Here's a short piece I wrote today about my personal experiences with Blackboard that puts some of their claims into perspective. This personal history makes clear that, even within just the truncated time frame of the last decade, there have been many LMS alternatives to Blackboard, both commercial alternatives and open source alternatives. Anyone exploring a wider timeframe will find even more examples of LMS software that included features which Blackboard is now claiming as their own. _____JH
The Blackboard patent claim and infringement suit against Desire2Learn have elicited many online comments. I've posted a few sites in this blog that are important to monitor for continued developments. For myself the controversy has also elicited memories of some of my own experiences with Blackboard and other learning management systems during the time (1994 to 2004) when I was Director of Distance Education at the Division of Distance Education at Eastern Oregon University (EOU).
When I first arrived at EOU the university was using an asynchronous text conferencing system developed by Murray Turoff in the 1970s called EIES (Electronic Information Exchange System). EIES was command based and difficult for teachers and students to learn and apply in courses. You can always tell when a software system is too difficult for users because it requires workshops to even get them started (good software is intuitive enough to encourage people to jump in--and then do follow-on training workshops as needed). The university soon converted to First Class, which was much easier to use in instruction. We also soon began to explore the learning management system Web Course in a Box which was free at first and later very inexpensive to license when Madduck began to charge for it; for example, the licensing was set up so that a yearly fee was not required, new fees were needed only when the institution chose to upgrade to a newer version. Because Web Course in a Box was a small company they were also very easy to work with, the university's technology specialists could talk directly to WCB's specialists whenever glitches occurred.
EOU also explored many other open source and commercial course management systems and we had several instructors from the Computer Science department who chose to set up their own course delivery systems rather than relying on WCB or other external sources. In short we were operating in a paradise of innovation and exploration with no forced uniformity across the campus. Instructors who wanted to use WCB because of the convenience of the system and the support provided for the system could do so; instructors who chose to go their own way with other systems could explore in their own directions, but had to accept the burden of supporting their own efforts. It was, all in all, a happy arrangement. Best of all this arrangement precluded encumbering the university with an over dependence on any one commercial vendor.
When WCB was acquired by Blackboard we had the choice of shifting to Bb, or continuing with an old version of WCB, or shifting to other commercial vendors such as eCollege, TopClass, or WebCT. We chose Blackboard to maintain continuity with our already constructed WCB courses since WCB/Blackboard provided a course translation pathway. For a period of several transition years we ran online courses in WCB, Blackboard, and eCollege all at once--while still continuing to use First Class for conferencing among the DDE professionals and faculty. This eventually proved to be too burdensome to support; we dropped eCollege because they provided little additional support and we transitioned all the old WCB courses to Bb. At this point we narrowed our supported systems to Blackboard and the open source system Moodle, while still continuing to explore other open source systems such as the LMS called CHEF under development by the Univ. of Michigan and other institutions. We also explored other specialized systems for online testing because we found that the LMS testing capabilities (in Blackboard and Moodle) were too limited. Additionally, we continued to track the development of open source LMS software and other commercial LMS software through outlets such as EduTools. It was evident to all the professionals involved in online course delivery and hybrid course delivery at EOU that many good options to Blackboard existed and that many were under development. The institution was never committed to Blackboard to the exclusion of other viable options.
As Blackboard users we went through what all other small university users experienced with the company, yearly licensing fees jumped year by year and support was minimal. We also noticed that Blackboard was developing a multi-tiered system with new features available mostly in the highest priced tier--it was evident that Blackboard wanted to go after the high end market of large universities that could afford enterprise systems that would embed the course management system into a portal for the entire university. Of course any university going that route would be committed for life to the Blackboard association (and the Blackboard prices). A further characteristic of Blackboard's multi-tiered system was that open source products could only be integrated into the top-tier version of Blackboard. The very universities and colleges (the small ones) that most needed to take advantage of open source additions to Blackboard to enhance their "basic" system were unable to do so. To use open source products with Blackboard (i.e., integrated directly into Blackboard courses rather than running separately) the only choice was to acquire the more expensive upper end Blackboard product.
I attended one Blackboard users conference in Phoenix where I had an opportunity to express concerns about these trends. I pointed out to Matthew Pettinsky (Chairman and one of the co-founders of Blackboard) that these Blackboard directions would very likely drive small institutions away from Blackboard and into using open source software or less expensive commercial software. His reply to me in an email message was that Blackboard had "responsibilities to its investors" and had to pursue the directions that it was taking.
There have been many speculations about why Blackboard chose to take the patent actions and legal filing that it is currently pursuing. My own belief is that Blackboard does perceive a serious threat from the now highly developed open source learning management systems that will become even more available to both small institutions and large institutions. Blackboard abandoned their base of small institutions to go after the big money large institutions, but many of the most prestigious large institutions are operating within consortia to push forward open source efforts; therefore Blackboard is in danger of losing both the big plums and the little plums--they'll be left with the pits. Their patent effort is a scare tactic to postpone the inevitable--the shrinkage of their user base. Blackboard pursued a faulty acquisition strategy rather than innovative internal development and is now pursuing a faulty legal intimidation strategy; what they should have been doing all along was real software development and genuinely responsive customer service, then perhaps they would have had something real to patent.