Blackboard have set the cat amongst the pigeons with their announcement today that they have acquired both Moodlerooms and Netspot to help run a new business to support and host open source learning management systems.
Both George Siemens and Audrey Watters have already posted their initial views on this and both provide an interesting and sceptical take on Blackboard’s motivations. I agree with their scepticism but I disagree with George’s analysis of the Blackboard’s motivations. I actually think Blackboard are making a play to position themselves as the cloud provider of LMS solutions. Here are my reasons:
They’re actually quite good at hosting
My experience is that their hosting solution is actually pretty good and getting better. The service is reliable and the downtime minimal. In fact, as a product, their hosting service is better than their LMS and their LMS runs better when it’s hosted by them. If I was Blackboard I’d be encouraging customers to stop self hosting and go with Blackboard Managed Hosting for everyone’s benefit.
The LMS market is stabilising in the medium term
Blackboard have been losing customers to other solutions but, by and large, they were only losing customers who were being forced to re-evaluate after WebCT support expired. These customers had to make a choice and by and large they went Moodle or D2L. In contrast customers on older versions of Blackboard mostly stayed with Blackboard. Institutional inertia is huge when it comes to changing the LMS and Blackboard knows it. Blackboard know that customers that have made a decision about their LMS over the last three years are going to stick with it for several years. There won’t be nearly as much churn in the next two or three years as there has been in the last.
Meantime new customers are likely to go open source and look to host externally. Growth in Blackboard learn customers will be low to non extistant. Why not get some revenue from hosting and supporting open source solutions?
The LMS market is preparing for the the post LMS era
The post LMS era will be about discrete services that get bundled together and not about monolithic learning management systems that attempt to do everything and are inherently walled gardens. Some services will be private and secure, others will be open and ultra collaborative depending upon the use case. The trick will be bundling the right services together to get a usable blend for end users.
Blackboard need to prepare for this era and it needs to start now. The flexibility that open solutions currently provide will be helpful.
What about Data, Analytics and Collaborate?
George also speculates about the economic value of data. This will be true if they provide free hosting for open source solutions in which case the you might get some customers that would agree to their data being mined. However, I suspect that most customers wouldn’t be happy about their data being used like that.
There may be some benefit for the new Analytics product but I don’t see it as a driving force for this move.
The Collaborate issue is an interesting one. I have a deep suspicion that Netspot were working on producing a Big Blue Button service to compete with Collaborate. If Blackboard are really committed to open source they will continue that work and offer Big Blue Button in future. That’ll be a nice test of their open source commitment.
And then there is Echo 360
The other issue is Echo 360; Netspot have close ties with Echo 360 and are a premium hosting provider for Echo System. This means that Blackboard get a leg into lecture capture, certainly in the Australian market which might be a forerunner for plans they have in North America.
What about Netspot and Moodlerooms?
I don’t know much about Moodlerooms but I do know Netspot quite well. On a personal note I’m sad to see an innovative, progressive and visionary Australian company being bought out by Blackboard but I’m sure the management team have made the correct decision for the company.
I hope that both Moodlerooms and Netspot can continue to operate as independently as possible.