Blackboard Swallows Its Competitors, Tossing Open Alternatives a Bone

by Ostatic Staff - May. 15, 2009

Though today's piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education is less about the advantages of open source courseware and more about the advantages that open source courseware has suddenly been given, it's worth taking a few moments to read and consider.

The leading proprietary course management system, Blackboard, announced this month that it was purchasing another of its major competitors. Many Angel Learning clients said they chose the company because of its low-key approach and helpful customer service, coupled with the open nature of at least portions of its source code.

It's an area where software preferences -- not necessarily in regards to open or closed code, but service, features, and responsiveness to client needs -- are not simply a matter of favorites. As the Chronicle explains, the course management system isn't just a platform for managing coursework, schedules, and grades. It's an extension of the school.

Where Blackboard has seemingly fallen short, where Angel Learning excelled, and how this acquisition is being received has resulted in many educational institutions giving open source alternatives a much closer look.

While Angel Learning was reknowned for its responsive customer service, an added part of its appeal (which undoubtedly contributed to its customer service reputation) was that its open code enabled faster, less costly delivery of extra features that might be peculiar to an institution or type of educational environment. While Blackboard is keeping some Angel staff onboard to help form a "kinder, gentler" course management support system, it seems unlikely it will open its code. This will, to some degree, hinder those support efforts.

Seeing that Angel did incorporate a very open source approach, this could be a huge opportunity for open source course management systems such as Moodle or Sakai. Both are mature, robust, open and completely configurable. Commercial, paid support services exist for both Moodle and Sakai, for those institutions desiring training, deployment, or generalized support maintaining their systems.

It's an interesting situation playing out in the academic software market that other software vendors would do well to watch. By swallowing its competition, Blackboard is keeping its hold on the marketshare and presumably positioning itself for the future. But simply buying competitors to keep hold of the market, and not making changes to retain the customers that opted for their products over yours in the first place isn't sustainable. There are alternatives -- there are always alternatives. In its drive to purchase, not revise, Blackboard has tossed its open source competitors a great opportunity.