Evolution of open source and commercial providers for learning management systems

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The recent announcement by Blackboard (Bb) that it was acquiring two Moodle service providers was quite interesting to anyone who follows open source in higher education. Over the years, Blackboard has emerged as a market leader in the learning management system (LMS) arena, through both product development and acquisition.  At the same time, Blackboard has attracted considerable heat and a large dose of scorn for a patent the company filed and tried to enforce. That patent was viewed by many to be an attempt to corner the LMS market and to claim invention of many LMS features in use well before Blackboard’s supposed date of invention. (Read coverage of the long story and eventual Blackboard loss in the courts.) Particularly for fans of open source, this sort of behavior does not make Blackboard an admired company, and acquisitions in the Moodle niche are much more likely to raise eyebrows than cheers.

It’s interesting however to see how Blackboard explains this latest move. It’s also important to note that Blackboard recently returned to being a private company after trading publicly for some years. That switch may have provided increased flexibility in strategy formation.

Blackboard’s strategy already includes multiple learning platforms due to acquisitions. The company has also broadened its scope beyond the LMS niche to address a range of educational institution application needs, including  a push into areas like student services. Finally, Blackboard also grows by providing services, not just software. Taken together this means that accommodating the open source world makes sense for Blackboard in two ways:

  • Enterprise sales–In the push to cover the education enterprise, Blackboard will sometimes be sole provider for an institution across its whole product line. But much more often, like any enterprise vendor, Blackboard will sell some applications and need to co-exist with products from other vendors in other applications. Open source is just another flavor with which to co-exist.
  • Services–To the extent that Blackboard is a service provider, large open source projects like Moodle and Sakai create a business opportunity. Blackboard clearly is moving to be a service player for both of these open source communities.

In spite of the history that seems to make Blackboard an unlikely candidate for good citizenship in open source communities, it’s not hard to see a business case for moving in that direction. And this step in the evolution of Blackboard makes an interesting case study for the continuing evolution of open source as a significant, not-to-be-ignored part of the software industry. Of course, the case study is still being written  And open source advocates who have followed Blackboard over the years will be excused if they want to wait to see how this plays out!

* This article was originally posted on Notes from Greg Hislop.

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Greg Hislop is a Professor of Software Engineering and a Senior Associate Dean in the College of Computing and Informatics at Drexel University. His research interests include education in the computing disciplines, and technology for learning and teaching.

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