A few weeks back, I got an invitation from Matt Small to get a tour of Blackboard NG. Given all the rumors and speculation around it, I was obviously interested. I particularly wanted to know how much of it exists in code today and how much is vapor. So I took Matt up on his offer, and got a tour from him and John Fontaine. And while I didn’t quite get a full answer to the vaporware question, I did learn a lot of other interesting stuff about the platform and Blackboard’s strategy.
Fixing What’s Broken
The NG strategy has both defensive and offensive components to it. On the defensive side, it is intended to fix what even Blackboard acknowledges is a clunky user experience in their current-generation product. As anyone who has taught with Blackboard knows, it takes about 57 clicks to do just about anything. One of the first things that John and Matt highlighted in NG is that the page authoring system should be a big improvement over the current design. On their way to doing this, Blackboard is also adding a more modern iGoogle-like drag-and-drop environment and beefing up their accessibility (the latter of which they need to do if they want to continue to compete in the State of California). They’ve also added some embedded analytics for teachers—showing who is overdue in turning in assignments, which students haven’t logged in for a while, etc. We didn’t do a deep dive on any of these improvements, (if I were evaluating the system for a full review I would have wanted to walk through some common workflows), but at first glance it all looked pretty good.
At this point I asked how much of this would be shipping in Blackboard 9 and how much was coming later. John acknowledged that he was showing me a mock-up and then switched to a browser tab of a running instance of Blackboard 9. Again, I just got a very quick glance, but it looked like the accessibility and iGoogle-like stuff was in there. I asked John to flag any features that were coming after version 9 going forward in the conversation, but I ended up peppering him with so many questions that we never really got much further with the tour. So I still don’t know what’s coming in the next version and what will be coming in future versions.
The Enterprise Play
John and Matt also talked about their multiple language translations, which can be applied at the site-wide level or the course level. This is where I started to get the first hints of Blackboard’s offensive strategy. John emphasized that, in addition to having a translation team in-house, Blackboard uses “in-country translators” to make sure that the translation quality is top notch. This, he claimed, is “different from Moodle or Sakai.” Blackboard is using its size and financial characteristics as a weapon against both smaller proprietary competitors and open source alternatives. This came up repeatedly in different ways throughout the conversation. Matt Small said, “We decided that we’re not going to be just an e-learning company. We’re an enterprise solutions company.” In the short run, this strategy gives Blackboard a cudgel against other LMS alternatives. In the long run, it puts them on a path toward more direct competitions with the Oracles, Sungards, and Microsofts of the world.
Next we got into integration and interoperability. Blackboard has had a challenge since merging with WebCT in terms of having to maintain multiple code bases. It’s very expensive to maintain redundant product lines. (Just ask Oracle.) They needed to find a way to migrate WebCT customers over to the Blackboard code base without creating enough pain that an unacceptable number of customers would go to something else. Part of doing this necessarily involves providing universities with an ability to placate noisy holdouts on the faculty (sometimes including entire departments) who don’t want to move. So Blackboard came up with a strategy whereby the legacy WebCT systems can integrate with the Blackboard system, with Blackboard acting as a kind of a dashboard and control center. The idea is that schools would move whoever they could to the new system quickly and then give the holdouts more time to adjust to the notion of change. Once they figured out that this would work for their own systems, they apparently thought, “Why not do this with competing systems too?” Michael Chasen has repeatedly characterised Sakai and Moodle (the latter of which he consistently avoids mentioning by name) as departmental choices. This message is reinforced by Blackboard’s pitch about being an “enterprise software company.” Put all of this together, and the message to unversities is, “You don’t want to trust your mission-critical system to some flakey open source group. Buy your enterprise software from us. If you need to placate some users on your campus, let them run Sakai or Moodle at the departmental level and have them manage their courses through Blackboard. Over time, you’ll be able to wean them off of those toys and get them onto a big boy LMS.”
Neither John nor Matt said it directly, but my sense is that this strategy applies specifically and only to open source. They seem to believe that they have Desire2Learn and ANGEL well in hand and don’t need this containment strategy for them. A while back, I had speculated that Blackboard would use IMS LTI to sell products like Outcomes and Content System to other LMS adoptees. I was wrong. Blackboard is going to integrate these systems with other systems using their WebCT connector thingie. And when I asked about integration with products like ANGEL and Desire2Learn John indicated that they have no current plans to do so.
On the technical side, Blackboard is going to have at least three integration methods. The first, Building Blocks, isn’t going away. John characterized it as a complement to LTI, since the former is Java-specific while the latter is web service-based. These are both essentially plug-in services similar to what most LMSs have today, with the exception that LTI will be a standard. (Matt emphasized that they are putting significant resources into LTI development and testing, including participation in the IMS working group.) Their WebCT thingie (I’m not sure what they’re officially calling it) is somewhat different. John correctly pointed out that it’s not really just a portal implementation, since it has APIs for integrating very specific kinds of information (e.g., announcements, grades, etc.). Blackboard will have to do this integration point-to-point with each target LMS, but since they are apparently limiting their targets to two (not counting WebCT), this may be manageable for them. I remain unconvinced that this is going to be terribly usable approach to integration, but since Blackboard’s long-term goal is to get everybody into the mother ship, I’m not sure that they need it to be terribly usable anyway.
Next we moved onto the topic of Blackboard Connect, which is their SaaS arm. They clearly think that they have a winner with their NTI purchase. In particular, they’ve seen some good pilot results with daily messaging from K-12 teachers to parents. They claim significant grade improvements for students in the pilot. This is also where their enterprise pitch re-emerged. Matt emphasized that large-scale messaging integration is complex, requiring expertise (e.g., how not to overwhelm your switches) and heft (e.g., being able to negotiate favorable service level agreements with multiple telecomm carriers). Likewise, he argues, SafeAssign has to make multiple complex queries to Google in order to do its job, which requires a close working relationship with Google. This is where Blackboard thinks it has a durable competitive advantage.
Finally, I got a little bit of information about their business organization. Blackboard has re-organized into three business units: their LMS (“BbLearn”), their e-commerce system (“BbTransact”), and their SaaS offerings (“BbConnect”). Each of these units has a President and COO. Matt, in his role as Chief Business Officer, oversees operations that cut across the business units such as human resources and marketing. This is in addition to his ongoing role overseeing Blackboard’s legal strategy.