Here’s how timezones work.  Australia perpetually wakes up a) ahead of everyone else and b) the last to know what happened overnight.  And so it is with today’s discovery that while we were sleeping, Blackboard executives were tearing off their business suits and putting their underpants on over their tights in order to jump out of the phone box as crusaders for openness in education.

Specifically, in the flurry of press releases about the acquisition of MoodleRooms and Australia’s own NetSpot, Blackboard has announced that it will work to “eliminate vendor lock-in for all LMS options, commercial and open source.”

The irony of this doesn’t need much discussion, surely; and in any case, ed tech writers are all over it, which is a big help for those of us whose day job is something else altogether. I found everything I read today—on both sides—informative and reasonable. For me, the key to unlocking the whole puzzle came from an unconvinced Audrey Watters, pointing out the political gain from openwashing, both in her Hack Education post and in this lovely tweet:

Openwashing: n., having an appearance of open-source and open-licensing for marketing purposes, while continuing proprietary practices.

For sure, it’s early days, and we don’t yet know exactly how things will turn out. We can certainly respect the reputation and track record of the colleagues they’ve brought in from other companies. (Australians are forgiven a self-congratulatory cheer here, as Adelaide and Perth are stamped on the map of global edtech influence. Just think, only yesterday we were a backwater from which startup entrepreneurs were desperate to escape, and now America’s corporate hot shots come all the way to Perth—Perth!—for top secret business meetings.  Maybe we’ll get a space program after all.)

But once we get over ourselves, I think we’ll see that Audrey’s right: for the ordinary educational user there are some uncomfortable parallels with the promotional fuss that surrounded Pearson’s Open Class* last year.  And just as greenwashing reveals something about what consumers want to hear, so openwashing tells us that in the market for educational technology “open” has moved beyond being geeky, cool and insiderish. Now it speaks to the technologically uninitiated—to people like me, who don’t expect to see a piece of code in their lifetime—and it comes bundled with appealing ideas like independence, integrity, collaboration and community. These are things that educators really care about, and we want to hear that our educational technology partners share our commitment to these principles.

So, you know, be careful what you wish for.

But while it makes sense for Blackboard to appear to us as the new open, their more complex communications problem involves providing a convincing account to their market as to how this came to pass.

Ray Henderson has chosen to present this as an evolutionary jump, for which the technical term is a “punctuated evolution”—that moment when the appearance of stasis gives way to sudden change. Biologists who study the fossil record argue a bit about whether there is a separate mechanism that causes these jumps, or whether they’re speeded up versions of business as usual, but the issue that Henderson is tackling head on here is the important one of perception. The thing about punctuated evolution is that it creates the impression of a decisive response to the situation that you’re in.

Rightly or wrongly, Blackboard has acquired a reputation for not doing much with its LMS; stasis doesn’t seem too strong a term. And the strategy of shifting to a “student lifecycle end to end” (or vice versa) focus on campus services, so thrillingly presented in its corporate videos last year, hasn’t really changed the popular view that Blackboard is the universal shorthand term for everything that’s wrong with online learning, including the flaws that are common to most LMS. Perhaps unfairly, this means that over the past few years Blackboard has presented the largest target to a significant anti-LMS backlash.

To erase this deeply scored impression, Blackboard has to stage a dramatic and public change of heart, both mea culpa and brave new world. I think this is why the press releases and public communication have talked up the potential for market resistance, misgiving and scepticism, rather than played them down; and it’s perhaps also why the news wasn’t leaked or launched at a trade fair or conference where there was too much risk of the key messages becoming confused or diluted.  This is a very carefully controlled strategic move. But in the end, Ray Henderson seems to me to be pulling out evolutionary metaphors for much the same reason that Adrian Sannier did when Pearson launched OpenClass: to emphasise the inevitability of change. In IT, things simply turn out as they should.

As educators, we’re supposed to be sceptical of exactly these sorts of claims: it’s our job and our skill to know that whenever something that consists entirely of human design is presented as a force of nature, we should look twice. We’ve heard a lot today about exciting new business partnerships between large and small edtech companies—those with deep pockets, and those who now presumably fit into those pockets—and it’s easy for us to forget that our role in this is to set the agenda that aligns technology to educational principles. To build strong partnerships with global companies that meet our peculiar local needs requires considerable self-belief—not so easy in higher education at the moment.  But that’s the expertise we bring to the partnership.

So in that spirit, I’m highlighting the passage in Ray Henderson’s open letter that seems to me to spell out a far more important principle than Blackboard’s mission to save us all from the scourge of vendor lock-in. Here’s what he wrote:

I think it’s important to consider what the market gets from this evolution at Blackboard. Rather than another LMS-oriented company, it gets a firm focused on helping institutions to solve the hardest problems in education, comprehensively. The range of technologies that must be pulled together to create a solution for institutions today is both more comprehensive and more complex than ever before. Rather than presenting obstacles by imposing a limitation on which products we support, we’re showing our commitment to institutional partnership by broadening our coverage, expanding options and reducing the requirements to change that show we’ve listened to our constituency about what they need from their partners.

Proposing to help us address the hardest problems in education, comprehensively; now that’s a bold offer.

We should hold them to it.

*OpenClass: Free, Open, Easy, Amazing, and Apparently Vanished Like Amelia Earhart going fabulously, according to excited marketing communication just received:

OpenClass is brand new: Pilots in several schools began only in the 2011-2012 academic year. OpenClass is gaining rapid momentum – since launching in October, there have been more than 3,000 installations of OpenClass!


4 Responses

  • As always, great post. I really appreciate hearing the perspective of educators such as yourself. I also think that you’re describing a key challenge in the form of perception.

  • I won’t pretend I wasn’t waiting to hear what Kate had to say about all of this. Thanks for your thoughts! Things are shaking up lately even more than most of us predicted.

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