Course Management Systems are Dead!

Heh. Blackboard Vista is headed for a brick wall? Who knew?

7. Course Management Systems are Dead! Long Live Course Management Systems! Proprietary course management systems are heading for a brick wall. The combination of economic pressures combined with saturated markets and the maturing stage of the life cycle of these once innovative platforms means that 2009 may well be the year of change or a year of serious planning for change. Relatively inexpensive and feature-comparable open source alternatives combined with some now learned experience in the process of transition from closed to open systems for the inventory of repeating courses makes real change in this once bedrock of education technology a growing possibility. As product managers and management view these trend lines, I think we might see incumbent players make a valiant effort to re-invent themselves before the market drops out from underneath them. Look for the number of major campuses moving (or making serious threats to move) from closed systems to open ones to climb in the year ahead. The Year Ahead in Higher Ed Technology

It is true the big player in proprietary CMS / LMS / VLE software has lagged in innovation for quite a while. Remember though Blackboard bought WebCT and kept around the other product while hemorrhaging former WebCT employees. That alone kept them extremely busy not to lose every customer they bought. The next version, Blackboard 9 should be available soon. That is the litmus test for their future success.

Bb9 is a newer version of Academic Suite, aka Classic. There is no direct upgrade path from CE / Vista to Bb9. There is a Co-Production upgrade path where one can run both versions side-by-side with a portal interface to access either version without having to login again. Content still has to be extracted from the old and placed in the new. (Since we are running Vista 3 and Vista 8 side-by-side now, this doedsn’t give me warm fuzzies.) This was the upgrade path some WebCT and Blackboard clients took getting from Vista 3 to 4 only to find Vista 4 was junkware. Similarly, those leaving CE4 for CE6 were frustrated by the move. So, I would predict:

  1. Those on Classic 8 now will go to Blackboard 9 ASAP.
  2. Smaller colleges on CE 8 who through turnover no longer have the people burned by the CE4->CE6 migration will probably move to Blackboard 9 this summer prior to Fall.
  3. Smaller colleges on CE 8 who still remember will migrate after AP1 (maybe a year after Bb9 release).
  4. Larger colleges on CE or Vista 8 will move some time between AP1 and AP2.
  5. Consortia groups like GeorgiaVIEW, Utah State System, or Connecticut State University System will wait and see.

That last group doesn’t take change easily. They have the nimbleness of a Supertanker cargo ship.

I am still waiting for the tweets about Moodle and Sakai, the open source alternatives, to change from in general “X sucks, but at least its not Blackboard.” to “X is the best there is.” If “at least its not Blackboard” is the only thing going for the software, then people will stay where they are to see where things go. There needs to be compelling reasons to change.

Unfortunately the cries of the students and the faculty in the minority are not enough. Most people are happy enough. They can accomplish the important things. They get frustrated that IT took the system down, data center power issues, network issues, or a performance issue. None of which go away by picking FOSS.

Monopoly Fears

Something brought up my abandoned Friendster blog, which had a link to fiftymillimeter which used to be my favorite photography site by people in Athens prior to me even moving here. Why “used to be”? Well over a year ago, they stopped posting to the site. Sad, I know. Still, I was curious, Where are they now? I ran across Twitter-Free Fridays looking for Toby Joe Boudroux.

What I found interesting about this post was his approach to whether or not Twitter is or is not a monopoly. I agree with the first part. The last sentence surprised me.

Being at the top of an emerging market segment does not constitute a monopoly. Unfair practices, abuses of that dominance to limit fair access to resources and outlets – those are monopolistic. If Twitter struck a deal with Mozilla that blacklisted other microblogging services, we’d have something to talk about. Opening APIs freely and allowing supplemental markets to emerge hardly seems consistent with railroad barons.

Supplemental markets would be the equivalent of a railroad baron allowing new train stations or business to sell to the customers using the trains. Open APIs allow other corporations to find a niche. However, they are not a direct competitor. For example, with Twitter, the API is not used by Pownce or Jaiku. Friendfeed who fits in both the lifestream market and the micro-blog markets does use the API. More commonly, the Twitter API is used by companies like Summize or Twitpic in searching or posting content.

If economists or lawyers determining whether a company with a large market share is monopolistic are influenced by open APIs creating supplemental markets, then this could be a strategy to avoiding DOJ further scrutiny? At Bbworld / DevCon, a frequent point of pride from the Blackboard folks was the anticipation of Bb9 to have a more open, accessible, and useful API. This API will be able to do everything the current one in the Classic line can currently do. The anticipated additions to this API could benefit many supplemental markets. (Let’s just forget at the same time, they are saying API for the CE/Vista products is a dead-end development path.)

Scoring points with the DOJ (and more importantly the court of public opinion) could never hurt while trying to sue a much smaller competitor like Desire2Learn. Some characterize Bb as not likely to stop until D2L no longer exists. Who knows? I doubt even Chasen knows. Still, it would far fetched to characterize just this as making Blackboard a monopoly.

There are pleny of alternative LMS products to the Blackboard Learning System: Moodle, Sakai, ANGEL, eCollege, and many, many more. Heck, the rumor mill would indicate more and more higher education institutions are considering and even changing to the alternatives. Blackboard acknowleges institutions likely run multiple products. With Bb 9, they encourage people to use the Learning Environment Connector to single sign-on to into the other products. With the Bb9 frame remaining so they know who got them there, of course.  Don’t forget about a Personal Learning Environment,

Certainly I dislike that Blackboard hears my objections and continues to act in ways contrary to them. However, that happens within my own team. Neither group are criminal for ignoring me.

Bb 9 is NextGen?

UPDATE: Have another source who disagrees with Badge who made the claim below.

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Hopefully this is true. I’d hate to be spreading a false rumor. Anyone willing to confirm? 😀

According to J. L. Badge, Blackboard 9 will be the “NextGen” product we are… *cough* eagerly… *ahem* waiting to see. John Fontaine was in our building Thursday. He mentioned NextGen several times. I must have fallen asleep to have missed a version number was mentioned when he talked about NextGen. It makes me wonder if Jan Posten Day’s recent blog post re: Blackboard Ide Exchange is to elicit early feedback on NextGen?

Certainly, if Bb9 is The One and people can get a first look at BbWorld ’08, then the conference will be mobbed. Lovely.

The “Too little, too late.” comment is funny. Apparently he is professor who has moved on to hanging out by himself in Second Life. A little ahead of the curve.

My interest for Blackboard products are 1) stability, 2) deployments, and 3) doing tier 3+ support well. These early looks are only going to tell me maybe a bit about #3. I really won’t know what I want to know until I talk to the Bb Perfomance Team and look at the dirt from the command-line. Of course, the elimination of all but a few Java applets deserves for us to lift John Fontaine up on our shoulders and parade him around all during BbWorld ’09.