07 July 2010

The LMS Wars

(or how I first came to comment on a blog posting)

Why have so many universities across the English-speaking world signed up to use Moodle as their Learning Management System (LMS)? The short answer, in my view, is that Blackboard broke trust with the academic community by claiming to have invented the LMS, and in doing so, damaged the reputation of all vendor-supported LMSs. Many in the academic community, now mistrustful of proprietary products, have elected to use open source products – Moodle and Sakai – because they feel that they have greater control over them ... and therefore over their teaching materials, curriculum, and the learning environments they create with their students.

How did this come to be? Before I get to the actual dastardly deeds, let me review a bit of history.

As soon as the Web was invented in about 1990, educators were harnessing it to facilitate online learning in various ways. Wikipedia has an extensive entry on the history of virtual learning environments for those really interested in the detail. Initially, it was mainly those with technical skills who were teaching online.

In the mid-1990s, something remarkable happened: a computer science academic from the University of British Columbia (UBC), Murray Goldberg – along with his colleague Sasan Salari and a bunch of graduate students – invented the first real LMS, which he named WebCT. At first, he gave it away to anyone who asked. Once he started getting requests from countries outside north America, Goldberg and his employer (UBC) created a company to manage the product and introduced a licensing fee. By late 1999, this company had been acquired by Universal Learning Technologies. Goldberg and his associates went on to other projects. This change in ownership was announced at the second International Conference for WebCT users in Athens, Georgia. At the first international conference, in 1999 in Vancouver, Goldberg was constantly surrounded by a group of his graduate students wearing Teva sandals and WebCT T-shirts with their email addresses embroidered on their sleeves; we attended a salmon barbecue on the beach and drank beer. At the Athens conference the next year, Carole Vallone emerged dressed as Cruella De Vil and told us how she was developing a range of WebCT-related income streams so she wouldn't have to increase the price of the WebCT LMS licence fee. We nearly believed her, but change was in the air.

Nevertheless, WebCT was the first of the online learning software products that provided the three sets of tools that still characterise the true higher education LMS: tools of administration (e.g. integration with other enterprise systems, tracking and monitoring, gradebook), tools of dissemination (e.g. links to document files, slides, audio and video clips, websites), and tools of collaboration (e.g. discussion boards, social networking lookalikes). WebCT made it easy for anyone to teach online, and it made it much easier for institutions to ensure that only enrolled students had access to the online learning environment, by allowing them to build integrations with their student records systems.

As an aside: there are similar LMS products that have been developed for the training and development market, but these are significantly different from those developed for the higher education market. The Catalyst Interactive product is an example.

WebCT dominated the English-speaking market, followed by Blackboard, followed – much further behind – by a whole pack of smaller emerging or evolving companies. By this stage, Blackboard had established a strategy of buying up these smaller companies. It seemed that they did this whenever they spotted one that had developed functionality missing in their own product, or whenever it looked as if one was emerging as a threat to their market share.

Around this time (2000), a Perth-based PhD student called Martin Dougiamas began work on the first open-source LMS – Moodle. The second open-source LMS, Sakai (named for some mysterious reason after the Iron Chef), was developed by a consortium of American universities – Michigan, Indiana, MIT, and Stanford. Sakai hit the market in 2004.

In 2006, Blackboard bought its biggest rival, WebCT. It now offered a suite of LMS products, including various iterations of WebCT and its own product, and dominated the market. Its closest rival was the emerging Canadian company, Desire2Learn, established in 1999. Blackboard reportedly tried to buy Desire2Learn, but the overtures were spurned.

Then came the bombshell: sometime in late 2005 or early 2006, Blackboard patented the LMS in several jurisdictions, including the USA and Australia. The patent documents listed some incongruous people as the inventors, including Matthew Small, Blackboard's in-house lawyer.

This came to the attention of most of the educational technology, LMS-using community in mid-2006. I read about it on Michael Feldstein's blog, e-Literate, and made my first comment on a blog in July 2006.

Very quickly, Blackboard sued Desire2Learn in a West Texas court for infringement of this patent – in short, for selling the Desire2Learn LMS in US markets. Thus began the LMS wars.

I won't go into the detail of the battle (which is not yet completely over). If you are interested, trawl through Feldstein's blog, using "edupatent" as your search term. As far as I can tell, John Baker, the CEO of Desire2Learn, has shown a much greater commitment to the ideals of education and to the educational community than his counterparts at Blackboard. It would have made much more financial sense for him to agree to a royalty payment early on. He didn't. He has challenged Blackboard's claim to have invented the LMS at considerable cost.

In quick succession, Desire2Learn was found to be in breach of the patent and ordered to pay royalties of $US 3 million, the sue-appeal-sue-appeal legal dance began, Desire2Learn and others asked for a review of the US patent, and the LMS-using community created a Wikipedia site listing all the "prior art" that demonstrates clearly to me that Blackboard's claim to have invented the LMS is at best dubious.

Importantly, those institutions that were looking to upgrade or replace their LMS turned in droves to the open-source LMSs – my last two employers included.

Since then, things have calmed down quite a lot. The US Patents Office has revised – somewhat – its original decision. Blackboard and Desire2Learn have come to an agreement of some kind. Blackboard apparently returned the original payment of $US 3 million + interest. It is rumoured that their profits in the year that they returned that payment were significantly less than the money they handed over to Desire2Learn. The extensive documentation about the patent and the legal battle on the Desire2Learn website has either been removed (as part of the agreement with Blackboard?) or hidden behind a password I don't have.

Who has suffered most as a result of this debacle? In general, it's the whole of higher education. In particular, it's time-poor students who now rely on the online learning environments that have become essential to the efficient and effective operation of higher education.

As far as I can see, the only good thing to have emerged from this situation is that Desire2Learn still exists, its market share continues to grow, and it continues to offer a strong viable alternative in the vendor-supported LMS market. Because Desire2Learn stood up to Blackboard, other smaller vendors – the Australian company Janison among them – are less likely to suffer the same fate. Blackboard may stand by its agreement not to sue those involved with the open-source LMS products – time will tell.

And for those of us working in the institutions that adopted Moodle? Well, Moodle is a perfectly acceptable LMS in many ways, particularly for those institutions that deliver the bulk of their programs in a face-to-face mode. It is great for the cottage industry, bespoke learning environments that get bolted on to existing traditionally-delivered programs or created to service small operations. I don't think it works well for large distance education systems or institutions committed to a fully-flexible operation – at least, not without considerable in-house programming and super-technical support.

Following last year's Moodleposium in Canberra, someone asked me what I thought of the event. "I felt as if I travelled there in a time machine," I said. The only thing missing was the pack of acolytes in their email-embroidered T-shirts.

1 comment:

Deborah Veness said...

Breaking news: Blackboard has just bought both Wimba and Elluminate, spending quite a lot of money in the transactions ...

See http://online.wsj.com/article/BT-CO-20100707-712575.html

and http://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/technology_and_learning/first_reactions_to_blackboard_buying_wimba_and_elluminate