While Blackboard is unable to write a press release that includes clear statements like “we have purchased these companies”, I have to give the company credit for the acquisition of Elluminate (and Wimba).
With increased competition and general maturity of the market, Blackboard made what is likely its most important acquisition to date. Here’s why.
The learning management system market has become somewhat of a commodity – Blackboard has attempted to hold high market share through acquisitions (notably WebCT and Angel). However, open source initiatives like Moodle offer reasonable alternatives. Desire2Learn – the object of a failed Blackboard lawsuit (new t-shirt slogan for BB “all I got from this lawsuit was this lousy reputation”) – continues to be an active player (a reasonable argument could be made that Blackboard is largely responsible for the rapid uptake of Moodle following the announcement of its lawsuit…has anyone done a market share analysis that traces adoption of Moodle in relation to the lawsuit? A bit ironic that BB is likely responsible for the unintended success of one of its largest competitors). A North American-centric market share diagram is available here. In Europe, Fronter is also a prominent LMS provider.
Take a step back to 2001/02: pre-YouTube, pre-Facebook pre-Twitter. During this period, online learning was a mess. No clear direction on standards. Web 2.0 was not yet a marketing term and conference paper buzzword. Most of the focus in online learning was on content creation tools and delivery systems (like the LMS). LMS providers were signing state/provincial and regional contracts, essentially locking in entire systems. Most administrators – and I think this is still true today – were unaware of e-pedagogy or teaching and learning with technology in general. Rather than being an enabler of new learning opportunities, technology was largely and extension of existing classrooms or distance learning models. Very little consideration was given to the strategic adoption of technology.
Over the last eight years, the market has experience enormous change (web 2.0, virtual worlds, social media, networked learning). But many things have settled in the process. Some universities are beginning to focus on a big-picture view of technology: making learning resources available in multimedia, integrating technology from design to delivery, using mobile technologies, and increased focus on network pedagogy. Blackboard (and LMS’ in general) have been able to present the message that “you need an LMS to do blended and online learning”.
To counter this view, the edupunk/DIY approach to learning has produced an emphasis on personal learning environments and networks. To date, this movement has generated a following from a small passionate group of educators, but has not really made much of an impact on traditional education. I don’t suspect it will until, sadly, it can be commoditized and scaled to fit into existing systemic models of education. Perhaps Downes’ Plearn research project, or OU’s SocialLearn project will prove me wrong (I really hope they do!!). For the purposes of this post, however, the brave new world of online learning will be dominated by LMS like Moodle, Blackboard, Desire2Learn, and regional players like Fronter.
Synchronous teaching, learning, and collaboration tools have matured significantly during this time period. In academia, Wimba and Elluminate are the dominant players. Adobe Connect has somewhat of an academic presence, but it has seen far more success in corporate settings, similar to WebEx and GoToMeeting. Synchronous tools represent the fastest growing technology segment in education, and the one with the greatest prospect for future growth. Over the last few years, I’ve been a community partner with Elluminate (an arrangement that expires (is up for renewal?) on July 19). Together with people like Stephen Downes, Dave Cormier, Tony Karrer, Jay Cross, and others, I’ve run courses and conferences with tens of thousands of participants. Elluminate was an integral part of these activities. Consistently, the technology of the course/conference that received the most compliments was Elluminate. Budget cuts and constraints in education will continue drive the appeal of synchronous tools.
Blackboard’s purchase marks an important shift in trajectory – even maturation – for the LMS marketplace. Integration, not the platform itself, is now the critical focus. LMS companies have for years formed partnerships with content producers and with synchronous tools – I believe both BB and Desire2Learn had partnerships with Elluminate and Wimba. To be effective in the long term, large LMS companies will need to pull more and more of the education experience under their umbrella. Why? Well, technology is getting complex. Very complex. Which means that decisions makers are motivated (partly out of fear of appearing ill-informed, partly out of not wanting to take risks) to adopt approaches that integrate fairly seamlessly across the education spectrum. Why buy an LMS when you can buy the educational process?
This puts companies like Desire2Learn in a bind. I’ve met John Baker – CEO of Desire2Learn – numerous times. He’s an extremely informed and capable person. I suspect he has a good sense of the shift from LMS-as-platform to LMS-as-integration. And, in a small field like ours, the Elluminate/Wimba acquisition was probably signaled to insiders. But what does D2L do now that it has a competitor that has pulled a key market segment under its umbrella?
The most obvious response is to look for similar companies to purchase. But who is left? Blackboard did not buy into the synchronous education market with the Elluminate and Wimba purchase – they bought the market. Sure, there are open source initiatives, but every conference where I have presented using a tool other than Elluminate or Connect has had technical problems. The open source market for synchronous tools is not well developed. The best option at this stage is for D2L to announce funding and development support for an open source tool like Big Blue Button. Better yet, initiate (fund) a consortium of educational institutions that will provide funds and development support for the tool. I’m sure there are many individuals who would be pleased to assist in moving things forward (I know I would).
In the mean time, well played, Blackboard! Your acquisition will have a far greater long term impact in educational technology than most people realize…