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Blackboard vs....

October 17, 2005

Last week's news that Blackboard was buying WebCT, its top competitor for course management systems, caught many academics by surprise. Now that they have had a little time to think about it, campus technology administrators and faculty members who use the systems (and alternatives) offer a variety of views on what the merger means.

Some analyze the combination from the perspective that some big company (or a few companies) will dominate the course management industry. Clearly now that company is Blackboard, which in its expanded form will be doing business with thousands of colleges. To the company's fans, the combination of forces will lead to improvements and allow for more innovation. Others fear the loss of competition will take away the pressure that has led Blackboard to improve its customer support in recent years (and encourage it to jack up prices).

And many are skeptical of Blackboard's pledges to continue to offer and support WebCT products. That's not because they necessarily distrust Blackboard, but because of a pattern in which such promises are frequently made by technology companies, post-merger, and abandoned a few months later. Many chief information officials, from different types of institutions, when asked privately about Blackboard's promises to keep both company's services, said, "Yeah, right" or "If you believe that one, I have a bridge to sell you," or variations on that theme. None had specific information that questioned Blackboard's claims, but all felt that they had been burned in the past, and weren't going to believe anything just now.

Still other campus computing officials said that all the attention being given to the purchase of WebCT by Blackboard obscured the more significant trend in course management: the rise of open source competition. While open source advocates acknowledge that Blackboard is very much atop the market, they cite a number of leading colleges and universities that are going the open source route. And they think the merger may encourage others to follow suit.

The Blackboard Behemoth

Scott E. Siddall, assistant provost and director of instructional technology at Denison University, said that when he first heard about "BlackCT," (as many are calling the growing Blackboard, even though it is keeping its name), "I thought that things are not going to get any better." Since then, he's been trying to decide if that judgment was too harsh.

Denison is a Blackboard customer, and Siddall said that the concept of its products is good, and is popular with most faculty members. And Siddall said that he hoped the merger would allow for economies of scale and improvements on which Blackboard might now be able to focus. Siddall, who is a leader of the chief information officer group at Educause, said that the improvement he most wants to see is in customer support.

"Right now, at this moment, I have a kid taking a test in Blackboard and he can't store, and we can't figure out the problem, and I know that if we call Blackboard, we're not going to be able to help that student. We call and we don't get answers," Siddall said.

Tim Kaar, an instructor in Web design and multimedia at Elgin Community College, said he worried about the impact the merger would have on pricing. Kaar was on an Elgin committee that considered options for course management. He said that he liked Blackboard products, but not its prices. The college ended up going with Desire2Learn, a smaller Canadian company that is making some inroads in the American market.

Kaar said he worried about the impact of the merger on prices. "The megaplayers in the software industry, when they dominate, their pricing model becomes: Let's pick the client up by their ankles and shake and see what comes out of their pockets," he said.

Other college officials are much more optimistic about the expanded Blackboard. Stephen G. Landry, chief information officer at Seton Hall University, said Blackboard did have real problems with customer service a few years ago. "They were a small start-up company and they expanded their customer base much more rapidly than they were able to expand their support staff," he said. But Landry said that he considers Blackboard "very responsive" now and that there has been "marked improvement" in the last 18 months.

Landry, who recently applied to join a Blackboard advisory committee, said that he thought part of the skepticism among his colleagues was cultural and was unfair. "There's a lot of suspicion of corporations in higher education. We tend to be non-corporate in our world and to think that automatically something like this is going to be bad for everybody," he said. "But corporations merge all the time, and products improve and prices drop and if they don't drop, someone else comes into the market."

Phyllis C. Self, special assistant for distance education at Virginia Commonwealth University, called herself a "very satisfied customer" of Blackboard. While there are problems from time to time, she said, "What software product works perfectly?" She said that the merger could be either positive or negative. She saw the potential for improved services and products and also the potential for worse service and higher costs.

She said it all depends on how the two companies are combined. Self cautioned against assuming that the merger would be either good or bad just because a giant is being created. "Bigger is not always better, just as big does not need to be bad," she said.

In an interview Friday, Matthew Pittinsky, chairman of Blackboard, said that the combined company would indeed be better. He said that Blackboard was committed to "taking the strengths of both companies" for use in the future, and he cited service responsiveness as one of WebCT's strengths. (On the topic of Blackboard's record in that area, he acknowledged past problems, but said that the company had made "great improvements" in customer support, and that he believed any lingering complaints were "a legacy of a few years ago.")

Pittinsky was unequivocal in saying that WebCT customers should not fear that their services will disappear. "We are absolutely committed," he said. "It would make zero sense for us to do otherwise than to continue to market and support both products."

The Open Source Challenge

While many CIOs were focused on the fallout from Blackboard's absorption of WebCT, other experts on technology in academe said that the real shift going on is away from corporate provided course management altogether.

While Blackboard may dwarf all the open source alternatives, two of them -- Moodle and Sakai -- have strong support, and Sakai is attracting the participation of a number of institutions that are influential in higher education generally and in technology specifically. In open source, all the course management software is available free and colleges can modify it and brand it however they want. Sakai was founded by Indiana University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University and the University of Michigan. In less than two years, it has quickly expanded to reach 80 colleges and universities, including community colleges and institutions abroad. Today, Sakai will announce the creation of a foundation to give the project a permanent infrastructure.

When the University of California at Merced, the newest UC campus, started operations this fall, it was using only Sakai to support its courses. "We didn't want to create a vendor's system," said Richard M. Kogut, chief information officer at Merced.

Until open source came along, he said, institutions had a "buy or build" decision, but open source has advantages of both in that a college can start off with a good base, avoid paying high fees, and then customize it. The danger of an informal collaboration like open source, he said, is that it won't last. But Kogut said that the strong backing Sakai has from top universities convinced him of the project's stability, and that Sakai is speedier than established companies at dealing with problems.

Kogut was formerly at Georgetown University, which uses Blackboard, generally to good reviews, he said. "But things happened on Blackboard's schedule and bugs got fixed when they got fixed," he said. Sakai's team members at various campuses, he said, have "been incredible in quickly fixing any problems," even though there is not the traditional contractual relationship of vendor and customer.

The sense of community is very important to Sakai proponents. The Foothill-De Anza Community College District, generally considered a leader among community colleges, joined Sakai early, not only to use the technology, but to contribute software it has created. Vivian Sinou, dean of learning technology at Foothill College, said that when she first heard about Sakai, she was dubious that a bunch of research universities would focus on software from a teaching perspective. But she was quickly won over, is now on the board, and is helping other community colleges get involved.

"The whole emphasis is on collaboration and learning environments," she said, so the tools being developed by the research universities have value for her college, and the tools being developed by Foothill's development team are being used elsewhere. Sinou noted with pride that a Sakai learning tool Foothill had developed would soon be used at the University of South Africa, which recently joined Sakai.

At the same time, prominent research universities that were not initially involved in Sakai are now taking a look. Rice University, a WebCT client, is currently doing a pilot project with Sakai with the goal of shifting to open source soon.

"One of the big drivers to look at Sakai was the fact that with an open source, you can take that product in the direction that is your interest," said Carlos Solis, manager of educational technologies at Rice. "You don't need to rely on a commercial vendor to integrate things that aren't offered." Solis said, for example, that WebCT's software has disappointed Rice faculty members with its multimedia capabilities, and they like being able to take Sakai software and just adapt it.

Joseph Hardin, chair of the Sakai board and director of the Collaborative Technologies Laboratory at the University of Michigan, said that flexibility is a big part of Sakai's growth. "Anybody can take it and use it and revise it and redistribute it any way that they want to," he said. "So you get software that you can do whatever you want with."

Of course to do what you want with it, you need to have people who know how to customize software and then you need a staff to support that software, and that makes things tricky at some colleges. Kaar, of Elgin Community College, has worked with Moogle and likes it, but he said that when he was on the committee looking at course management options, one reality was knowing that the college didn't have the money to hire more people. "We would have had to hire additional people, and getting new hires requires an act of God."

Or as EduBlogr put it, on behalf of those who are in the classroom and might like open source: "We are not the customers. We are the users. The customers are our bosses and their bosses, the VP's who sign the PO's. Relatively few institutions -- especially small and medium-sized institutions -- can afford open source. Pay $75,000 a year for software licenses, or hire 1.5 FTE system administration/programmer-analysts at $60,000 to support open source. Even I can do that math."

One possible outcome as a result is that more colleges may be using open source and Blackboard at the same time. Both Hardin of Sakai and Pittinsky of Blackboard said that they wanted to work together. Pittinsky said that it was "too early to tell how significant [Sakai] is going to be," but he stressed that Blackboard and open source "are not mutually exclusive," and that he anticipated that some colleges would want to use Blackboard campuswide, but have Sakai applications used in certain disciplinary areas, and Pittinsky said that he applauded such an approach.

But there are also clearly tensions between open source and big corporations. Pittinsky noted that Blackboard had applied -- and been rejected -- for membership in Sakai's program for corporate partners. Hardin said that Blackboard never met the eligibility requirements of having systems that support Sakai services.

Other companies may also come into play for open source institutions. David Wiley, an assistant professor of instructional technology and director of the Center for Open and Sustainable Learning at Utah State University, said that he was concerned that the RFP process favors large companies like Blackboard. While smaller companies are starting to offer support for open source, colleges would need to compare an open source proposal and such a business proposal against a single plan from Blackboard.

Wiley thinks this is too bad because he's not a fan of mergers, which leave you with "half the performance for twice the price."

But he also cautioned against believing that open source, Blackboard, or any software could improve teaching. "A mediocre instructor can go on being mediocre in Sakai," he said. Where he sees the advantage of an open source approach is for the professor who wants to be creative with technology -- and for colleges that encourage faculty members to be creative in that way. "In the Blackboard world, if you have an original idea, you can request that they do it, and wait and see," he said. "In the Sakai world, if you have an original idea, you may well be able to hire a computer science undergraduate to do it for you right away."

 

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