Archive for July, 2008

Blackboard & the Innovator’s Dilemma

July 23rd, 2008 jonmott Comments

As Clayton Christensen has famously observed, the producers of innovative products gradually lose their creative, innovative edge as they acquire and then seek to protect market share. When a company’s innovations result in significant profits, managers generally find themselves face to face with the innovator’s dilemma. To remain successful, Christensen argues that companies need to listen “responsively to their customers and [invest] aggressively in the technology, products, and manufacturing capabilities that [satisfy] their customers’ next-generation needs.” However, these very same behaviors can create blind spots for innovators. By simply providing incremental improvements to existing products, companies run the risk of missing major, paradigm-shifting innovations in their market spaces. Likewise, they’re in danger of focusing too much on their existing customer bases instead of new potential customers who currently don’t user their products (non-consumers). These twin dangers leave erstwhile market leaders susceptible to disruptive technologies, provided by firms who aren’t stuck in current paradigms or too narrowly focused on pre-defined customer segments.

Blackboard finds itself squarely in the midst of this classic problem. They have a large and fairly stable customer base. Incremental feature enhancements, improved customer service and product stability are likely to keep most of their customers satisfied for time being. But what of the disrupters in the market place? If one considers open source CMS alternatives like Sakai and Moodle to be the most-disruptive players in the market, Blackboard’s strategies appear to be on the right track.

In his 2008 Bb World Keynote by Michael Chasen (President & CEO of Blackboard) showed screen shots of Blackboard NG (”Next Generation”) demonstrating the integration of Sakai & Moodle with Blackboard:

Sakai & Moodle courses in Bb NG 

This technological innovation will allow instructors and students at various institutions to use the CMS of their choice with a common entry / aggregation point–Blackboard.

Blackboard is also attempting to play nice with Web 2.0 and mobile technologies.

Blackboard on iGoogle
Bb NG on an iGoogle page

Blackboard on the iPhone
 Bb NG on the iPhone

Blackboard is also making it easier to add Web 2.0 content to course sites (e.g. easy insertion of YouTube videos, adding Facebook pages to student profile pages).  

While I applaud these innovations as good steps in the right direction, there remain fundamental flaws with Blackboard’s (and virtually every other CMS provider’s) underlying infrastructure. For all of the new window dressing, Blackboard remains first and foremost a semester-based, content-delivery oriented, course management system. The software is not (at least noticeably) evolving to become a student-centered learning management system. And while the addition of wikis and blogs inside the Blackboard system is as welcome improvement, there is still little or no integration between student learning tools “inside the moat” and outside of it “in the cloud.”

It is for these reasons that I don’t count Sakai, Moodle, D2L or Angel amongst the biggest, long-term threats to Blackboard. Disruption will, I believe, come from another direction.

In Christensen’s newest book, Disrupting Class, he and his co-authors argue that the real disruption in educational technology will come (and is already coming) via learner-centered technologies and networking tools. A rapidly growing number of people are creating their own personal learning environments with tools freely available to them, without the benefit of a CMS. As Christensen would say, they have hired different technologies to do the job of a CMS for them. But the technologies they’re hiring are more flexible, accessible and learner-centered than today’s CMSs. This is not to say that CMSs are about to disappear. Students enrolled in institutions of higher learning will certainly continue to participate in CMS-delivered course sites, but since these do not generally persist over time, the really valuable learning technologies will increasily be in the cloud.

Open learning networks have the potential to bring together the world of the CMS (or better yet “institutional learning networks”) and the world of PLEs together. The next big challenge ahead of us is to figure out ways to create autonomous, institution-independent “learner spaces” that provide home bases for learners that can bridge the two worlds. In these spaces, learners would ideally aggregate relationships, artifacts, and content from ALL of their learning activities, be they digital or analog, online or offline, synchronous or asynchronous, from one institution or many. Blackboard still has the opportunity to provide such a space. If they want to.

If they don’t someone else will.

And it won’t be long.

More on “learner spaces” in future posts . . .

New Mexico Adopts Blackboard for K-20 Initiative

July 16th, 2008 jonmott Comments

The State of New Mexico announced today that it has selected Blackboard as the platform for it’s comprehensive K-20 online learning initiative. The allure of the “networked learning environment” (i.e. closed educational technology stack) is alive and well.

Woz on Learning Motivation

July 16th, 2008 jonmott Comments

In his opening keynote at Blackboard World yesterday, Steve Wozniak reflected on his experiences growing up at the dawn of the modern computer era. Along the way, he made several references to the intrinsic motivations that drove him to do the things he did. Some examples:

  • When he bumped into a new technology, he was instantly driven to figure out how it worked. Not only that, he instantly began working on a way to replicate the technology “using fewer parts”. The intrinsic desire (need?) to know how things work drove him to creatively figure things out, often to the extent of reverse-engineering them.
  • He would often go to school, or work, or even sneak into a lab after hours and work all night to solve a challenging problem.
  • His first job was with HP. He intended to stay there forever because he wanted to be an engineer. He only left (to start Apple with Steve Jobs) because he was convinced he could remain and engineer and not become a manager.
  • After leaving Apple, he became a volunteer technology teacher to help students have the same kinds of experiences he did when he was younger.

His talk was a stream-of-consciousness flow of thoughts, ideas, and recollections. As such, it provided perhaps a more intimate window into his psyche than a carefully constructed speech might have. While emphasizing these sorts of intrinsic motives, he also dropped occasional references to the praise, support, and encouragement he received from his teachers, parents, peers and bosses. In each case, he noted that the praise motivated him to be even more creative the next time he worked on something.

The lesson? Learners learn and create because they want to. If they don’t want to, our efforts to make them learn will largely be in vain. Consequently, teachers and learning technologists need to (as Roger Schank has argued) create the conditions for successful learning by tapping into intrinsic motives, allowing them to essentially take over and drive student learning. That’s when great things happen.

Getting from Here to There

July 11th, 2008 jonmott Comments

Two interesting posts this week at e-Literate that dovetail nicely with my ruminations about “open learning networks.”

First, Nathan Garrett launches a critique of the “modern CMS” with a picture of a young man sitting watching a video monitor (looks to be circa 1965). Garret asks: “Is this our modern course management system?” Garrett bemoans the fact that CMSs are primarily about one-way information dissemination. Alternatively, he argues that we should encourage the use of social software which promotes the ideals of student creation and ownership of content, peer learning, and public review of their work.

In another post, Glen Moriarty argues that today’s CMS/LMS falls short of its true potential because of a hesitancy to leverage the “Web 2.0 strengths of the Internet.” Moriarty is the CEO of Nixty where he intends to “create applications that intrinsically motivate people to learn and teach others.” Building on Google’s OpenSocial, OpenCourseWare and OpenID, he believes we can create an infrastructure which will “amplify learning for people and institutions around the globe.”

In my estimation, both critiques of the “modern” CMS and the proposals about where to go from here are right on the money. If we persist in simply automating what happens in the classroom (predominantly lecture and information dissemination), we’re not leveraging the power of the tools available to us. (As an aside, wouldn’t it be great if you could authenticate once into your institutional learning environment and be simultaneously logged in to Google, your Blog, etc. Or vice versa?)

But how do we convince others to change? That change is even necessary? How do we encourage administrators, faculty and students to make the kinds of changes, small and large, that will move us toward these ideals?

The challenge before us is a social and cultural one, not a technical one. As observers like Garrett and Moriarty rightly point out, we already have the technology before us to facilitate better learning. So why don’t we use it more and more effectively?

If you’ve read my previous posts (or even the title of my blog site), you’ve probably gathered that my philosophy of learning technology is more focused on learning than it is on technology. By this view, it’s actually backwards to start the conversation by talking about technology. In fact, with many of our colleagues we should avoid talking about technology (especially specific technologies) as much as possible, particularly at the outset. We should begin by talking about what we want to students to be, to become and be able to do.

Do we want students to be more literate? More capable of expressing themselves cogently and persuasively? Using a variety of media? We’d be hard-pressed to find anyone in higher education answer “No” to any of these questions.

Do we want students to feel more confident creating their own content, be that content text, graphics, animation, video, whatever? Do we want them to learn the value of testing their ideas (their “content”) in the market place of ideas, seeking and responding to others’ thoughtful responses to what they’ve created? Again, the answer to these questions is an emphatic “Yes!”

I concur with Garrett and Moriarty that Web 2.0 technologies and social software can be used to significantly transform and improve learning. But not everyone sees (or even sees the need for) such a future. As technology thought leaders in the academic community, we bear the responsibility of bringing others along, helping them see the proverbial light. As the old saw goes, “You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.” As enamored as we can sometimes become with technology, the real “honey” we must use to convince others is the passion we share with them for learning.

The Re-Organization of School

A video of Roger Schank’s lecture “The Re-organization of School” is now available online, courtesy the McKay School of Education at BYU.


In case you missed it, you might want to check out my review of Schank’s Lectures: “Roger Schank & the Tyranny of Grades.”

Learner Presence in Course Management Systems

As I’ve contemplated the future of course management systems (CMSs) in higher education, I keep coming back to fundamental problem of course-centricity. In the 1990s, faculty members wanted an easy way to build websites for their course and products like Blackboard & WebCT met that need. As they’ve evolved and other players have emerged (particularly open source products like Sakai & Moodle), CMSs have become more robust and feature-rich. However, they’ve remained fundamentally course-centric.

So what’s the problem with a course-centered system? Nothing, if all you’re trying to do is make the management of courses more efficient. But if you’re trying to change practice, to make teaching and learning more dynamic and flexible . . . you need a different kind paradigm.

One of the best ways to illustrate the limitations of a course-centered system is to think about learner “presence.” When and how does the student “exist” inside of a CMS? The answer today is only when he or she is enrolled in a particular course and only to the extent facilitated by the instructor. And when the semester ends, it is as if the learner never existed in the CMS–he or she is no longer “present.” All of the connections between learners and other learners, between learners and instructors, and between learners and content are “deleted” when the course goes away.

The Open Learning Network (OLN) model I’ve described elsewhere would not be so course-centric. Instead, it would be centered on learning, learning without artificial constraints on time or definitions of learning experiences (e.g. semester-based courses). The difference between learner presence in a CMS and an OLN is depicted below. In the contemporary CMS, learner presence builds during the time a student is enrolled in one or more courses. But that presence drops off sharply and disappears when courses disappear at the end of a semester. In an OLN, presence continues to grow, building on previous semesters’ (or other units of academic time) connections to people and content, becoming more and more valuable to the individual learner and to other learners in the network.

Learner Presence in a CMS

Learner presence is yet another reason we should be thinking about, planning and laying the groundwork for a new kind of teaching and learning infrastructure–an open learning network–in which learners can take ownership of and remain engaged in their own learning careers.

Open Learning Networks

In the mid 1990s, instructors needed an easy way to create websites for their courses. With the advent of the web, the possibility of online syllabi, course notes and even online discussion boards had become a reality. But only the most tech savvy faculty members could create such sites without technical assistance. Course management systems (CMSs) were born to meet this need. When an institution installed WebCT or Blackboard and made it available to faculty, they could quickly and easily create their own course sites. Over time, CMSs have become more robust and feature-rich. They have also become more “enterprise” in their nature. On most campuses, CMSs are integrated with Student Information Systems (SISs) and are considered part of the institution’s enterprise technology portfolio.

While these developments have generally contributed to the stability and reliability of CMSs, they have also tended to make them less flexible and adaptable. Given their enterprise status, it is complicated and expensive to perform upgrades and customize functionality (via open APIs or otherwise). In response, faculty members and students have increasingly gravitated to Web 2.0 social networking tools that provide almost a much greater range of options and flexibility. The choice appears to be a centralized, enterprise “networked learning environment” on one hand and open, customizable “personal learning environments” on the other.

As we look to the future, it is worth considering the possibility of bringing these two worlds together in what we might call “open learning networks” (OLNs). In an OLN, faculty, students and support staff would reap the benefits of enterprise, networked software for authentication, identity management, integration with SISs, etc. Additionally, they would be able to use a vast range of Web 2.0 apps, integrated into the OLN via web services and other sorts of integrations.

What exactly might this look like? The picture is still coming into focus in my mind (and I’m anxious to hear others’ thoughts and comments), but I think it would look something like this:

1. A core of institutional authentication, identify management and data integration services to bring learners and teachers together in a secure institutional environment. Once “inside” a local, institutional OLN, learners and instructors would be linked together in groups based on course enrollments, majors, clubs and other groupings recorded in various university systems. They would also be linked to content related to past and future learning experiences, projects and assignments. A key component of this aspect of the OLN would be a persistent, sharable learner profile that would serve as a hub for the learner’s various connections to other learners, content and learning applications.

2. An OLN would also provide connections / integration points with a variety of open education resource repositories, institutional content collections, and user created content tools, including various self-publishing sites like YouTube, Google Docs and blogs. The OLN would facilitate “registration” of personal learning environment tools and social networking tools so that they are trustably associated with learner profiles. For example, once inside the OLN, users would be able to see the blogs, Facebook profiles, personal content collections and other tools and resources associated with other users (based, of course, on permissions and rights to see such information).

3. The OLN would also need to be integrated with robust online assessment tools (e.g. for formative and summative quizzing and testing), a “harvesting gradebook” capable of aggregating data from a variety of learning applications, and an eportfolio tool which students could use to archive and document their learning experiences and activities.

Admittedly, this is a vague vision. But it seems to capture the best of the rigid, centralized CMS paradigm and the open, free-form world of personal learning environments.

We are beginning a conversation at BYU to explore the feasibility of creating an OLN, what it might look like at our institution and how we might go about building it. One of our first matters of business is to consider the development of an open, web services enabled university gradebook. Having such a tool in place would be an important first step toward creating a viable OLN. More to come . . .