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Well Played, Blackboard

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…

19 Comments

  1. Matt wrote:

    Considering that Bb has managed to mangle and mess-up every product that it has purchased recently, I wouldn’t congratulate them too much until they prove they can actually do something with their new toy. If Bb 9.1 is any indication (winner of the 2010 “most confusing way to integrate a simple tool like a blog” award), they still don’t know how to make sense….

    Thursday, July 8, 2010 at 8:58 am | Permalink
  2. Well said. Thoughtfully acknowledged. Now, reality: BB has a history of slamming new tools under its hood. Wimba is already an add-on in many installations and all the tools and features have created a slow, confusing, ugly interaction space. Seems the approach will only get worse for the user up ahead. And still, many of us will see them as the only game in town.

    Thursday, July 8, 2010 at 9:02 am | Permalink
  3. I agree there will be a long term impact- a bad one. A chilling effect on any developer who is working on real time collaboration in the education market. By buying the market, blackboard has done this little thing we call, “Creating a monopoly”. Monopolies are great for the holders of the monopoly but bad for price, development, and choice. Classic Blackboard move. Anyone who thinks they won’t greatly diminish the stand alone apps and the open plugins is delusional. You don’t pay $116 million in cash for $6 million in added revenue in order to keep the companies on the same business model. Vendor lock and cross selling is the name of the game.

    Thursday, July 8, 2010 at 9:14 am | Permalink
  4. Bruce wrote:

    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

    Yes to the last point, though interesting that you only seem to grant agency to the commercial players in this case. Might be nice to see an already-existing consortium like Sakai look into this.

    Thursday, July 8, 2010 at 10:02 am | Permalink
  5. Jared Stein wrote:

    Re. the Bb t-shirt, “All I got from this lawsuit was this lousy reputation”: Write me down for a size M.

    Thursday, July 8, 2010 at 10:06 am | Permalink
  6. One strategy for D2L would be to invest into an OS platform, like DimDim, in order to create a competitive ecosystem. D2L would have first-mover advantage for integration and would spread the cost of development through the entire community. It would also reduce total cost of ownership of an integrated D2L/Sync platform. In this way, D2L would not be competing directly with the BB behemoth, but would be offering a lower cost alternative to its clients.

    Some free consulting advice for John ;)

    Thursday, July 8, 2010 at 10:15 am | Permalink
  7. Denis Zgonjanin wrote:

    Excellent insight here. Wimba and Elluminate were the market for real-time collaboration, but BigBlueButton is catching on. People will switch just like they switched to Moodle. Because let’s face it, Blackboard will mess up Wimba and Elluminate as well.

    Thursday, July 8, 2010 at 11:00 am | Permalink
  8. Gary Dietz wrote:

    George, Harold, and other friends,

    For those of you who have worked closely with Elluminate (with me directly or with many other of my esteemed colleagues), this post — and others like it — is missing one central variable: our people.

    Elluminate has people that are committed to the education space. Former educators, industry veterans, and people whose families use our own products for their own education.

    So, while I have no crystal ball nor any insider information, don’t count the new division out in any way. It will be a challenging transition, but the leadership in place brought us the things that a lot of the market loves about Elluminate the company so much – and with a wider set of resources I think the coming months and years will be very interesting. Our values won’t be beat out of us too easily!

    My glasses are not rose colored. I have plenty of business battle scars. I could be wrong. Things could go to hell and a handbasket. But I will personally give it my best to ensure that success continues to involve our core values in education.

    I probably won’t post on a lot of blogs on this topic. I have immense respect for George, so I posted here :-)

    George or others feel free to cross post my entry elsewhere in its entirety — but I really believe this acquisition is a good move for our customers.

    Best regards,

    Gary Dietz
    Speaking for himself (as he usually does, even when speaking of himself in the third person)

    Thursday, July 8, 2010 at 1:21 pm | Permalink
  9. gsiemens wrote:

    Thanks all for your comments.

    I really should have started my post by saying “congrats to Elluminate”. After all, it’s a “Canadian company done good” story.

    Gary – thanks for taking the time to post. I’m sure many things are up in the air for you and your colleagues at this time. Needless to say, to date, I have been a big fan of elluminate. As stated in my post yesterday, I’m interested in the acquisition largely because it impacts a significant part of how I interact with others through open courses and conferences. I’d care a lot less if Blackboard had bought only Wimba (or Connect) as those tools aren’t integrated with my work, and that of many others, in open education.

    However, as comments in this post and others indicate, trust in Blackboard is low – partly due to their lawsuit and partly due to chaotic integrations with their previous purchases. I don’t expect you to post on that here, Gary, as I’m sure it puts you in a bind with your role in the organization.

    In most of the commentary I’ve seen on the purchase, satisfied elluminate users are concerned that previous negative experiences with Blackboard will be repeated. I hope that your comment about the strength of the elluminate culture and its people hold true.

    George

    Thursday, July 8, 2010 at 3:12 pm | Permalink
  10. Geoff Cain wrote:

    I am would love to see BigBlueButton developed through a foundation like Sakai. I think the buy-outs are good news because it will stimulate the open source community.

    Thursday, July 8, 2010 at 4:29 pm | Permalink
  11. Jenna Langer wrote:

    I have used Bb, WebCT, and Elluminate throughout my college education. Elluminate was the only one I was really impressed with because of its real-time capabilities.

    My problem with teaching these tools in school is that I think we need to use more open and collaborative approaches. Why not try a public wiki? How about creating a blog for discussions instead of using the poorly designed discussion boards in Bb? I think students and teachers should try more open products that encourage more users to take part in a social way.

    I wish I learned how to collaborate online using tools I would use in the future, not proprietary educational software that is not intuitive at all. But that’s just my opinion. I’m glad we have made it this far in e-learning, but it’s only the beginning.

    Thursday, July 8, 2010 at 4:51 pm | Permalink
  12. George Kroner wrote:

    Can anyone give an example of a situation in which Blackboard did “mangle and mess-up” a product which they purchased? They were fairly open that WebCT would be merged with the legacy Blackboard platform into the new Blackboard NG platform from the start. BbMobile seems to be a success. BbConnect is in use by 1 out of 4 students nationwide last I read. BbTransact has always been successful. Xythos continues to be rated one of the best content management solutions in the industry. I agree that their support of the legacy WebCT product is to be desired, but ANGEL seems to continue to be well-supported. Help us understand where you’re coming from.

    Thursday, July 8, 2010 at 4:58 pm | Permalink
  13. Jon K. wrote:

    D2L were developing their own synchronous tools – Whiteboard I think it was called. Maybe they’ll pick that up again.

    @Jenna the big problem for a lot of faculty I work with is that they don’t want to deal with the administration of a wiki, or a message board or anything else – it’s an add-on that’s not seen as value added by administration or even their colleagues – so they do what they can with what’s easy to manage.

    Friday, July 9, 2010 at 5:46 am | Permalink
  14. Matt wrote:

    @George K.:
    Bb 9.1 is a mangled mess of WebCT and Blackboard shoehorned together into a mess that doesn’t makes sense. That is a direct quote from a actual Blackboard trainer, in response to us asking too many questions about why this is here and why that is there. Even new things they just try to add, like blogs, are weird. In the same training, the guy I was sitting next to and I couldn’t figure out how to share our blog posts with each other. And we were sitting next to each other! We are also both the guys that people come to when they can’t figure things out. Our organization has spent hundreds of hours so far in meetings (no exaggeration) trying to figure out the new Content Management system. And we are still only having limited success. That part right there is a Frankenstein mix of WebCT, Blackboard,, and the other CMS that Blackboard bought that I am forgetting right now. We have all been around long enough to be able to recognize where the parts are coming from. If you have ever used WebCT, you will get in to Bb9.1 and see some new things and think “that is where they decided to integrate that feature?” I could keep going on for a long time.

    As a forrmer user of WebCT, I can tell you that Bb was most certainly NOT open about how WebCT would merge with Bb. We used to grill our Bb rep about it and he would just tell us that they would keep supporting both and would never integrate. We even directly said to him and his manager “Come on, any company would merge the two” and they would deny it. Then Bb stopped answering any support calls for WebCT. After a few months of complaint from many universities, they finally started changing their tune and talking about integration.

    I still don’t see BbMobile as a success, mainly because I haven’t seen anyone ever get it to work. At a conference recently, several people all pulled it up and talked about what it would do “if it worked.”

    I am not sure if I understand your quote on Bb Connect – that is a warning notification system, so wouldn’t usage be up to the university, not the student? I can’t find anything online that supports what you read.

    @Gary Deitz: No one is forgetting the people that work at Elluminate or Wimba. The sad truth is that very few mergers result in entire teams of good people staying together. Cuts have to be made, and then there are people that don’t like the new boss/system and leave. Blackboard has also driven out its fair share of good people (I have personally spoken to quite a few). So there is just no guarantee that the people will still be there this time next year. That is just business, really – not something that only Bb does.

    Friday, July 9, 2010 at 7:10 am | Permalink
  15. Ruth Howard wrote:

    I’m imagining it’s already on your radar but not wanting to assume anything and in my not having tried out #Junto myself I cannot recommend it, I understand however and do recommend that it comes with a collaborative ethos (a meme) that could only benefit educators,it’s open,has livestreaming video, whiteboard, backchannel, wiki, google wave, more, Monika Hardy (@monk51295) has experience with students in there…

    concept here @venessamiemis http://emergentbydesign.com/2010/06/29/junto-overview-of-concept-philosophy-and-components/

    Link here @gavinkeech http://www.gavinkeech.com/junto-portal/

    Friday, July 9, 2010 at 12:08 pm | Permalink
  16. monika hardy wrote:

    sorry – i don’t have time to read these comments just now… i will get to them tonight.

    Ruth just forwarded me this post – so i’ll comment a bit.
    we have used junto.. it’s an amazing concept.. one in the direction we certainly need to go in ed.
    a phrase i learned from you, george, community as curriculum.

    if that’s so, there must be more sophisticated ways to learn from the times we’re together in a virtual room.

    can we tag parts of a conversation, can we tag author’s intent of verbage? can you imagine spending less time arguing semantics?..

    junto is however still in beta form.

    Friday, July 9, 2010 at 12:39 pm | Permalink
  17. Alan Levine wrote:

    It’s interesting that in an age of unbundling technologies, networked thinking, and disaggregating information/data, that the conventional wisdom in this space is so… conventional. Put more stuff inside the big bbox.

    As institutions buying into this, aren’t we telling our educated faculty and the learners we are educating, in our most ma/paternalistic voices, is “Technology is very powerful for teaching and learning, but to tell the truth, we don’t think we are smart or savvy enough to use the most modern tools that you will have to figure out on your own once you leave the garden. So we have built this nice safe plastic place that is unlike the environments you use in every day life. Click here. Then there.”

    And now there is all this scrambling to find the cheap, small alternatives. The thing that is critical, is unless you are doing this for a small group of people, the infrastructute/network impact of running live voice (VOIP) on a system is huge. And it is something that Elluminate has done well for a long time; sure, maybe not the most sexy interface, but it was very reliable for running meetings for 100+ with live voice, over international distances. Just because you can do a quick demo with XxxxxxXxxx is not a use case for doing it on a real scale.

    Friday, July 9, 2010 at 12:51 pm | Permalink
  18. Geoff Cain wrote:

    Kroner: I could give you numerous examples where Blackboard’s support of even their own products was an absolute failure – a very costly “mangle and mess-up” – I was at an institution that lost a couple hundred courses and even though we were paying for redundant back-ups, Blackboard could not restore the courses and after reading the fine print in their contract we found that they were not responsible for any lost data despite the fact that we were paying for redundant storage. We lost course materials that were “archived” and courses that were running. Those courses represented a huge investment of faculty time, staff support, and instructional design – no one at Blackboard valued these issues at all. The attitude at Blackboard was “we are the only game in town so too bad.” There were many similar issues included unresolved “support” tickets that were 3 years old. So we switched to Angel because we were really impressed with their customer support model…then imagine our surprise…

    Friday, July 9, 2010 at 1:14 pm | Permalink
  19. George, great post. I think the idea of a new, cross-institutional and hence ‘cross-pollenated’ tool/product is fantastic and I’d love to be involved in something like that, or if not possible, at least closely track its development.

    However, another option to the creation of a new product, is for a current one with large market share (Bb?) to invite an extended, open collaboration with those who clearly already have knowledge in the area and a vested interest in the result? Opening moderated consultation to experts and end-users could possibly produce the same results as your suggestion, if not in a revised product, at least a new product that had a jumping start of stimulus to work with.

    @Alan Levine – great point and I think I agree with you. The convention in this space seems to be quite dissimilar to other technological developments. I think Bb are making efforts to move someway to satisfy people with similar thoughts. George’s comment on integration becoming the focus now is an indication of this. I think there is still definitely value in examining the possibilities of harnessing the powerful interaction/integration strategies of newer technologies.

    Possibly a reason this hasn’t been so successful in the past with Bb is because they may have either lost some expertise in past acquisitions or not gained as much as they’d hoped? Or perhaps a mismatch in ideology? I’m not versed in the history of these buy-outs, so I’m only speculating though.

    Still, as a long-time end user of the Bb product in its various stages, I will be interested to see how things are now released.

    Sunday, July 11, 2010 at 7:05 pm | Permalink