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