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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.

A Post-LMS Manifesto

In the wake of the announcement of Blackboard’s acquisition of ANGEL, the blogosphere has been buzzing about Learning Management Systems (LMSs) and their future (or lack thereof). The timing of this announcement came at an interesting time for me. A BYU colleague and I (Mike Bush) recently published a piece in Educational Technology Magazine with the unassuming title “The Transformation of Learning with Technology.” (If you read this article, you’ll recognize that much of my thinking in this post is influenced by my work with Mike.) I’ve also been working on strategy document to guide our LMS and LMS-related decisions and resource allocations here at BYU.

These ongoing efforts and my thoughts over the last twenty-four hours about the Bb-ANGEL announcement have come together in the form of a “post-LMS manifesto” (if can dare use such a grandiose term for a blog post). In the press release about Blackboard’s acquisition of ANGEL, Michael Chasen asserted that the move would “accelerate the pace of innovation and interoperability in e-learning.” As a Blackboard client, I certainly hope that’s true. However, more product innovation and interoperability, while desirable, aren’t going to make Blackboard fundamentally different than it is today—a “learning management system” or “LMS.” And that worries me because I continue to have serious concerns about the future of the LMS-paradigm itself, a paradigm that I have critiqued extensively on this blog.

Learning and Human Improvement

Learning is fundamentally about human improvement. Students flock to colleges and university campuses because they want to become something they are not. That “something” they want to become ranges from the loftiest of intellectual ideals to the most practical and worldly goals of the marketplace. For those of us who work in academe, our duty and responsibility is to do right by those who invest their time, their energy, and their futures in us and our institutions. It is our job to help them become what they came to us to become—people who are demonstrably, qualitatively, and practically different than the individuals they were before.

Technology has and always will be an integral part of what we do to help our students “become.” But helping someone improve, to become a better, more skilled, more knowledgeable, more confident person is not fundamentally a technology problem. It’s a people problem. Or rather, it’s a people opportunity. Philosophers and scholars have wrestled with the challenge and even the paradox of education and learning for centuries. In ancient Greece, Plato formulated what we have come to call “Meno’s paradox” in an attempt to get at the underlying difficulties associated with teaching someone a truth they do not already know. The solution in that age was to pair each student with an informed tutor—as Alexander the Great was paired with Aristotle—to guide the learner through the stages of progressive enlightenment and understanding.

More than two millennia later, United States President James Garfield underscored the staying power of this one-to-one approach: “Give me a log hut, with only a simple bench, Mark Hopkins [a well-known educator and lecturer of the day] on one end and I on the other, and you may have all the buildings, apparatus, and libraries without him.” I suppose President Garfield, were he alive today, would include LMSs and other educational technology on the list of things he would give up in favor of a skilled, private tutor.

The problem with one-to-one instruction is that it simply doesn’t scale. Historically, there simply haven’t been enough tutors to go around if our goal is to educate the masses, to help every learner “become.” Another century later, Benjamin Bloom formalized this dilemma, dubbing it the “2 Sigma Problem.” Through experimental investigation, Bloom found that “the average student under tutoring was about two standard deviations above the average” of students who studied in a traditional classroom setting with 30 other students (“The 2 Sigma Problem: The Search for Methods of Group Instruction as Effective as One-to-One Tutoring,” Educational Researcher, 13(6), 4-16). Notwithstanding this enormous gap, Bloom was optimistic that continued focus on mastery learning would allow us to eventually narrow the distance between individually-tutored and group-instructed students.

Moving Beyond the LMS

There is, at its very core, a problem with the LMS paradigm. The “M” in “LMS” stands for “management.” This is not insignificant. The word heavily implies that the provider of the LMS, the educational institution, is “managing” student learning. Since the dawn of public education and the praiseworthy societal undertaking “educate the masses,” management has become an integral part of the learning. And this is exactly what we have designed and used LMSs to do—to manage the flow of students through traditional, semester-based courses more efficiently than ever before. The LMS has done exactly what we hired it to do: it has reinforced, facilitated, and perpetuated the traditional classroom model, the same model that Bloom found woefully less effective than one-on-one learning.

For decades, we’ve been told that technology is (or soon would be) capable of replicating the role of a private, individual tutor, of providing a “virtual Aristotle” for each individual learner. But after the billions of dollars we’ve spent on educational technology, we’re nowhere near such an achievement. In fact, we can’t even say that we’ve improved learning at all! (See Larry Cuban’s Oversold & Underused for an excellent, in-depth treatment of this subject). And our continued investment of billions of dollars in the LMS is unlikely to get us any closer to our learning improvement goals either. Because the LMS is primarily a traditional classroom support tool, it is ill-suited to bridge the 2-sigma gap between classroom instruction and personal tutoring.

We shouldn’t be terribly surprised or disappointed that LMSs—or any other technology for that matter—have not revolutionized learning. As Michael Wesch and his students have so sagely reminded us, technology alone cannot save us or help us solve our most daunting societal problems. Only we, as human beings working together, can do that. And while many still long for the emergence of the virtual Aristotle, I do not. For I believe that learning is a fundamentally human endeavor that requires personal interaction and communication, person to person. We can extend, expand, enhance, magnify, and amplify the reach and effectiveness of human interaction with technology and communication tools, but the underlying reality is that real people must converse with each other in the process of “becoming.”

Crowdsourcing the Tutor

If we are to close the 2-sigma gap, we must leave the LMS behind and the artificial walls it builds around arbitrary groups of learners who have enrolled in sections of a courses at our institutions. In the post-LMS world, we need to worry less about “managing” learners and focus more on helping them connect with other like-minded learners both inside and outside of our institutions. We need to foster in them greater personal accountability, responsibility and autonomy in their pursuit of learning in the broader community of learners. We need to use the communication tools available to us today and the tools that will be invented tomorrow to enable anytime, anywhere, any-scale learning conversations between our students and other learners. We need to enable teachers and learners to discover and use the right tools and content (and combinations, remixes and mashups thereof) to facilitate the kinds of interaction, communication and collaboration they need in the learning process. By doing so, we can begin to create the kinds of interconnections between content and individual learners that might actually approximate the personal, individualized “tutors.” However, instead of that tutor appearing in the form of an individual human being or in the form of a virtual AI tutor, the tutor will be the crowd.

While LMS providers are making laudable efforts to incrementally make their tools more social, open, modular, and interoperable, they remain embedded in the classroom paradigm. The paradigm—not the technology—is the problem. We need to build, bootstrap, cobble together, implement, support, and leverage something that is much more open and loosely structured such that learners can connect with other learners (sometimes called teachers) and content as they engage in the authentic behaviors, activities and work of learning.

Building a better, more feature-rich LMS won’t close the 2-sigma gap. We need to utilize technology to better connect people, content, and learning communities to facilitate authentic, personal, individualized learning. What are we waiting for?

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.