History repeats, but will this time be different?

BbelieveReactions are beginning to circulate about Blackboard’s yearly conference keynote, and I’m concerned to hear adjectives including odd, strange, and even bizarre used to describe it. (In full disclosure, I was listening to LeVar Burton’s inspirational keynote at D2L’s FUSION conference at the time.) Blackboard is a good company with great people and relentless passion. It often frustrates and confounds me to see the path the company takes considering its challenges. I frankly don’t want to see Blackboard featured in a business school case study 7 years from now about a company that owned its entire market and proceeded to lose it all.

The BbWorld conference is the once-yearly opportunity to set the record straight, to launch great products, and to rally the community. It’s a critical part of the customer experience and an integral component of the sales cycle. This year, however, the conference saw its attendance fall from 3500 in 2012 to only 2500. The company is struggling in other ways this year, too. Between February and July for US institutions with greater than 1000 FTEs, Blackboard Learn environments have been shutting down at an average rate of about one every 2-3 days. Preliminary data for institutions with fewer than 1000 FTEs (that we plan to discuss in a later post) show that Blackboard Learn market share plunges from over 35% in the former category to around 15% for these smaller universities. So while Blackboard is making progress in some ways, it is not past its struggles yet. This conference provides the very opportunity to inspire and renew, which is why I view many of this year’s significant announcements to be even more confusing. Some of those key announcements included:

  • Yet another next generation User Interface: While a new UI is nice, and I hear great things from people I trust, I can’t help but wonder why the relatively-new “Blackboard NG” user interface hasn’t  been the new hotness that everyone expected? What will make the next one more successful?
  • Yet another next generation Blackboard Collaborate: But isn’t the Collaborate that exists today a result of the merger of the best features of Wimba and Elluminate? Yes, this new one promises to eliminate the need for the Java plugin, but frankly the product suffers from other voice/video quality and usability challenges as well. Have those lessons been learned for this upcoming release?
  • The launching of “Open Education by Blackboard” which looks suspiciously like Blackboard’s pre-existing CourseSites solution – complete with registration, homepage branding, and course catalog capabilities.
  • “Moving to the Cloud” – but this time, we aren’t talking the “Blackboard Cloud” like we were a couple of years ago. It’s Amazon, unless of course you want a “private cloud,” in which case it’s not. Moving to the “new cloud” apparently means that you cannot keep your home-grown plugins (Building Blocks) and customizations. Also, this is 2014, and there is still no REST API for developers moving to this “modern, cloud-native” product incarnation.
  • Bundled packages: does anyone remember when the Blackboard Learn “Course Delivery,” “Community Engagement,” “Content Management,” and “Outcomes Assessment” packages came out? Now anything but the “core” bundle requires the purchasing of “adoption services” in addition to software. Many clients have already invested significant funds in acquiring these additional Blackboard software modules which are now being given away to the remainder of institutions “for free.” By including these capabilities in the base solution, this will expose a lot more users to a lot more features which is going to add to complexity and training costs for their customers.

Indeed some of these are wins, even if they are repeats. But I suspect that most in the audience expected more and expected better. With what is probably the largest single group of educational technology software developers working under one roof, the biggest struggles of the year simply should not have been to figure out how to remove a dependency on a Java applet or how to host an app server in Amazon.

There are also serious implications to some of these announcements. The new UI and new bundle developments concern me the most. These are exactly the types of changes to which institutions are most sensitive. If the company holds firm and true to this strategy, these will force big changes on virtually every existing Blackboard Learn client. While these changes are one-time, they are nonetheless significant, and I can’t help but imagine institutions will use this an an opportunity to re-evaluate their LMS solution. And while the timing of the packaging change is unclear, I additionally see no firm delivery dates for any of the software-related items, so I find the #NoVaporware hashtag premature. But Blackboard can look at one Bright Side – at least it didn’t re-brand its entire product line with a name that has an unfortunate initialism.

As a customer of LMS software, I would not just expect more of the same, or even slightly-better of the same from my LMS vendor. Educational technology is maturing, and there’s too much at stake to get stuck in an endless cycle of minimal improvement. One has to ask, what are Blackboard’s differentiators? Are current Blackboard customers who are in the market for a cloud-based LMS more inclined to choose the first release of Blackboard’s attempt at this (especially when it will look completely different), or a product from a company that has been cloud-native since its beginning and has a track record of success? For current Blackboard instructors who want more productivity on their iPads, will you wait for Blackboard’s first release of its instructor-focused grading app, or choose from two companies that already have years of experience building them? Does the fact that your LMS can now be hosted in Amazon really make a difference or improve teaching and learning for your institution in any way? Does a completely new UI excite you, or does the thought of hand-holding 300 instructors through the change because you are the only instructional support at your university concern you? If you are looking for innovation, will a new UI satisfy you, or are you going to pursue a solution from a company that came up with a new and novel way to grade students in the classroom, or who has found a way to deliver adaptive remedial learning materials from an OER repository, automatically, to only those students who need it? Are you going to stick with a vendor whose recycled promises and future plans only further assure you of the certainty of product migrations, undesirable trade-offs, and more rework?

No doubt Blackboard is capable of building beautiful new software, but convincing their customers to stay and getting them to where they need to be will continue to be a persistent challenge. But where previous attempts have not been successful, maybe this time with the benefit of new people and many lessons learned Blackboard can do better. The company seems to have a thing for Vegas, and in this gamble I hope that playing the same hand twice pays off.

This post written by George Kroner

10 Things Commuting on the DC Beltway Has Taught Me About Life

When I accepted my position at UMUC last summer, I have to admit that one of my biggest concerns was actually related to the change to my daily commute. Public transportation is unfortunately no longer my best option, and I now drive on the DC beltway every day. Fortunately, the experience has turned out to be a lot better than feared and in my opinion has actually taught me a little bit about life – at least enough to think up a post about it. The lessons I’ve learned include:

1) Constraints are often out of your control
While heavy traffic volume and road construction can unexpectedly get in the way, even on perfect days there are still speed limits. Roll with what you have, and make the best of it.

2) Be aware of your surroundings
Whether brake lights in the distance, someone cutting in front of you or texting while driving right beside you, or someone too close in your rear-view mirror, be constantly aware of your surroundings. Gaps in traffic lead to opportunities to pass. Being cognizant of a swerving driver can avoid disaster.

3) Sometimes you need to just go with the flow
…even if it is only at 10 mph. Slow, steady progress is still better than none.

4) Be grateful when things are going well
Sometimes it’s my side of the beltway that is stopped; other times, it’s the other. Be thankful for those times when it’s not yours.

5) The lane that is moving won’t always be your own
Sometimes it’s the left lane that’s moving; other times it’s the right. The bottom line is that it won’t always be your own.

6) Find your balance
When I started driving to work, it was really the first time in my adult life that I had to do so. I started by keeping track of my stop-and-go tendencies and mastered the zipper merge. By then going easier on braking and acceleration my rides are now smoother, my maintenance costs are down, and my gas mileage has increased.

7) Don’t let your frustrations get to you
There’s a lot of crazy things that happen on the beltway. Let them go.

8) Sometimes it’s best to take the road less traveled
When the beltway gets jammed, a different path to your destination may very well be in order. Learn, explore, and experience new things by trying a new path forward.

9) Be patient with others
Sure, the person speeding past you might just be a jerk. But they might also be racing to the birth of their child, or to a spouse or partner in the hospital, or to their child’s first recital. Maybe they should have planned better, but whatever the real reason don’t always assume the worst.

10) Things come in cycles
Ever notice how traffic jams come in waves? On a longer time-frame, I’ve also noticed that traffic patterns vary by season. Sometime’s traffic gets worse or better for weeks or months at a time, but it all seems to even out in the end.

Bonus: Always be on your best behavior
You just never know when the vehicle behind you is an undercover state police officer. Two times in the past year I’ve witnessed poor driving etiquette dealt with immediately because of this.

This post written by George Kroner