blackboard heading for supernova

Tue, Jul 13, 2010

A long time ago, during the early days of the Bodington collaboration, those that know about these things reckoned the LMS, or as it was termed in those days, VLE, would become an aggregator of learning services, rather than a monolithic blob of press ganged functionality and at the time, when open source was doing well in education, albeit quietly, that seemed a reasonable outlook. Indeed, we’ve seen the slow eduPunky rise of the PLE, although I’ve seen this transmogrify from meaning basically an offline VLE, sorry, LMS, to what it’s known as today, namely a loose and not very well connected collection of “MyStuff”. That I use for, learning like, well, you know what I mean. I keep all my bookmarks in Delicious, my feeds in Google Reader and my mates in Facebook and I ignore all institutional content or attempts to contact me to make me do stuff. Stuff that’s to do with my learning, like, you know what I mean. Coz learning’s just about reading a load of Stuff then turning up for the exam, innit?

But I walk on thin ice when discussing pedagogy. A lot of places are just bums on seats. Read this lot, concentrate on that lot for the exam and see you next year, ok? Oh and by the way, seeing as it’s 2010, I’ve bunged all the Word documents you have to read, online. I have your login details but I’m too busy teaching you all to hand them out. Yes, I have come across this situation during an evaluation pilot.

But as pedagogy improves it has to battle against the need to be social in your approach to learning. Folk like personalising their learning experience. They use a “PLE” to do that in some cases. They have networks of trusted friends who they study with. Sites they trust to give them information relevant to their studies and somewhere to record their progress. But the institution also has a duty to manage this journey through the learning landscape and in all too many cases, the work required to “Enterprise Enable” the PLE is just too much. Enterprise Enable? Yes, you know, Single Sign On, shared records, consistency of interaction, all that sort of stuff. That requires a lot of glue to be developed to link the various freebie applications that make up a PLE. Vast amounts of API documentation needs to be read and stay current with, not to mention SLAs that don’t exist and acceptable use policies on remote services. I can’t diss my lecturer in the LMS so I’ll just do it on my PLE’s blog.

So over the years since Bodington, the PLE has squeaked away in the background while the VLE has become the LMS and mushroomed into a multi-function e-product. Indeed, the latest outgassing from the Blackboard Super Giant is the news of their takeover of Elluminate and Wimba. Blackboard, according to Michael Feldstein, is a money making machine that has made a sound financial move. They see the popularity of synchronous communications addons and have gobbled them up to prop up the LMS which has essentially become a commodity. Also, as they make their money from licenses, buying up useful functionality and stuffing it down their digital thrapples not only bloats them even more but allows them to hike the license fees to access the new functionality.

Tony Bates sees the writing on the wall for the LMS. Perhaps just a transmogrification I would think. As we saw from VLE to LMS. An LMS is just a commercial VLE. They need something to distinguish themselves from us hackers of open source learning systems after all. However, there is indeed writing on the LMS wall and it says:

“Integrate or Die!”

So Blackboard are doing just that. Integrating popular systems and making money from licensing them as addons. Addons they know people will pay for as they were popular applications in their own right. And there are no open source alternatives, apart from Big Blue Button but as  D’Arcy Norman reports, it’s not quite there. In fact it’s not even on the radar. It might be a well designed and upcoming product but it’s not ready for general consumption and it doesn’t integrate like the popular commercial ones do. And Blackboard know that. Blackboard know that Enterprise Enabling the PLE is very difficult and institutions would rather pay the cash for a branded learning experience where everything is under one roof. It all looks the same and is supported, although I’ve heard some real horror stories of Blackboard support. Some of them directed at my requests for information.

The alternative to Blackboard is an open source LMS, which is all the usual terms bandied around these days. Agile, Aligned, Responsive, etc. etc. etc. To support those terms you need a room full of developers working full time on user requirements and managing conflicting interests. How convenient to have a common enemy card to play at the top level. We’ve put your concerns to our provider and they say they’ll look at them in due course. Nothing else we can do, sorry. Just use your LMS and be quiet. Unfortunately taking that approach ends up with fragmentation as lecturers flee to free wiki or blog alternatives, taking their students with them. So although, in the main, Blackboard is great for administrators, there’s always that quantum foam down there. That Hawking Radiation. Go too near a Black Hole and bits fly off. You suddenly realise you had staff you didn’t know you had, visible only by their footprints in the sand on the way to the open source bazaar. The PLE is full of Academics Anonymous.

Reading George Siemens on the takeover makes me think of a term.

Tescofication of eLearning.

Rather than shuffle up and down the high street with bags of shopping, buying the best from specialist shops, just go to Tesco. OK, the fare is of an acceptable level and Tesco scales well.

Blackboard is basically a very large Tomcat with an Apache sidekick. I remember when it was mostly written in Perl but it was so bad they ported it to Java. It has the same architecture, more or less, as Sakai 2. A large webapps house party. But as I saw in Sakai, there are only so many webapps you can cram in before the Super Giant goes Supernova.

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