Any colour you like, Australia

To the indomitable Australia, where the dynamics of change and choice cause individualism to be the force for doing, and freedom an urgent state of mind–

Art Linkletter, LinkLetter Down Under, 1968

So, there’s been a bit written about the Blackboard acquisition of NetSpot in Australia and Moodlerooms in the US, focused on the philosophical integrity of the open source project.  To a lesser extent it’s got people thinking about whether the LMS as we know it is going away, as Australia’s David Jones suggests.  Or not, which is the persuasive if discouraging argument from Tony Bates.

It’s been an exemplary demonstration of how quickly the North American edtech blogging community mobilises their expertise and their networks to provide fast, rolling specialist coverage of these kinds of events as they unfold. George Siemens has an excellent second post; and there’s serious, thorough background evaluation from K. C. Green at Inside Higher Ed here, and the second part of Michael Feldstein’s reflections here.  (Interesting that Instructure are coming out of this very well; they’re not just big in Utah.)

Australia: not always down under (image taken from Martin Dougiamas, presentation, 2010)

The problem is that all this is unfolding a bit differently in Australia, formerly a dot on the higher education world map; as it turns out, not only NetSpot but Moodle itself is an Australian thing.  So for anyone who’s booked their ticket to Austria to see what the fuss is about, here’s the map you need, with apologies to Martin Dougiamas, who was apparently thinking along the same helpful lines when he used it in a presentation in 2010.

Dougiamas has made very clear that Moodle itself wasn’t the object of the sale. This isn’t just a bit of purist fuss about who owns open.  It has additional resonance in Australia where the most iconic Australian brands (including Vegemite, Holden Cars and Tim Tam biscuits) are the property of US companies; and where there is active political debate about foreign ownership of Australian farms and major industries, not to mention the ongoing domination of Australian cultural life by foreign media producers. In 2011, for example, Australian films accounted for only 10% of the titles released in local movie theatres, and only 3.9% of local box office. So we know a thing or two about import dependence.

Our combined sensitivity to foreign ownership and monopoly can sometimes be hard to hold in a productive balance; the cruelty of market rationalisation being what it is, we end up providing government support to ensure that Australia is protected against the market failure of its local producers, who can’t leverage anything like the economies of scale of their global competitors.  So we fund the production of movies; and we create modest protective shelters in television broadcasting for local producers.  But we’re not wholly parochial in this; sometimes we also fund foreign companies to come here and make things like cars if this keeps Australians in work, and when we do this, there’s no end of PR about how gloriously Australian it all is.

And this is why it’s curious that there has been relatively little media coverage of this little fact, taken from the Australian Campus Review:

NetSpot managing director Allan Christie says there are now 17 universities using Moodle in Australia, 19 using Blackboard, two with Desire2Learn and one with Sakai.

There are 39 public universities in Australia.  This means that give or take a bit of juggling to accommodate a few other higher education players, the alternatives to Blackboard and Moodle are exceptionally few. And as Blackboard has just acquired the company predominantly associated with hosting Moodle on behalf of Australia’s universities, then it’s very hard not to see this as a situation in which modestly healthy competition (that does often come down to two dogs snarling over a bone, when the market is as small as this one) has been replaced by a kind of adroitly managed regime of choice in which a foreign company has acquired a dominant stake in shaping the future of Australian higher education: any colour you like, so long as it’s …

These are interesting challenges for Blackboard and NetSpot to negotiate, not least in relation to trust. How will they handle future LMS bake-offs?  Who will decide what it makes sense for each company to offer to the other’s clients by way of enhancements?  How will they communicate their combined or separate philosophies and roadmaps to the Australian market, and what role will our needs play in their decision about what makes business sense to them, particularly if Blackboard’s circumstances change again? Critically, how hard will it now be for a newcomer like Instructure to wedge its way into the Australian scene?  Given that higher education is so risk-averse in terms of enterprise-wide edtech, which institution will now want to break ranks with The Combine?*

Australia’s used to being managed by strategic negotiation: for years we were led by a political coalition of two conservative parties who often agreed not to run against one another in seats where the otherwise third placed candidate could slip past a divided conservative vote. But we’re also used to our own anti-monopoly investigators taking a keen interest in anything that looks like price-fixing or collusion.  Given all this, any foreign company that has acquired a controlling stake in a critical and politically sensitive Australian cultural sector like higher education would surely stay on its best party behaviour for some time; after the initial surprise, I’m not sure we’ll see any loud outbursts for a bit.

So the more interesting question is this one: what should Australia’s universities be doing about all this?  If the very large majority are now dealing with what is effectively one supplier for the campus LMS, even if it has different divisions offering marginally different products, what should be our combined approach to this interesting predicament?

There are a number of bad options, each of which will probably get a run. We could ignore the situation and its implications.  We could consider ourselves superior—after all, we’ve just discovered that it’s “our Moodle”, just like “our Nicole”, and “our Kylie”, and “our Cadel”, and all those other global celebrities who we call our own when it suits us. Or we could bet on special, and each continue to negotiate independently with our new best friends, because we’re Australian, and we do like to compete.

A much more sensible thing would be for one or other of Australia’s national higher education governing bodies to lead a new conversation about our serious, distinctive ed tech experience and our changing needs as we enter a period of considerable sector reform.  We have a deservedly good reputation for innovation and leadership in online learning, that we’ve acquired by knowing who and where we are: we’ve been overcoming the tyranny of distance in educational terms for a really long time, and we’re famously early adopters of everything that bleeps and sings.  We do have some legacy issues in relation to national infrastructure, including the cost of data, and a wide digital divide in relation to rural, remote and indigenous education, but we’re dealing with them.

What we need now is a coherent, national strategy for education for digital citizenship from K-2 right on up to grad school, that’s founded on our experience in this big country, and our educational mission—and, with respect, not just on what makes sense to the business plans of the latest north American investor to take an interest in our natural resources.

* In 1909, American theatrical entrepreneur J. D. Williams arrived in Sydney, prospecting for commercial opportunity.  As historian Jill Julius Mathews describes it, “J. D. Williams’ empire was built in a world of cutthroat competition, of constant manoeuvring to undermine rivals and to advance one’s own position. J. D. understood that the future belonged to the efficient and the consolidated: the whole film business should be in the hands of only a few well-conducted enterprises. … Emerging on top after an intricate play of mergers, takeovers and court cases, in 1913 he engineered an amalgamation with his chief competitors and became the dominant partner in what was called ‘the Combine’”—a content distribution-exhibition company that dominated the Australian cinema market for many years, with very unimpressive consequences for local producers.  Just sayin’.

5 thoughts on “Any colour you like, Australia

  1. I think worrying about US companies owning this or that is missing the point: US companies are simply the front desk for global capital. Just because they have CEO’s and MD’s who are starlets with the beautiful teeth, nice hair, and clear complexions doesn’t mean that Hollywood is taking over. We all own these massive conglomerates, that’s what our superannuation funds do, that’s where our money goes and how we hope our money will grow. This isn’t US imperialism, it’s the operation of building shareholder value, including Australian shareholder’s value. And, for what it’s worth, I don’t want a coherent national strategy for digital citizenship, or on anything really. Coherency is often a cypher for flat earth, one size fits all, policy that fails to take into account diversity of needs. I would like to see an incoherent national strategy for digital citizenship, that would be much more interesting.

    1. Hey ho Rustichello, I think you’re spot on about this — we do need to be careful in Australia about the kneejerk reflex that treats all “foreign ownership” as something entirely separate from Australian affairs. “Global capital” is a much better way to put it. I’m very interested in the prospect of an incoherent national strategy for elearning, or at least a national strategy to protect diversity and creativity. The do-nothing alternative now seems to me a bit less likely to lead to diversity; the irony this leaves us with is that we may need to act concertedly to protect difference.

  2. Hmmm. I’m not sure that a coherent policy is possibhle – or necessary, really, Each state will do what it will do; that’s how Australia operates in school education, and most institutions don’t even have a coherent policy for their own institution, let alone be able to contribute to some wider agenda. Central managments just don’t think aBout eLearning like they do about the library, or the physical plant. Also, alongside Bb at our institution we have several other enterprise systems (eg Echo360, Pebblepad, Virtual Microscopy…). Bb is becoming the glue that holds it all together, not the only system in town.

  3. Hi M-H, this is a really fair point, but what’s bothering me is whether or not it matters that we have sufficiently different options for the glue. It might, it might not. Someone else discussed this with me in terms of the company that makes the cardboard tubes in the middle of kitchen paper. Does it matter if there’s only one company making this, or other kinds of standard packaging? Are we giving the campus LMS too much credit for shaping educational culture and outcomes? Maybe. And there’s a school of thought that says that monopoly doesn’t have to be the enemy of innovation, because market-dominating producers (of anything) must continue to innovate to protect their dominant position; the upstarts are always just outside the door waiting to slip in. But in a practical sense there are some heavy restraints placed on innovation in LMS design and adoption by the fact that we have to enter into relatively long and certainly expensive contracts, and the criteria that institutions apply during an evaluation include a whole lot of requirements for scale and stability that almost inevitably preclude the option of backing a newcomer. So it would be tough to be a small global competitor, like Instructure or Nixty, looking at Australia at the moment. And the critical factor here is that while Australia is small in its own terms, it’s also a regional doorway to a significant international market.

Conversation welcome here