E-Learning Company Blackboard Bows To The Growing Power Of Openness Again

from the too-little-too-late dept

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.

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.

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:

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.

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.

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.

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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Comments on “E-Learning Company Blackboard Bows To The Growing Power Of Openness Again”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Blackboard is essentially the Microsoft of education platform providers. They stopped innovating a long time ago and just started buying out or suing anyone they couldn’t compete with. I don’t know anyone who actually likes their products at the university where I work. Everyone either switched to an open source option like Moodle or a competitor like Desire2Learn.

The problem with open source educational software is that you have to host it, administrate it, and support it yourself. Not all universities want to have to hire a whole department to support a product like that. Universities already skimp on technology services.

fogbugzd says:

Re: Re: Re:

It is not true that you have to host open source software yourself. Not at all. There is a healthy market of competing companies hosting Moodle. My school just switched from Webct (part of Blackboard) to Moodle. We hosted our own WebCT, but we contracted to host Noodle with Joule. Out cost is about 40% of the price we payed for WebCT licencing, and that doesn’t even include the cost we had for supporting our WebCT server.

fogbugzd (profile) says:

Re: Will it hold?

>>What happens if Blackboard goes under and the patents are sold? Can the purchaser go ahead and sue everyone?

Probably. Patent trolls can always sue, and there are very few incentives for them not suing.

Blackboard’s public granting of the licences would undoubtedly be a strong argument for the defense, and it would probably prevail after the defendants spent a great deal of money on legal fees.

Also, some of the patents in question are pretty old. It is very possible that Blackboard will survive until at least some of the patents expire. Blackboard is getting wiped out of the education market pretty quickly, but they still have a loyal corporate training market that will keep them going. In fact I can almost read their actions as saying that they are giving up on making money in the education part of the market.

G Thompson (profile) says:

Re: Will it hold?

The patent, #6,988,138 in this case, does not exist anymore so cannot be sold.

As stated by a Blackboard representative in November 2010

?Blackboard chose to abandon the ?138 patent in April and not pursue additional appeals,? said a spokesman, Matthew Maurer. ?Upon its official termination by the USPTO earlier this month, we removed it from the Patent Pledge and stopped marking it on our products and Web site as required by law.?

G Thompson (profile) says:

They have to do this since a LOT of Higher Education institutes world wide as well as other education institutions (for example in NSW, Australia nearly every secondary school uses moodle) are replacing their WebCT (that was purchased by Blackboard in 2006) with an Open source LMS of either Moodle or Sakai.

The University of Western Ontario (“>switching to Sakai 2013) & the University of Nottingham (switch to moodle 2012) & The University of Western Australia (moodle switch in 2012) are prime examples of this switch, and why Blackboard is running scared.

Blackboards whole VMS is overpriced (can cost millions to implement), has too many bells and whistles, has a nowadays very non-intuitive standard interface and though handles some SCORM principles is not interoperable and though they now say they will be conforming to the IMS Global Standards (what about the conformance framework in the UK??) they are still hugely expensive for what they actually do compared to the innovative stuff that is happening in the Open VLE space.

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