5 myths about Blackboard

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Myth #1 – We Understand Blackboard: I’m 100% certain that half of the things that I think and write about Blackboard are wrong, I’m just not sure which half. Blackboard is a hard company to “get” because education is such a diverse business, technology moves so quickly, and Blackboard contains so many people, products and services. There is no one typical Blackboard engagement or Blackboard / higher ed relationship – they are all contingent and shaped by personalities and local context. Our misunderstanding of Blackboard is amplified by the general lack of high level critical analysis of the for-profit education services and edtech sector. It is hard to make sense of Blackboard as a business because we don’t have good analysis of the education business. This lack of in-depth critical study of the the educational technology and for-profit educational services world is both ironic and troubling given the growth of investment into this sector, and the increasing importance of non-profit / for-profit partnerships in the world of higher ed.

Myth #2 – Blackboard is Too Large: The reality is that Blackboard is too small. If the thesis is correct that Blackboard needs to re-orient and re-brand itself from a products to a services company in order achieve long-term sustainability and returns on capital then the company will need to fill in more than a few missing pieces around people and platforms. Katie Blot, President of Global Services, has a relatively narrow window in which to ramp up the services division before competitors such as EmbanetCompass, Pearson, Colluquy, or the more traditional consultants gain too large a footprint and mindshare lead for higher ed consulting engagements. I’m also not convinced that Blackboard should be done with acquisitions, as they are still missing some critical parts of the e-learning stack (with media management – Kaltura, Ensemble, ShareStream) being the most obvious candidates.

Myth #3 – Blackboard is a Monolith: The days when any single identity could fully describe Blackboard are over. Blackboard, while still relatively small for an enterprise technology company, is both diverse and personality driven. My sense is that Blackboard’s diversity of passions is by design, as Blackboard’s leadership (particularly Ray Henderson) understands that in a knowledge business the only effective strategy is to bring together smart, collaborative and passionate people, and provide them the resources and support they need to innovate. I think we will start to see new products and services come out of the company at a faster rate. These innovations will not follow a specific “5 year plan” but will result in the entrepreneurial efforts of Blackboard employees. People and resources will follow good ideas. I expect this dynamic to play out most strongly in the San Francisco mobile office, and if Blackboard is smart the product center of gravity will begin to switch towards the mobile teams development culture (while dollars go to services).

Myth #4 – Blackboard’s Challenges Are Around Technology:
It is easy to look at Blackboard’s core Learn product, compare the platform against modern LMS’s designed solely for cloud delivery (such as Instructure’s Canvas), and conclude the Blackboard has a technology problem. The reality is that Blackboard has a large number of skilled developers and the capabilities to quickly design next generation cloud based learning services. Learning platforms that would benefit from all the Blackboard has learned about scalability, usability, and reliability. Blackboard’s challenge is an installed user base of educational institutions that are reluctant to make big changes (for good reasons). Everyone at Blackboard knows that mobile learning, interconnected platforms, and software as a service e-learning is the future. The key is figuring out how to help higher ed clients build that bridge between a legacy and modern e-learning infrastructure. This is where the Services division will be so important, as change management is the most important and difficult component of increasing productivity (supported by technology) in higher ed.

Myth #5 – Blackboard Has Reached Maturity: Hanging out at BbWorld 2012 it is tempting to conclude the Blackboard is a mature company. The logistics of the conference were well executed. The sheer size of the conference (over 3,500 people participating) makes Blackboard feel like the most formidable presence in the e-learning space. But looks can be deceiving. We really don’t know what Blackboard will look like in 2020. The company could easily be split into a products and services group, resulting in more specialized (and perhaps agile) operations but a very different public profile. Or Blackboard could be sold by Providence to a large technology player (my bet), which would change the company in ways that are hard to predict. New competitors could arise that would quickly gain market share at the expense of Blackboard. The Services division could fail to gain traction. The investments in the Moodle and Sakai businesses could be sidetracked by inadequate investments or poor execution. Blackboard still does some weird things. For instance, who at Blackboard thought of calling the new learning objects repository “xpLor” -maybe some ex Microsoft employee that they had cryogenically frozen from the 1990s who was then thawed out and wheeled into branding meetings? Or does anyone at Blackboard really think that one student on the planet is going to be excited about “Blackboard Social”, because they just don’t have enough social networking options and they are dying to share their Blackboard status updates with friends? These tone deaf moves are thankfully largely irrelevant to the larger story of Blackboard’s transformation from a first-mover LMS company to a long-term and robust educational services provider. They are telling, however, that the Blackboard story is still much closer to the beginning then the end.

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