and a few years before that in about every discussion board program like phpBB.”  All I actually said was “well, yes, in other LMS programs.”  Not that tactful, I admit – but really nice compared to what I could have said.  In my defense, I could have ate his lunch right there.

After this, there was the usual misinformed pitch about how open-source is really more expensive than Bb when you roll in support and maintenance (not true actually) and even some line about how Moodle and Sakai are really only good alternatives for smaller installations because of scalability (also not true).  I can’t blame Bb for taking that view – but I can’t agree with them either.  I tried to disagree with him but was cut off as he maneuvered to the next issue (good move, BTW).

Also, I found it funny how they highlighted the FaceBook Sync app, which has proven to be rather unpopular (only a little over 5,000 current users out of tens of millions of possible ones).

If you have seen the NG example videos up at the Bb site, then you have see what we saw.  A lot of stuff copied from Google and other sites.  Stuff that I really do like, but have a hard time accepting from a company that is suing others for copying them.

(as a side note here, some rumblings are indicating that the concepts that Bb patented were actually in widespread use in educational circles as early as 1993.  Bb became a company in 1997.  You can do the math on that one :)

Strange things are brewing in LMS land, indeed….

(Edited to make this sound a little more positive – the meeting wasn’t as bad as I first made it seem. Also, needed to make sure I made it clear that this was a meeting at work and does not reflect in any way the opinion of my employer, just mine.)

Hello. I’m a Copycat. And I’m an Original.

Oh, BlackBoard. I really do try to give you a fair break. You just make it so hard not to. Recently I linked to some videos that highlight the new changes coming in BlackBoard NG:

Chapter 2: User Interface… Something about that looks familiar. What is it… [stares off blankly at my iGoogle page] hmmm…. not coming to me. I’m sure it will soon….

Then, a friend sends me this link to BlackBoard NG ads:

While it would be so easy to mock the acting, the blank stares, the stand-ins with the look of “will this come back to haunt me when I finally land that sweet job at Google?” on their faces… that would be too easy. I mean, with as much money as BlackBoard makes, couldn’t they actually afford actors and script writers? Probably even the real PC and Mac guys?

Nah – I won’t go there. The thing that gets me is the righteous indignation that surfaced when defending “the patent.” How they so defiantly defended how innovative and original they are. And then sued Desire2Learn for a system that basically comes close to their patent (but isn’t really a down right copy). So, sue those that kind of copy you, but then blatantly copy others? Brag about being an innovative and cutting edge company, and then follow others? Hmmm…..

The Next Generation of Blackboard

If you haven’t seen this yet, here are some videos of what is brewing at Blackboard Project NG (Next Generation):

One thing that I find funny: they are really hyping how you can have one account that lets you log in as a teacher or a student for different classes. They still think they invented that. Even though it existed as far back as 1994 in distance education (and Blackboard came in to existence in 1997).

One thing that really bugs me: Am I the only one that notices how they ripped off iGoogle for their interface? Maybe they worked with Google on this – but I doubt it. Maybe Google open-sourced that designed – who knows. The part that bugs me is that BB is suing those that they think copied them – but here they are blatantly ripping off another company. Just not right in my book.

It does seem like Blackboard has listened to customer complaints, and has stopped burying content and activities under so many layers of links. You can also manage classes in other LMS programs from inside Blackboard (Moodle, Sakai, and WebCT are mentioned – but so Desire2Learn… no shock there) so you can see updates, due dates, and other stuff like that – I assume. Nifty – but I wonder if Blackboard is going to do anything to make that functionality go both ways. I doubt it.

Sadly, some of videos also don’t load. Some do. But I still don’t see anything groundbreaking here. I see stuff that is badly needed in online education – but nothing that hasn’t been seen somewhere else before.

(I must give a disclaimer here – I have pretty much given up on BlackBoard because of the patent and lawsuit silliness. Usuallly, I am not against the big companies, like Microsoft, having a right to exist – even if I presonally don’t like that companies products. But BB has crossed some lines that I feel shouldn’t be crossed.)

Been Too Long Since We’ve Had a Good BlackBoard Jab

Courtesy of Metamedia and Pete – the Adventures of Bollywood Blackboard-wala:

Ep. 1 Paying The Annual Licensing Fee

Ep. 2 Dealing with Customers Looking at the Open Source Alternative

Ep. 3 Dealing with the Patent Invalidation Ruling

Ep. 4 Confronting the Open Source Challenge

Ep. 5 Live from Blackboardwala World 2008

Ep. 6 Dealing with Customers Looking at the Open Source Alternative, Again

Ep. 7 Improving Customer Support

Ep. 8 The Patent Pledge Explained

Ep. 9 The Future of Blackboardwala