eLearning Leader for the Next Generation
A prime force in the Blackboard/WebCT deal, Matt Pittinsky aims to merge
communities of practice in the marketplace as well as the eLearning giants’ resources.
BLACKBOARD CHAIRMAN Pittinsky:
“Time to create a next-generation learning system.”
Blackboard announced earlier this year
that its merger with WebCT was complete. But that’s
just the beginning. Matt Pittinsky, who
founded Blackboard in 1997—and guided the company over the
years to become an impressive slice of the
eLearning market—thinks it’s time to usher in the
next generation of eLearning along with the
merger. We asked Pittinsky about his vision for
the newly combined companies.
You announced the finalized merger two
months ago. Now, if you put yourself in the seat
of either a Blackboard or a WebCT user, what’s
the ride going to be like over the next few
months? With the CIOs in particular, the focus in
the next few months is really collaboration, a discussion
about how to take the best of both applications
and bring them together to create a truly
leading eLearning system for the marketplace. So,
we are continuing to support and service both
applications—continuing to improve them—and
it’s going to be a much more gradual effort to bring
the two together as a best-of-breed system. We
really want to spend the next few months engaging
our clients, to understand what they like about both
systems, and truly create that combined solution.
What will be your process for that? It’s a great
question. First off, there will be conversations internally. Even
though this announcement was made a while ago, it’s only
since the Department of Justice approval that our developers
could really begin to collaborate, and it’s really only now after
the close that they can collaborate fully. So two kinds of conversations
are going to happen. First, that internal dicussion:
Both companies’ products are server-side Java, with very similar
developer backgrounds, so there will be time spent going
through each of the major modules to get a sense of the
strengths of each and how we can leverage that code.
Second, there will be a lot of one-on-one meetings with the
clients; with some of the big systems as well as some of the
bigger campuses that run multiple systems. I’m sure there will
be a formal structure [to get general user input] as well.
Ultimately merging the two systems, what role will open
source play? In addition to the conversations that I talked
about to shape the product direction over time as [the two
products] slowly merge into one best-in-class system, the
short-term deliverable is a common API set. When you think
about the thousands of institutions that run Blackboard and
WebCT, and want to collaborate and share their technologies,
the number one thing that we can do is develop a common API
set, so that developers can write once and know that their
applications will run across both systems. I would expect, in
terms of open source, probably the first concrete impact of this
merger would be a very large community of practice, all developing
around a common API set that emerges from our convergence
strategy. And we would hope to develop that API set
in cooperation with the major standards projects, like IMS, Sakai, and
Moodle, and other organizations that are
participating in those. I don’t think that we are at a point yet to
characterize what the ultimate combined system would be in
terms of licensing models—commercial, open source, etc. But
I would say very early on, one thing Blackboard will be able to
contribute to the industry is a very refined API set, based on
industry standards, that already has an installed base of thousands
of institutions around the world. That solves a major
obstacle in terms of accelerating innovation in the market.
When you think about the thousands of institutions that
run Blackboard and WebCT, and want to collaborate and
share their technologies, the number one thing that we can
do is develop a common API set.
And will the users of the new system be able to leverage
the Sakai tools being developed as community source?
We’ve already said that is an absolute goal of Blackboard. Post
this merger, independent of this merger, we want the Building
Blocks API set to allow institutions to run Sakai applications on
Blackboard, and to run Blackboard Building Blocks on Sakai.
What is your user base now, with the two companies?
There will be about 3,700 institutions, K through corporate
learning, although higher ed is obviously the single largest
base—US higher education has more than 2,000 clients.
You have a larger market share now, but hopefully that’s
not the main or only reason for closing this deal. What are
the reasons you decided to merge? There are three reasons
why we were excited to do this transaction now. The
first is the product opportunity. We’ve always respected the
capabilities of WebCT. Vista, in particular, is probably one of
the newest enterprise-class eLearning systems developed
from scratch with the benefit of today’s technology. So the
ability to take the product strength of Blackboard—which is
a very proven system, now out for a while—and the architecture
of WebCT—which has not been as proven but has the
benefit of being very modern—and bring those two products
WebCT has a reputation for great features, and
Blackboard has a reputation for great ease of use. There’s
just great product opportunity when you bring together these
developers, and then you bring together the expertise of the
clients and their suggestions. So the first reason is really the
product: We think now is the time to create a next-generation
learning system. And what better assets to do it from than
WebCT Vista and the Blackboard Learning System?
The second reason is just what I think most people would
imagine: the economies of scale. Academic computing has
not had an industry leader the way administrative computing
has had. It has not had large, public, well-resourced
software companies that can invest a significant amount of
dollars to really move the category forward, because they
have very large client bases. Academic computing has
always been a bit more boutique, a bit more small-scale;
and yet most of the great challenges that higher ed faces
ultimately come back to the networked learning environment,
and the capabilities of that networked learning environment.
So when you bring together the two leading
organizations, we have more resources and a larger client
base, and that allows us to invest more in R&D and reduce
duplicative costs in a number of ways.
The third reason is the community of practice. The
Blackboard-WebCT divide has been an obstacle in many
systems and on many campuses. It has been a source of
almost a debate, when you have these passionate Blackboard
fans and WebCT fans actually spending time arguing
with each other, rather than focusing on the common
problem they are trying to solve: How do we improve educational
access to quality? The ability to bring those two
communities together, to break down barriers on campuses
and in systems, and to take the innovations that have
flourished within each community and now share it across
the two—that’s just huge.
Congratulations on completing what must have been a
lot of work toward a successful merger. A lot of hard work.
This is something that’s been long in the making. The combination
of Blackboard and WebCT has made sense forever.
And it’s exciting to see it finally happen.