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Blackboard's Ambassador

May 10, 2010

WASHINGTON -- As president of Blackboard Learn, Ray Henderson’s job is to translate evolving customer demands and market landscapes into coherent business strategies for the learning-management giant. As a blogger and unofficial ambassador of Blackboard’s executive circle, his job has been to build confidence in the company and its services.

Henderson, formerly an executive at Angel, which competed with Blackboard before Blackboard bought it out for $75 million exactly one year ago, met with Inside Higher Ed this week at Blackboard’s slick new offices here to chat about the company’s newest version of its widely used learning-management system, the future of social media in teaching and learning, and the small but growing threat from open-source learning-management platforms, which have chipped away at Blackboard’s market share over the last few years.

“There are numerous things we have done to respond to openness,” Henderson says in the podcast interview. “And I would just say baldly that we’re taking inspiration from the open-source movement.” For example, Henderson last June began blogging occasionally about ideas and challenges being discussed inside the company. When Blackboard dropped its patent lawsuit against Desire2Learn in December, Henderson posted an essay detailing his own feelings about the lawsuit (that Blackboard’s patent assertions were not well-founded) and why the company was backing off (the backlash from many in higher education was becoming a problem).

“There’s a discipline both from social media and from open source about transparency in how you do business,” he says, echoing the predictions of certain media futurists. “There’s a greater expectation of transparency.”

The culture of openness in academe, which has given rise to open courses, open repositories and open-access journals, has probably given open-source learning-management systems such as Moodle and Sakai a boost, Henderson says, though he points out that those systems still own a relatively tiny share of the market. Blackboard’s new transparency initiative — which appears to be an effort to curb the company’s reputation for being irascibly proprietary — is not limited to communications, he says: Blackboard now offers a number of free extensions that customers can play with and customize, a la Moodle. But there are no plans to make the system’s source code open.

Transparency is not the only area where customer demand has grown, Henderson says; demands for support have also increased as versions of Blackboard’s LMS have become more sophisticated. Version 9.1, released last month, reportedly focuses less on new features and more on client support.

It also reduces the burden on institutions that are switching over from an older version, Henderson says — something that customers had been complaining about. He hints that the company may soon move away from annual version releases to more incremental upgrades. “The creative wheels are turning on our part,” he says, “and the world will soon see how we are going to adjust our approach to bringing releases.”

To hear Inside Higher Ed’s entire conversation full conversation with Henderson, listen to our podcast.

 

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