What are you taking home as the big story of BbWorld 2012?
At this point (Wednesday night) I have 3 main takeaways:
Blackboard's greatest strength is the quality of its people. The strongest recommendation that I can make to those of you who work at the intersection of education and technology, and are trying to figure out your partnership/product/service strategy going forward, is to find a way to spend time with Blackboard's leadership, product teams, developers, and engineers. Whatever product or service you finally adopt you will be living with the people who provide that product or service for a long-time. Time horizons in higher ed are long, and the success of your partnerships with any educational technology company will increasingly depend on the quality of the relationships that you build with that partner. To its credit, Blackboard seems to have created a culture that attracts and retains experienced, knowledgeable and caring professionals.
I was particularly impressed with Blackboard's President of Global Services, Katie Blot, who participated in the corporate keynote this morning. Katie has what I see as the most challenging, and perhaps most important, job at Blackboard - growing the Global Services unit. The success of Blackboard's transition from a product to a services company will drive medium-to-long term growth, revenue and relevance in the education market through 2020. Blackboard's platform offerings, from LMS's to synchronous tools to mobile to analytics, will be significantly more valuable to clients if services can be wrapped around them. Technology is only a tool - what matters are outcomes around quality, costs, and access. Services + technology will be the key driver of increased productivity in higher ed.
The big announcement at the corporate keynote was that come September students will be able to directly purchase access to the Blackboard mobile app on all cellular carriers for $1.99 a year or $5.99 lifetime. This means if your institution has decided not to subsidize Blackboard mobile for your students (through an institutional purchase), students can choose to purchase the ability to interact with Blackboard mobile tools via cellular connections on their own.
My take on this is that Blackboard should be commended for experimenting with new pricing models, and for working to find a mechanism where students can move faster than the schools they attend. I also think that this strategy puts particular pressure on Blackboard's mobile division to invest in creating very high quality mobile experiences. Instructure will be quick to point out that it bundles mobile with Canvas. Blackboard's current mobile tools are limited by the extant architecture of Blackboard Learn, and creating next generation mobile experiences will require that the core Learn LMS evolve. This announcement puts the pressure on the entire company to deliver on the mobile learning promise.
In his keynote President and CEO Michael Chasen (whom everyone just calls "Chasen", where everyone calls Ray Henderson, the President of Academic Platforms, "Ray"), announced the company's upcoming cloud based learning objects repository "xpLor". When xpLor launches (Fall beta I think) faculty working across Learn, Moodle, or Sakai will be able to discover, tag, share, permission, and deploy learning objects. The system will support user designated sharing, so over time the learning object repository could grow from cross-institutional user generated content (including assessments, animations, and even whole courses). Blackboard will be linking in existing open educational resources, such as Khan Academy materials, resources that can be deployed directly into content and assessment areas across LMS offerings.
A cross-platform learning repository is great, and I hope that it grows and it is used effectively. At this point it is impossible to tell how valuable xpLor will be, as it depends on the amount and quality of content available, and how granular the content is, and how robust the tagging, filtering and search tools become. I very much hope that Blackboard works with publishers to push their content into xpLor, relying on paid content up-sells (digital textbooks, labs, etc.) to fund the content sharing.
What I think is particularly intriguing about xpLor is that this platform will be the first plank in Blackboard transitioning from a local to a cloud based architectural strategy. There is no way that Blackboard's base of campus installed Learn instances is going to go away over night, as many institutions want their data and applications close by, or have built customizations around their Learn system. The medium-to-long run game is clear however, as Blackboard will be offering cloud based services (such as calendaring and discussions) that can integrate into a local LMS as a service. This design should provide a path to allow institutions to retain local systems (if they desire), but enjoy the benefits of frequently updated tools (and perhaps better integration with mobile devices).
My concern is about whether Blackboard will be able to move fast enough to roll out these cloud based services to satisfy current and potential customers who are actively seeking best-of-breed tools in their learning management systems. A hybrid local / cloud approach could allow institutions to manage platform updates (service packs) around the campus calendar (downtime windows are shrinking), while facilitating more rapid innovation on the learning platforms. I will be watching very closely how well Blackboard is able to execute around this cloud strategy in the next 12 to 24 months.