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The key is community: Why Blackboard’s changing strategy won’t change the landscape… much

April 6, 2012

There’s been quite a bit of discussion, analysis, and reaction to last week’s announcements that Blackboard had acquired Moodlerooms and Netspot, hired Dr. Chuck, and cancelled the Angel LMS’ end of life.

There are lots of questions. And much speculation about the answers. But I think we’re just going to have to watch closely to see how this all plays out. What seems clear at this point is that:

  • Blackboard has bought back some of the market share they’ve lost over the past few years
  • Angel users have a reprieve at the moment from the forced march to choose another LMS
  • Blackboard, through Moodlerooms and Netspot, has a new ability to engage with the Moodle community
  • Blackboard is more seriously evaluating how to monetize open source… if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em

Phil Hill has done a nice job organizing the key announcements, statements, and reactions in his April 4th post. Who knows, maybe Phil will add this one. :-)

From my perspective, these new announcements are mostly consistent with what we’ve seen for years. Blackboard’s core business continues to be the LMS. It is the basis for the relationship they have with their customers. And while they are quickly diversifying through acquisitions beyond the LMS, they can’t afford for their LMS base to erode as quickly as it has been eroding. Acquiring a bunch of Moodle customers buys them time. Letting Angel customers continue on Angel for now buys them time.

It’s no surprise that the open source aspects of the announcements have generated the lion’s share of reaction. But Blackboar

d’s strategy is not really about open source. It’s about customer acquisition and retention. And there just aren’t that many proprietary options with significant market share to acquire anymore. So Blackboard looks to acquire customers that have chosen Moodle or Sakai–the open source options.
Naturally many have expressed concerns about what this means for open source. Fortunately neither Sakai nor Moodle can be acquired. They will be perpetually available to anyone who wants to use, modify, or share them. The licenses guarantee it. And “the key”, as Brad Wheeler, CIO at Indiana University and Chair of the Kuali Foundation board of directors, notes is

“… to ensure that this doesn’t become a different path back into the old set of problems yet again.”

The key is community

Those of us who’ve been deeply engaged in the open / community movement know that the open license is important, but insufficient, to generate the most compelling benefits. I’ve spent nearly a decade working to establish and build open source options for education that span support for teaching, learning, research, libraries, student services, and administration. Most of my work has been through the Sakai and Kuali communities, who I believe are empowering institutions to improve education–and that’s something that I’m passionate about. Community is the key. Moodle and Sakai are first and foremost communities that have developed deep competencies that enable innovation through diverse global collaboration. One result of these communities’ effort is innovative software that helps students and educators extend and re-invent education. Community is everything. Moodle and Sakai have very different community models, but for both community is everything. Did I mention how important community is? Community brings diversity–a key ingredient for innovation. Community is resilient to change–there is no single point of failure in community. Community is the safety net that minimizes the risk of lock-in. Community promotes transparency and predictability. And so on…

And so the good news for higher education is that we have built two very durable open source communities. And it’s not up to Blackboard whether these communities continue to thrive. Hundreds of colleges, universities, and companies like rSmart, whose values and mission are aligned with the community mission and values, are investing in community developed and governed software. It is this diversity and breadth of contribution that gives me great confidence that Sakai will continue to thrive. Sakai is a path that we can count on to empower students and educators with innovative support or teaching, learning, and research.

Will Blackboard be a contributor in the Moodle and/or Sakai ecosystems? Time will tell. But as Brad put it recently…

“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.

… and aligning values and mission is very different than shifting strategy.

So despite the uncertainty that comes with announcements like these, there are a few things that I’m sure of:

The Sakai software will continue to empower students and educators. Hundreds of institutions and millions of learners and educators around the world use Sakai with great result. The current generation of LMS’s including the Sakai CLE have matured to a high level of parity. And the Sakai open academic environment (OAE) is demonstrating community innovation at its best by creating a new learning platform that isn’t shackled by current market expectations.

The Sakai community will continue to be diverse, durable, and capable. The Sakai community is made up of a highly diverse group of education-focused organizations who share strong alignment of values and mission. And the community has demonstrated for nearly a decade the collaboration competency to produce and evolve great software, and the durability to endure changes that impact individual members of the community.

rSmart will continue to deliver Sakai. rSmart was founded to support the open community development movement in education. Our mission is to deliver the open platform and achieve the greatest potential impact by making our community’s work accessible to the widest possible spectrum of institutions. We’ve been doing this for many years and know how to engage as an integral part of communities like Sakai, and to leverage that community engagement to partner with our customers and help them improve learning outcomes and increase access to education.

A couple years ago I wrote about how path matters… and how choosing the right LMS is more about choosing a path, than choosing a product. I believe that the community source path enables a rich ecosystem of like-minded, education-focused organizations to put the best innovation in the hands of students and educators. Will Blackboard’s change in strategy help them align values and mission to contribute to that ecosystem? Time will tell.

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