The last time Techdirt wrote about the learning company, Blackboard, was in the context of its attempt to enforce a ridiculously broad patent on the field. Even before the patent was thrown out completely, Blackboard made an unusual move: it offered to exempt open source projects and those who contributed to them from its patent attacks:
As part of the Pledge, Blackboard promises never to pursue patent actions against anyone using such systems including professors contributing to open source projects, open source initiatives, commercially developed open source add-on applications to proprietary products and vendors hosting and supporting open source applications. Blackboard is also extending its pledge to many specifically identified open source initiatives within the course management system space whether or not they may include proprietary elements within their applications, such as Sakai, Moodle, ATutor, Elgg and Bodington.
That "unprecedented" commitment was a reflection of the power and popularity of the open source options, and the recognition by Blackboard that suing these free projects would lose it a lot of friends in the academic world. Here's another manifestation of that power, announced last week:
Commitments to limit potential patent protection are uncommon, particularly for enterprise software companies. The Patent Pledge -- in terms of its sweeping scope, strong commitment and public nature -- is unprecedented for a product company such as Blackboard.
Blackboard Inc. today announced a series of new initiatives to provide greater support for open education efforts. Working with Creative Commons, Blackboard will now support publishing, sharing and consumption of open educational resources (OER) across its platforms. The company also updated its policy confirming the ability for education institutions to serve non-traditional users with Blackboard Learn™ without incurring additional license costs.
The first part of this announcement is about open formats. Blackboard users can now share courses using the liberal Creative Commons license CC-BY, or the Common Cartridge standard. The second part is a classic play by a proprietary vendor trying to stop users moving to open source solutions by offering zero-cost options for certain classes of use – in this case, "non-traditional, non-revenue generating students". Both are testimony to the continuing shift to openness in education, and the rise of key open source e-learning programs like Moodle and Sakai.
Support for OER enables instructors to publish and share their courses under a Creative Commons Attribution license (CC BY) so that anyone can easily preview and download the course content in Blackboard and Common Cartridge formats. The new functionality is available now for CourseSites, Blackboard’s free, fully-hosted and supported cloud offering launched a year ago and now used by over 18,000 instructors from nearly 12,000 institutions in 113 countries. Similar support for OER will be available soon for Blackboard Learn.
Blackboard also clarified its license policy to formalize the ability for education institutions to extend course access in the Blackboard Learn platform – as well as ANGEL and WebCT – to non-traditional, non-revenue generating students at no additional cost. The move supports engaging wider use of the platform to serve different types of “guest” users taking part in efforts including open teaching initiatives, auditing and accreditation activities, student recruiting programs, community outreach programs and collaborative research efforts.
Although Blackboard's announcements are welcome, particularly its support for the CC license, they are unlikely to halt that trend. That's because moves to truly open formats and open source are not just about cost, but also about freedom from lock-in and the ability to adapt solutions to local needs – something that Blackboard's proprietary approach does not allow. The only way the company can counter those strengths is by going totally open itself.
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