I didn’t intend to post about this, but people keep asking me what I think, so I guess I need to get something up. For starters, you should read Michael Korcuska’s post on the subject. I agree with everything he says. Beyond that, here’s what I think:
Let’s start by trying to figure out just what the heck Blackboard is talking about. This isn’t easy. As usual, they’ve made grandiose promises with not a lot of detail. But if you look at their latest Blackboard NG video, there are hints. Chapter 3 of the video shows a mock-up of their integration. What they explicitly talk about amounts to (a) links to courses in other systems (which you can do with, say, a portlet), (b) single sign-on between those systems, and (c) the ability to call up the other system within the Blackboard navigation via an iframe. Of these pieces, (a) and (b) are simply portal-like capabilities (people have done the same thing with both Sakai and Moodle using uPortal as the integration point, for example), while (c) is cheesy, ugly, and mostly useless. Now, if you look closely at the video, you’ll see that they also have mocked up (but don’t talk about or demonstrate) pulling notifications like announcements out of the other systems and displaying them on the dashboard. Again, this is basically portal capability. It’s a good idea, but it’s hardly revolutionary. Also, because there are no standards for getting this stuff out of different LMSs, Blackboard will have to build point-to-point integrations with each system. These sorts of things are inherently fragile and expensive to maintain. In contrast, if something like Cambridge’s Sakai SData project were to evolve into a cross-platform standard, then you could pull the data that Blackboard is making such a big deal about out of any platform and put it into any other platform (including Facebook, Page Flakes, iGoogle, or whatever) and you could reliably re-use the code to integrate with multiple systems.
In addition to the video, we know that Blackboard has been very active in the IMS Learning Tools Interoperability (LTI) initiative. My take is that LTI is intended to be a cross-platform replacement for Building Blocks. Now, why would Blackboard want to support such an initiative? Right now, they have the advantage of having more vendors build tools for them because of their market share. If there is a cross-platform standard, then they give up this advantage. So it makes no sense for them to push LTI, right? Except that their various tools — Blackboard Content, Blackboard Outcomes, Blackboard Community, Blackboard Virtual Poker, etc. — could be integrated via LTI into other systems. In one stroke, they become add-on tool vendors for every other LMS.
So. How is one supposed to feel about these efforts? If the picture above is accurate, then neither of these two parts is particularly evil. The way they’re going about the first one is typical Blackboard go-it-alone stupidity in the approach, but there’s nothing inherently damaging about it (unless there’s another patent application somewhere that we don’t know about). Blackboard is using the first part to stanch the bleeding as customers bolt their platform and the second one to make sure they have stuff to sell even to schools that have already bolted the platform, but I don’t have any problem with commercial motives as long as the actions don’t hurt the choices for universities and, ideally, actually act to enhance them. We should take Blackboard’s grandiose pronouncements and easy-to-fake mock-ups with a healthy portion of salt until product is delivered, but I don’t see anything here to be scared about.
How should the open source communities react to this? I’m not that close to the Moodle community at the moment, so let me focus on Sakai. As long as neither Blackboard nor Syracuse (the university that is partnering with Blackboard on Sakai integration) is asking the community for resources beyond the technical advice that anyone can request on the listserv, then I don’t see why the Sakai community should care. The IMS work is good (if the end result is a good spec) and the other stuff isn’t bad (based on what we know so far). If the integration helps meet the needs of particular Sakai-adopting institutions, then fine.
However, if it should come to pass that Blackboard and/or their integration partners do need substantial material support for Blackboard-specific integration (as opposed to integration via a standard from IMS or some other body), that is another matter. I would like to see the Foundation Board issue a pro-active statement that Foundation resources (whether development and QA consulting or even PR and promotion) will not be committed to any Blackboard-specific integration as long as Blackboard is asserting an educational software patent against another company. This would be consistent with the Board’s previous positions on the patent, it would not prevent Syracuse from meeting its local needs (or prevent individual Sakai-adopting institutions from helping them if they so choose), and it would assure the Sakai community that their membership dues would not be going toward helping a company whose actions the community has very actively opposed.