In a move sure to catch the attention of trend-watchers in higher ed, Blackboard announced on Monday its acquisition of a major mobile messaging provider, NTI Group.
The merger brings together two companies that are dominant in their fields and raises the possibility of a stronger emphasis on mobile content in online learning. Since Virginia Tech, colleges across the country have re-evaluated their emergency protocols and installed or upgraded mass notification systems, often embracing text (or SMS) messages  as a relatively quick and effective medium for routine or urgent announcements.
While Blackboard is the premier provider of course management software in higher education (and increasingly, K-12), it has gradually entered successive markets -- most recently, assessment  -- and consolidated its varying services to an extent that appeals to some officials preferring integrated functionality and troubles others worried about fledgling open-source competitors .
Either way, the word "synergy" was frequently invoked as Blackboard sought to portray the $182 million deal as a potential boon for its existing customers and a boost to online learning.
Michael Chasen, Blackboard's CEO, said in an interview that administrators at colleges using Blackboard's services would be able to log in to the Web interface, select specific groups of recipients (such as first-year students or everyone on campus) and send out a customized message with the click of a button. Other services have similar functionality, but Chasen suggested that Blackboard's course-specific contact lists could also become part of the communications package.
"In the future, we are even looking at integrating in the classroom level," he said, so that professors or administrators could contact students in a particular class via text message or e-mail.
Many colleges also use Blackboard point-of-sale systems, such as student ID cards with built-in debit accounts. Adrian Sannier, the university technology officer at Arizona State University, which has a history of adopting promising technologies early on, said "the jury's out" on whether text messages are more effective than other means of communication when it comes to emergency notification and other functions. For example, the growth of smartphones and PDAs may eventually supercede SMS messages altogether, he said.
But he said he'd be interested if Blackboard integrated mobile capability with its point-of-sale technology (which Arizona State uses) so that, for example, students could make purchases with their phones and use them as identification devices or even consoles for interactivity in the classroom.
“A campus is the ideal place to begin to learn about how that kind of technology will affect our society as a whole," he said.
For now, that means more of a focus on mobile platforms in online learning. Beyond higher education, Blackboard's announcement noted that with the acquisition of NTI, it will take on a number of governmental and corporate customers as well.
To some critics of Blackboard, the purchase will be one more reason to scrutinize the company. Sannier, on the other hand, suggested that it's "better that they’re doing it than that they’re not," to see what kinds of services can be rolled into a single, integrated package.
But for other companies in the campus messaging market, Blackboard's entry could mean more intense competition. Raju Rishi, the chief strategy officer at Rave Wireless, for example, said that “this basically validates the space, and says ... mobility is an important piece of the higher education architecture.” Unlike NTI, Rave offers a more varied array of text-based functionality, from two-way communication to GPS pinpointing for safety purposes, and Rishi suggested that other companies will have to worry about the "differentiation" of their products from Blackboard's.
Rave already has a deal in place with Blackboard that allows students to receive text alerts corresponding to particular classroom events. “We don’t expect that relationship to disappear,” Rishi said.