A clean start for Blackboard

Blackboard's unexpected move to buy learning management systems Moodlerooms and NetSpot has led to a lot of misinformed criticism but it's actually good news for online learning.

Last week Blackboard announced that it had acquired open source learning management system (LMS) providers Moodlerooms and NetSpot, and launched the Blackboard Education Open Source Services Group. In addition, Blackboard hired Sakai Foundation board member, Charles Severance, to lead its Sakai initiatives, and extended support for Angel indefinitely. It will support clients using open source technologies in an effort to build on its existing focus of “supporting the entire education experience.”

Blackboard’s announcements were unexpected, and with them came some misinformed ranting and raving about how they deliver a blow to the competitive landscape. However, here at Ovum we believe the announcements will enhance the changing higher education market by opening a significant and highly positive chapter in the history of online learning.

Welcoming the acquisition 

Both Moodlerooms and NetSpot will continue to operate independently to support their respective client bases, Moodlerooms’ being primarily in North America and Netspot’s being primarily in Australia and the Asia-Pacific region. At the same time, they will be a part of the Blackboard Education Open Source Services Group, which will work to develop open source learning technologies globally. Having the financial backing of the largest provider of platforms and services in the education space, Moodlerooms and NetSpot will be able to work more determinedly in contributing to open source solutions.

In return, Blackboard benefits from the acquisitions in being able to extend the series of commitments to openness that it has already made. It is clear that Blackboard is “thinking big” and its long-term goal is to offer a mix of commercial and open source online learning solutions to meet the diverse needs of the market. Not only is Blackboard responding to the growing popularity of open source, but it is also positioning itself for a future beyond LMS.  

Change of ownership and open educational resources

Since Blackboard was acquired by Providence Equity Partners – which means it is no longer publicly traded – it has been freed from a considerable regulatory and compliance burden as well as a laser focus on quarter earnings and, as a result, has greater freedom to focus on developing and delivering world-class solutions and services over a longer period. If these positive effects of change of ownership are taken into consideration, Blackboard’s change in strategy does not seem as surprising as it initially did. In addition, Blackboard recently started supporting the publishing, sharing, and consumption of open educational resources (OER) across its platforms.

By opting for full freedom, it has paved the way for faculty and students to be able to share and transform educational material without having to ask permission first, which will undoubtedly accelerate the widespread adoption of more substantive online learning pedagogy. We at Ovum reiterate  that Blackboard’s announcements are not as shocking as they initially seemed, considering that giving back to the education community in more pervasive ways has long been part of its strategy.  

The future is bright, the future is online learning 

Institutions should not feel anxious about Blackboard’s announcements, or about changes in higher education generally. Instead, Ovum recommends institutions recognise the advantages and welcome them with open arms. The core of Blackboard’s business is learning management systems (LMS) and, although it has faced criticism in the past, the company has worked hard to leverage its LMS market position.

 What is of greater significance is that Blackboard has become a diversified educational solutions provider and, rather than consolidating all of its clients into Blackboard Learn, it is providing products and solutions that are almost LMS-agnostic. I believe this is an exciting time, not only for Blackboard clients, but for everyone in the education space, as the company is looking to become a platform provider for online learning.

Online learning is growing at an accelerated pace, and if Blackboard creates an open platform to support it, the entire online learning ecosystem, including current LMS vendors and other providers of collaboration tools and educational content, will certainly benefit. This is because vendors will be able to differentiate themselves and plug themselves into the platform. Put simply, the greater the enthusiasm for Blackboard’s announcements, the brighter the future of online learning will look.

Navneet Johal is an Associate Analyst for Education Technology at Ovum.

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