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Supporting Chuck Severance's Blackboard Work
March 28, 2012 - 9:30pm

Our ed tech community should offer our full support to both Chuck Severance and Blackboard on his ascension to Blackboard's Sakai Strategist. In his role at Blackboard, Chuck will maintain his faculty appointment at the University of Michigan as a Clinical Associate Professor of Information in the School of Information. Blackboard will support his consulting, research, and summer salary - but my understanding of the relationship is that Chuck will retain a high degree of autonomy and discretion.   

I highly recommend that you spend some time reading Chuck's description of his new role working with Blackboard on his blog post "Connecting Blackboard, Sakai, and Open Source".  

In this post, Chuck lays out his rationale for the relationship. In a couple of e-mails to me (which I asked if I could reproduce here), Chuck expanded on what he wrote in his blog:

"I really do not expect to have any major disagreement with Michael or Ray in how Blackboard approaches open source.  Frankly if their motivation was to see Sakai go away or harm the community in some way - the easy and safe strategy would have been *not* to hire me and not to invest resources in Sakai.   It would have been safe and easy to have this press release about Learn, ANGEL, Moodle, and Edline - and let Sakai twist in the wind. I appreciate the opportunity to bring Sakai in at this table as an equal participant and in a way that I hope to show as a model of responsible investment of a for-profit corporation in open source."

Chuck goes on to say that:

"Lets be clear.  I am not joining Blackboard to *start* a move toward a more open approach across the board. People like Ray Henderson, John Fontaine, George Kroner, and others have been strong internal advocates for better support for standards and more openness inside Blackboard.  There have been some amazing moves toward openness in areas that impact teachers and learners.  I am joining a group with the intent to increase the velocity along a direction that Blackboard has already been taking for over two years.  I am not at Blackboard to "turn them around" - they are already turned around.  My job is to add energy and increase velocity."

I see that Chuck's new role with Blackboard will bring large benefits to our ed tech community. Further, I hope that Chuck's relationship with Blackboard can be a model for expanding the formal relationships across the academic and for-profit world's.  Reasons for my positive reaction include:

Advancing the Quality of All LMS Platforms: Blackboard's investment in Sakai and Moodle should yield benefits across all LMS platforms. This move will give Blackboard firm business reasons to bring true interoperability across all the platforms, making it much easier to both mix and match best of breed system (small pieces loosely joined), and to switch from one LMS platform to another. A service oriented but platform agnostic Blackboard should result in both better platforms and higher levels of service. On the goal of evolving Sakai, Chuck writes in his blog that "I will now have access to Blackboard internal resources to bring to bear on improving the community edition of Sakai. The kinds of resources I can tap into include the Blackboard QA team, Performance Testing Team, Documentation Team and others.". Access to these resources is not trivial, and should be a great boost for existing and potential Sakai adopters.

Helping Blackboard Better Understand and Serve Higher Ed: How can I put this delicately. If Blackboard can make Chuck Severance happy with its behavior and products then they can make anyone in higher ed happy. I do not think that Chuck has any corporate ambitions, and I know that he is not motivated much by money. This is a guy who loves to teach and loves higher ed. Chuck will be able to influence Blackboard's behaviors and culture from the inside, and I do not think he will be shy in voicing any concerns that may arise. Given Chuck's history, I imagine that he will be extraordinarily available to his colleagues in higher ed, and he has built up a very strong network of colleagues (both in the U.S. and throughout the world) who will also not hesitate to give him a piece of their mind.

Helping Higher Ed Better Understand and Work With Blackboard: The benefit of having Chuck on the inside at Blackboard should work both ways. Not only will Blackboard learn more about higher ed, higher ed will learn more about how a company like Blackboard really operates. If we want to influence the strategic path of companies like Blackboard (and I think we do), then we need to develop a better understand of how decisions and investments in these companies are made. Chuck will be able to take what he learns about Blackboard and bring this knowledge to our academic community. We will both learn about the specifics of this one company, and hopefully be able to generalize these lessons to improve our relationships with all the for-profit companies that we engage with in partnerships.

The other reason that I feel good about this new relationship between Chuck and Blackboard is more personal - I respect and trust the players. Anyone with even a passing understanding of Chuck Severance's work on Sakai will understand how single-mindedly passionate he is about learning, innovation, and the open source community.  I also have a great deal of respect for Ray Henderson and his leadership team, and I believe that in finding a way to bring Chuck into his circle of advisors that he is signaling a strong desire to understand and invest in the open source community.

I hope you join me in offering Chuck our congratulations and support - and in also holding him (and Blackboard) accountable to transparently share both their successes and disappointments as this new direction for Blackboard progresses.


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