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PHILADELPHIA -- Blackboard found itself playing defense last week when, right before most higher education technologists were set to ship out for Educause 2011, a competitor announced a free and “open” learning management system (LMS) -- a technology Blackboard sells for a pretty penny.

Now, on the first official day of the annual technology conference, Blackboard is back on the offensive with several cost-free perks in its own LMS designed to promote its own bona fides on “openness.”

Blackboard is joining forces with Creative Commons to make it easier for an instructor using its learning management system to free his syllabuses, along with other content he has authored inside the LMS, and share them with instructors at other institutions.

The company is also going to allow its LMS clients to easily authorize outside auditors -- such as other educators, accreditation teams, and prospective students -- to poke around courses pages in the Blackboard LMS without worrying that the company will bill them for the additional users. Blackboard says it wants to help institutions share the content of their courses with larger, online audiences.

The company plans to unveil both of these moves at its corporate session here today. Ray Henderson, the president of Blackboard’s LMS product line and chief technology officer at the company, discussed them with Inside Higher Ed here at Educause on Tuesday.

“We look at the market and we see there’s a real curiosity in trying to extend the mission that the institutions have and who they serve,” Henderson said. “And there are a lot that take inspiration from, say, the MIT OpenCourseWare project, where they would really like to have their catalog of courses, and the course materials that they’re creating -- they’d like to contribute those more openly.”

Under the partnership with Creative Commons, Blackboard instructors will be invited to tag their course content with different licenses that indicate exactly how others can use it. Instructors will then have the option of sharing the course on Twitter or Facebook.

The company is also working to make the licensed course content more visible to public search engines, so that it can be discovered more easily by instructors searching the Web for free course content.

Blackboard’s announcement this morning comes on the heels of the release by Pearson, the e-learning company, of a new LMS product that colleges can download through the Google store for free. A number of observers have speculated that the new offering, called OpenClass, could spell the beginning of the end for Blackboard Learn, which can cost institutions hundreds of thousands of dollars per year in licensing fees.

In February, Blackboard opened a free, hosted version of its LMS, called CourseSites. The idea was that if non-customers could get a taste of the Blackboard suite of features, they would lobby their administrators to adopt the pay-to-play product at the institutional level — a strategy that, Henderson reports, is working.

Blackboard is promoting its new content-sharing tools primarily through CourseSites.

In the week since Pearson unveiled OpenClass, Blackboard has insisted that the new Pearson product appears to be little more than CourseSites with less visible meat on its bones. Henderson said Blackboard has received assurances from Pearson that OpenClass was not designed to be an institution-wide LMS, but rather an alternative for some professors to take up at their own prerogative.

“We pressed them on, ‘Is this enterprise as in you can have an institution on the system, or is it individual courses?’” Henderson said yesterday. “They’ve said it’s for individual courses.”

But Adrian Sannier, Pearson’s OpenClass guru told Inside Higher Ed something quite different Monday. The product is designed to be adopted (if not as an immediate replacement for the institutional LMS) by top technology administrators, said Sannier, a senior vice president of product at Pearson. Individual professors cannot currently download it themselves, he said. Pearson officials have also said that while OpenClass features are not fully visible yet, the service will be a full LMS for institutions.

Today, Pearson is announcing its first group of partner companies whose services institutions will be able to use through OpenClass. The list includes CourseSmart, ProQuest, Panopto, Kaltura, Respondus and Turnitin.

OpenClass had been downloaded 182 times as of Tuesday evening, he added. Sannier is slated to give a talk about the new offering at Pearson’s own corporate session today, several hours after Blackboard’s.

For the latest technology new and opinion from Inside Higher Ed, follow @IHEtech on Twitter.

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