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Facebook, Meet Blackboard

May 14, 2008

Blackboard, the course management giant, is hoping that a Facebook application will help it reach students even when they're trying to avoid studying.

Deploying a central fact of students' work life into Facebook could be tricky business, but the social networking behemoth did start out as a college-oriented site complete with a popular course-schedule display, after all. The application, called Blackboard Sync, certainly raises questions about what a course-enabled Facebook would do: Send constant News Feed updates that "Adam received a B+ in Introduction to Statistics" or "Robyn dropped out of Intermediate Microeconomics"? Add the ability to "poke" one's professor? Remind students not to forget their homework?

The answer, so far, is none of the above. The Facebook app, released today, mainly replicates the functionality of colleges' (and high schools') Blackboard sites, where students can log in, download course materials, post to message boards, upload assignments and check grades. Rather than add social networking functionality to the existing interface, Blackboard's strategy is to bring its services where the students already are and capitalize on Facebook's ubiquity and collaboration capabilities.

In doing so, the company is implicitly conceding that students are less inclined to flip through Blackboard pages to kill a few spare minutes. "This is specifically to take advantage of the fact that college students spend a tremendous amount of time on Facebook," said Karen Gage, Blackboard's vice president of product strategy. "I think that what we know is that socializing with your friends is more fun than studying."

"Let’s face it," the app's introduction page says. "You would live on Facebook if you could. Imagine a world where you could manage your entire life from Facebook -- it’s not that far off!"

But there's one exception: "You have to access a different system to get your course information and you don’t always know when something new has been posted or assigned, so it’s difficult for you to stay on top of your studies. We get it. That’s why Blackboard is offering Blackboard Sync™, an application that delivers course information and updates from Blackboard to you inside Facebook."

When it was still open only to college students, Facebook profiles often featured users' course schedules with links to their classmates. Sync offers similar functionality, but within the private space of the application itself. In other words, it doesn't show up on profiles at all.

"It’s a private application, so there’s sensitive information there that you wouldn’t want published to all your friends," Gage said. Still, she said Blackboard hopes that students will use the application to connect with classmates and form study groups in what Michael L. Chasen, Blackboard's president and CEO, referred to as "a new kind of social learning community" in the company's announcement.

Sync comes at a time when colleges and other players in the education arena are looking to connect with students while they're enrolled -- and beyond -- in ways that are more personalized. Some colleges are experimenting with proprietary social networks for fund raising purposes, among other reasons, and Web designers are thinking more about Web 2.0 features when redesigning their institutions' online presence. Blackboard's gambit represents an acknowledgment that so far, at least, no independent effort to capture the impulses fed by Facebook (and, to some extent, MySpace) has shared its success.

Meanwhile, technology companies -- including Facebook -- are beginning to realize that the key to expanding social networking's reach is to open such connections to other platforms and to bring content to where users already are, rather than add to a growing number of Web sites (with their own usernames and logins) with separate profiles and lists of friends.

The application is part of a larger Web 2.0 initiative, Blackboard Beyond, that also includes the Scholar social bookmarking tool. Sync integrates with Scholar, allowing students to post relevant links to share with classmates. Some of Sync's other features include integration with Blackboard's message boards, access to grades and a page with announcements and recent course updates -- viewable only to the student who's both logged on to Facebook and enrolled in the given courses.

 

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