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In a turn that shocked many in the higher ed tech world, the e-learning giant Blackboard on Monday announced that it has acquired two companies that provide support to Moodle, the leading open-source alternative to Blackboard’s proprietary online learning platform.

As part of a raft of announcements, the company said it has bought Moodlerooms, a major open-source support provider in North America, and NetSpot, which serves a similar role for Moodle users in Australia. 

Blackboard said it will not be replacing any of the leadership personnel at those companies, nor will it try to assimilate or rebrand them, as the company has done in previous acquisitions.

Blackboard also announced an “Open Services Support Group” aimed at selling support services to colleges that use free, open-source learning management systems (LMS). The company says it has hired Charles Severance -- a prominent figure in the Sakai Foundation, another open-source advocacy community -- to run Blackboard’s new open-source arm.

The Blogger's View
Joshua Kim weighs in
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This bear hug of the open-source movement marks a dramatic departure in strategy for Blackboard, which previously has brushed off the threat of open-source LMS alternatives, even as they have chipped away at the company’s market share in recent years. While Blackboard has watched its share of campuswide LMS adoptions among U.S. nonprofit colleges fall from 71 percent to 50.6 percent in the last five years, Moodle has seen its own share grow from 4.2 percent to 19.2 percent over the same period, according to the Campus Computing Project.
Factoring in Sakai, which has grown at a slower clip (though its clients tend to be larger), open-source platforms now serve more than a quarter of nonprofit colleges.

The source codes for Moodle and Sakai are free to download, but because implementing and maintaining open-source platforms is a lot of work, many colleges that use those platforms hire outside firms, such as Moodlerooms, to help stabilize and customize the platforms for their campuses. Blackboard’s acquisitions of Moodlerooms and NetSpot represent the first time the company has tried to capitalize on this increasingly popular model -- which Ray Henderson, president of Blackboard Learn, acknowledged is less expensive than buying a full-service license for Blackboard’s product.

“We think it’s a terrific time to be making investments in the leading brands behind providing Moodle services,” Henderson told Inside Higher Ed on Monday. In a blog post, he called the growing popularity of open source “the most important new dimension shaping the LMS market today.”

Henderson acknowledged that some advocates might look upon Monday’s news as a corporate attempt to subvert the open-source movement. “Longtime participants in the open and community source communities may be concerned about our corporate intentions, and how we’ll conduct ourselves given that we are governed by an interest in business growth,” he said, adding that Moodlerooms’s current clientele may be anxious about what a Blackboard regime could portend.

To these doubters, Henderson pointed to the open-source leaders -- Severance, Moodlerooms CEO Lou Pugliese and NetSpot's managing director, Allan Christie -- that Blackboard has brought into the fold: “guides” who are theoretically prepared to protect the “bylaws and maxims” of the open-source community. In an interview, Henderson said there is no plan to change the fees at Moodlerooms, and that Blackboard ownership would give Moodlerooms customers the opportunity to add Blackboard’s live-communications and mobile features to their platforms. If anything, Henderson said, Moodlerooms customers will get more bang for their buck.

In a statement of principles for its new Open Source Services division, Blackboard said it “will continue contributions of code from products we support and from in-kind development activities conducted in partnership with community organizations like Moodle Trust.” The statement, which also pledges to “eliminate vendor lock-in for all LMS options,” is signed by Henderson, Pugliese, Severance, Christie and Michael Chasen, Blackboard’s CEO.

Reactions in the higher ed tech community were varied. Bradley Wheeler, the CIO at Indiana University, said that “Blackboard now has an excellent opportunity to demonstrate its new values in openness in licensing and community,” although “time will tell” how deep its convictions are on that score.

While open-source advocates could view this as a moral victory, clients will have to be on guard for how the profit motive of Blackboard, which was recently bought by a private equity firm, might seep into its open-source strategy. "Open-source licensing was the key to get out of that escalating cost box of the last decade,” Wheeler wrote in an e-mail. “The key will be to ensure that this doesn't become a different path back into the old set of problems yet again."

Phil Hill, executive vice president of the Delta Initiative, focused on another Blackboard announcement that was largely dwarfed by the company’s open-source news. Blackboard said it will continue supporting the Angel Learning platform, which it acquired in 2009, indefinitely rather than trying to move its legacy clients on to a newer version of Blackboard Learn in 2014, as previously planned.

In light of the other releases, the Angel extension reads like an afterthought. But its inclusion in Monday’s news dump was no mere coincidence, says Hill. By setting “sunset” dates for the Angel platform, Blackboard had signaled that it planned to funnel its legacy Angel clients toward the most recent version of Learn, he said.

“The new message" encoded in Mondays announcements "is that it doesn't matter what LMS you want, we'll support them all,” Hill wrote in an e-mail. “That is the real message, in my opinion, more so than the open source angle. This is a huge change in strategy.”

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