With all due respect to my friends at Blackboard, it is not exactly an earthshaking platform in terms of innovation, but it is a comprehensive suite of products wrapped up in one package with a nice bow on top. At the end of the day this is important to higher education because simplicity is key to executing enterprise scale operations. Did that sound like it came right out of Business 101 and fits better with corporate strategy than education? If it does so be it, because large scale eLearning is an enterprise level business whether it is being delivered at a for-profit, public or private institution. Anyone who wants to dispute this please consider for a moment the unending pressure to grow FTE's at public institutions - that my fellow academics is just as corporate as the for-profits looking at tuition in terms of EBITDA.
Compounding the administrative push for unified systems is faculty resistance. Chances are if you are reading this blog then you are in the 16% that are 1 or 2 standard deviations out on the innovation curve. But what you have to remember is that there is another 84% of faculty who are way behind you in terms of what they are willing to do with technology. You know these people well; they are the faculty members who you finally got to open a Facebook account and they now have all of 10 friends and three updates in the last six months. Granted, this majority might follow the lead of the innovators and early adopters and run an experiment with twittering in parallel with their courses, but if you think for a minute that these folks are going to Frankenstein together a dozen cloud-based apps to teach a course then I am sure there are some people who would love to talk to you about real estate ventures in sunny southern Afghanistan. This group of faculty want applications that are well established on the Plateau of Productivity in Gartner's Hype Cycle.
Since one of my passions is playing with emerging technologies for eLearning, the above may sound like I am selling out; not at all, I am simply being a realist. I think that it is the job of the innovators and early adopters, who have high pain thresholds, to experiment with all of the shiny new toys and make the case for why they need to be adopted. But at the institutional level the idea of radical changes in learning technologies is a non-starter. I have fought that fight too many times and have way too many scars to think that it is plausible. Even the most promising developments that I see materializing are grounded against very traditional platforms. So how does all of this relate to the recent spurt of Blackboard acquisitions and partnerships being good for the market?
In her recent blog on Elluminate, Wimba and Connect, my friend Ellen Wagner, laid out a very compelling argument for how the Blackboard deal opens the door for tight integration and partnerships between other video conferencing providers and platforms. With the full disclaimer that I am an ardent Connect fanboy and a member of Adobe's Education Leaders group, I believe that Connect is by far the best product in its space. Thus, the door is wide open for one of the other LMS providers (proprietary or open source) to do tight integration with Connect and suddenly the Blackboard application doesn't look so ominous. The same, of course, is true for the Blackboard / Barnes and Noble deal. We have already seen the Pearson / eCollege acquisition and I am sure that McGraw Hill and Sunguage are assessing options for making their products native components of one LMS or the other; as well as the remarkable work that the folks at Flat World Knowledge are doing. I would suspect that given the right incentive even Amazon would be interested in having a place at the table similar to Barnes and Noble. The same potential follows for every variety of social media and eLearning application out there.
At this point I can hear some readers screaming that Blackboard is so monolithic that there is no one who can compete with them, Blackboard is extending their tentacles into all of higher education, elaborating on the whole Blackborg mythology, etc. etc. Again, I say rubbish. There are over 120 LMS's currently on the market. Granted some of these are very small implementations and intended for niche markets, but there are a lot that have significant promise for eLearning; its not just D2L fighting the good fight. On the proprietary side there is a very long list starting with some of my favorites such as 360Scholar and Learn.com. In the open source arena there is a myriad of choices, including Moodle, Sakai and (my personal favorite) OLAT. Each and every one of these LMS providers or communities has the ability to build out API's and work with solutions providers to create robust comprehensive platforms that offer full service options for the education market.
Blackboard is good at what they do because they have developed a comprehensive solution for academia. There are problems and its far from an ideal solution, but it is the market leader because they concentrated on meeting the demand for the largest segment of their audience. However, in doing so they have shut out a tremendous number of partners in favor of the ones that they believed would be most compatible with their platform. That said, all of those solutions providers who got shut out must surely want a part of the very lucrative education market and are looking for partners of their own. So, let the dating game begin and the platform wars start in earnest; hopefully the result will be the emergence of ever more robust, comprehensive platform solutions that benefit the large majority of educators. If this happens then we have Blackboard to thank. If it doesn't then academia and Blackboard's corporate competitors have only themselves to blame.