The smartest decision that Blackboard has made recently does not involve a new feature, acquisition, policy change, or marketing strategy. The smartest decision Blackboard has made in recent months is to recruit Mark O'Neil to come work for the company as a new Technical Product Manager.
You can read why Mark decided to accept the job at Blackboard in his own words over on the Dartmouth Curricular Computing blog.
You might know Mark through his work with OSCELOT (Open Source Community for Educational Learning Objects and Tools). Or you may have heard of Mark's recent Catalyst Award from Blackboard in the category of Innovative Development Work: Open Source Community Outreach. Many of you who have attended Blackboard World or other learning technology conferences have heard Mark present on open source applications and Web services related to the Blackboard and LMS ecosystems. Mark is deeply embedded in the higher education open source and development communities, and is an internationally known authority in learning technology, application development, system administration and advanced learning management architecture.
For the past 12 years Mark has served as the Blackboard Curricular Systems Engineer at Dartmouth College. He was part of the initial team that brought Blackboard to the college, and has held direct (hands-on) system administrator responsibility for application ever since. I have had the privilege of working closely with Mark in my position for the past couple of years. He is one of the main reason why I was so excited about coming to work in Academic Computing at Dartmouth.
So why is it that recruiting Mark to the company is the smartest move Blackboard has made in recent memory (certainly since recruiting Ray Henderson to lead Blackboard Learn)? And why does Dartmouth's loss of Mark as our LMS curricular systems engineer such a gain to the Blackboard (and general LMS) user community?
1) The Open Source Conversation: Mark is both a philosophical and technical leader in the open source community. He understands this community because he is part of the group of people who helped create and nourishes this movement. Mark will be able to authentically link the goals and concerns of open source advocates, and those of us sympathetic and interested in open source, to the goals and concerns of Blackboard. Throughout his career Mark has been a truth teller and a (persistent) advocate for transparency and accountability. In hiring Mark, Blackboard knew that they were bringing in an activist and respected voice to the organization. Mark will be able to have both honest and productive conversations around issues of standards, interoperability, and open platforms with both educational institutions and the top management at Blackboard. He will be in a position to help shape long-term strategy in a way that is fully informed by needs of the community in which Blackboard sells its products. I anticipate the conversation around open source and Blackboard will begin to shift towards a more productive and forthright exchange of ideas, information, and solutions.
2) Aligning Incentives: One of the advantages of adopting a for-profit LMS system that all us need to recognize is the alignment of incentives. Mark and his colleagues at Blackboard have all the incentive in the world to make sure that their platforms and services serve the needs of their customers - the faculty, students and administrators who use Blackboard for teaching and learning. Mark's job, and his colleagues job, is dependent on existing Blackboard schools sticking with Blackboard and new schools deciding to adopt the platform. The need to pay for one's daughters college tuition and a mortgage are very strong incentives indeed. We have choice amongst LMS providers, and Blackboard knows that we have this choice. They need to compete for our business. Each day Mark and his colleagues will wake up and work to make Blackboard a product we want to stick with or recommend that others adopt. The beauty is that the cost of compensating Mark and his colleagues for their vision, skills and labor are spread across all of us who license Blackboard.
3) The People: The recruitment of people like Mark O'Neil and Ray Henderson, the retention of Deb Everhart (Principal Architect) and the hiring of young active developers and engineers like George Kroner, all suggest to me that Blackboard recognizes the need to fully partner and collaborate with educational institutions in the development and support of their products. These are all people who have deep roots in academia and are thought of as leaders amongst our tribe in educational technology. These people are educators, innovators and leaders first. I believe they work for an educational technology company because they see this environment as the best place where they can contribute to meaningful change in how education is delivered.
This is not to argue that by hiring Mark and some other great folks that everything is wonderful with Blackboard. I think Blackboard faces a serious communications gap with its core constituency. The robustness of its core product is, in my opinion, often overshadowed by boneheaded legal moves and a fear of transparency. Blackboard needs to set up mechanisms to fully bring the community into its strategic planning. We need to understand and be part of creating the companies roadmap. The company needs to be clear about its value proposition, but be willing to understand and listen when alternative viewpoints are offered. The growth of Moodle and Sakai and the emergence of other players in the LMS space (including Desire2Learn and Pearson eCollege) are good things for educational customers at every level. This ecosystem could be good for Blackboard as well, as they are developing the team necessary to find a place to offer the best possible services and choice for all of us.
Mark's leaving to work at Blackboard is Dartmouth's loss, but our communities gain. We should all join in congratulating Mark and Blackboard in this interesting development in the still young history of the learning management system.