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Deja Vu All Over Again – Blackboard Still Stuck in the Innovator’s Dilemma

July 24th, 2009 jonmott Comments

It’s been a week (or so) since BbWorld. I’ve had the chance now to ruminate about what I saw and heard there. I wanted to let things rattle around in my head a bit before passing judgment on Blackboard’s message this year because it was increasingly clear to me that my assessment of BbWorld 2009 would be virtually the same as my assessment from 2008–Blackboard is improving at the margins, but is not addressing the fundamental weaknesses of the CMS (I use this term generically, lumping Blackboard together with Moodle, Sakai, D2L, etc.).

Improvement at the Margins

Given that BbWorld was in Washington, D.C. this year, it seems appropriate to use a political analogy here. In 1990, George C. Edwards III published At the Margins: Presidential Leadership of Congress. In this now classic study of the president’s ability to lead Congress and enact significant policy change, Edwards concluded that the presidency is so hemmed in by countervailing pressures and influences (in the form of 535 members of Congress, cabinet members, bureaucrats, interest groups, voters, the media, etc.) that presidents should not be expected, save under dramatic and rare circumstances, to effect significant change. Rather, Edwards concludes, presidents have historically been most effective when they have sought to influence change “at the margins,” moving policy incrementally in their preferred direction.

Blackboard, much like the President of the United States, is hemmed in by a large client base (variously represented by university administrators, IT staff, faculty, and students), competing visions within the company, a board of directors and stockholders, etc. It shouldn’t be surprising to anyone, then, that Blackboard’s innovations and improvements are “at the margins.” It’s exceedingly rare for a company with Blackboard’s inertia to make dramatic, revolutionary changes in the products they offer.

BbWorld Announcements & Observations

So what kinds of innovations and improvements did Blackboard announce at BbWorld 2009? I catalogued and reacted to what I heard via Twitter during the conference. For what it’s worth, I begin with a selection of my tweets, first from the keynote (I’ve opted to keep these in reverse-chronological order, as is the convention for a Twitter feed):

Then from the Listening Session:

Deja vu All Over Again

While I’m very encouraged by Blackboard’s announcement (re-iteration) of it’s intent to fully support the Common Cartridge standard and to move toward opening up its database schema for administrators, I’m left wanting much, much more. All of the major announcements–the partnership with Echo360, the acquisition of Terribly Clever, the integration with Wimba (not really new news), the Kindle integration, the focus on closing tickets faster–had little to do with the core concerns about the CMS I have been blogging about for the last year. All of Blackboard’s announcements were about improvements at the margin.

As a checkpoint, I went back and re-read my post from one year ago, written just after BbWorld 2008. Forgive me for regurgitating large portions of it here, but it’s striking how similar my reactions to this year’s BbWorld are to those of last year:

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.

Perhaps not surprisingly (I suppose I predicted this), Blackboard did this year exactly what they did last year and exactly what Christensen cites as the pattern of incumbent market leaders: they announced new feature enhancements and indicated continued attention to and investment in customer service and product stability. As I wrote one year ago:

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 [which Bb acquired since BbWorld 2008] amongst the biggest, long-term threats to Blackboard. Disruption will, I believe, come from another direction.

From whence will disruption come? More from my post last year:

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.

I heard virtually nothing at BbWorld this year which would suggest that Blackboard is actively engaged in adapting and evolving to address this challenge. Rather, they continue to innovate at the margins, maintaining their status quo, market-leading position.

What’s the Broken?

@z_rose recently blogged that the problem with the “one-stop-shop” Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) (another frequently-used term for the CMS) is that it is aimed at both learning administration and learning facilitation. These are not, she astutely notes, the same things and VLEs end up doing both poorly.

Both administration and pedagogy are necessary in schools. They are also completely different in what infrastructure they require. This (in my opinion) has been the great failing of VLEs – they all try to squeeze the round pedagogy peg into the square administration hole.

It hasn’t worked very well. Trying to coax collaboration in what is effectively an administrative environment, without the porous walls that social media thrives on, hasn’t worked. The ‘walled garden’ of the VLE is just not as fertile as the juicy jungle outside, and not enough seeds blow in on the wind.

That’s why I’m always cautious of the ‘one-stop-shop’ approach in education – administration and pedagogy are very, very different shops. It’s like having a fishmongers and a haberdashers sharing the same store – no discernible upsides, but a LOT of downsides (stinky fabric springs to mind).

Blackboard and every other CMS / VLE have become exceedingly efficient course content and course administrivia management tools. If data from BYU’s Blackboard usage surveys can be taken as a reasonable guide, most faculty members use Blackboard for administrative, not teaching and learing, purposes, i.e., content dissemination, announcements, e-mail, and gradebooking (70% plus use Bb for these purposes). Dramatically smaller portions (less than 30%) use the teaching and learning tools provided Blackboard (e.g., quizzes, discussion boards, groups, etc.). Increasingly, they’re going to the cloud to use tools that are far better and more flexible than those provided natively inside the CMS.

In 2004, George Siemens wrote, “The real issue is that LMS vendors are attempting to position their tools as the center-point for elearning – removing control from the system’s end-users: instructors and learners.” This is still all-t0o-true five years later. In most CMS implementations, it is exceedingly difficult (if not impossible) for teachers and especially individual learners to take control of the learning environment and shape it to their particular needs. For example, by default, students are generally not able to start their own discussion threads in CMS-delivered courses. Siemens elaborated on these end-user roadblocks, noting that LMSs roundly fail in three significant ways:

  • The rigidity and underlying design of the tool “drives/dictates the nature of interaction (instructors-learner, learner-learner, learner-content).”
  • The interface is too focused on “What do the designers/administrators want/need to do?” rather than on “What does the end user want/need to do?”
  • “Large, centralized, mono-culture tools limit options. Diversity in tools and choices are vital to learners and learning ecology.”

Notably, the absence of LMS-integrated synchronous conferencing and collaboration tools has been largely remedied within the various CMSs. But these other three substantial shortcomings have yet to be addressed. And I would add a critically important fourth weakness–today’s CMSs do not support continuous, cumulative learning throughout a student’s career at an institution, let alone throughout their life after they exit our institutions. As I have written previously, students are completely at the mercy of the institution when it comes to their “presence” and participation in a CMS. They are placed in arbitrarily organized sections of courses for 15-week periods and then “deleted,” as if they never existed in the system. As David Wiley has pondered, how many of us would use Facebook if Facebook deleted our friend connections and pictures every four months?

The fundamental dilemma with the CMS as we know it today is that it is largely a course-centric, lecture-model reinforcing technology with its center of gravity in institutional efficiency and convenience. As such, it is a technology that inclines instructors and students to “automate the past,” replicating previous practice using new, more efficient and more expensive tools instead of innovating around what really matters–authentic teaching, learning, and assessment behaviors.

Blackboard’s Opportunity?

Lest I come across as a Blackboard/CMS naysayer or doomsayer, I should note that, in their early days, Blackboard and other CMSs were the disruptive technology. They were the source of innovation and new thinking about how we organize to teach and learn. However, roughly a decade after the inception of the CMS, the academic community finds itself again ripe for disruption, not only of the technology we use to “manage courses” but in the very system itself. While many will continue to innovate at the margins, there are large crowds of non-consumers out there clamoring for something that meets their needs. At BYU, for example, 25% of our faculty members opt to use a blog, a wiki, or a custom-built course website instead of Blackboard or another CMS. These are the non-consumers Christensen reminds us that we need to figure out how to serve. The same goes for the “non-traditional” students who either aren’t wired to learn the way we’re organized to teach them (in course-sized chunks, bundled in units of time we call semesters) or who, for a variety of reasons, don’t have access to our institutions.

Blackboard still has the opportunity to facilitate discussion and innovation around these critical issues. The company took an important step in this direction by organizing the “Pipeline Matters” session the day before BbWorld, bringing together educational leaders from K12, community colleges, traditional “higher ed” instituitons, and edudcational associations. As a fortunate participation in this conversation, I recognize and appreciate Blackboard’s unique position (with its roughly 3000 client institutions) in the educational space to bring together a broad and diverse set of educational players to address issues such as the one we did last week–how can we improve our efforts to keep students in school and to help them easily re-enter and succeed when they, despite our best efforts, leak out of the “pipeline”?

These sorts of questions are critically important not only to educators, but also to Blackboard’s immediate future and direction because they can compel the company to get outside its comfort zone and rethink how it does what it does and why it does it.

Blackboard can still play a leading role in education. But it needs to think more about end-users and about non-consumers, not just about the universtity administrators who purchase and implement their products. That’s an admittedly tall order for a publicly-traded corporation to take on. But, as Christensen argues, they have to figure out a way to do so if they’re to remain relevant. That’s precisely the innovator’s dilemma.

As I conclude last year, if Blackboard doesn’t innovate, someone else will.

And it won’t be long.