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BBBB . . . We Wish It and Sakai Well

Last Friday, Blackboard, Inc., produced its initial public offering (IPO) of company stock. The stock was issued at the expected $14 per share, and Blackboard now trades on the Nasdaq exchange under the symbol BBBB. As I write these words, it's trading at about $21 per share, so someone's making some bucks!

It's a major move for a company whose founders and investors have been very patient while building functionality, a brand, and a client list that they now say includes more than 1,000 higher education institutions. I remember Blackboard way back when it was looking for its 100th customer, and I wish the company well. It and its competitors of all stripes, need to do well to give us the right tools and let us focus on what we do with the tools.

Way back, long before the dotcom bubble burst, I took advantage of a business trip to Washington, DC, to stop by the offices of Blackboard and interview CEO Matthew Pittinsky.

Entering the building, I was very impressed. It was a huge Washington greystone, very distinguished looking and in a good neighborhood. As I walked down the hallway of what I think was the third floor, I passed offices of a number of well-known corporations, including Mitsubishi of America. Then I got to Blackboard and knocked on the door. No answer.

After knocking again, with no response, I pushed open the door and found myself in a 15x15 foyer which was furnished with four red beanbag chairs and a Foosball table. The only other item in the room was some sort of whiteboard with a list of "customers" handwritten on it and a goal of having course being taught using Blackboard software at a minimum of 100 institutions by a date later in that same year.

I walked on through the foyer and found myself in a much larger room with a few desks in it, on each of which was a monster monitor, and a few glassed in offices around the central room as though it were an atrium. All around the room, moving in and out of the perimeter offices rapidly and with intent, were a dozen or two young men who looked like they had wandered in from a tour bus of some high school's Republican youth club, on a tour of DC.

After I got someone's attention, I asked for Matthew, and the youngest-looking (We're talking high school, really.) man of all in the room came walking towards me. After introducing myself, I joking asked, "Well, I guess there wouldn't be any room in this company for a grey-haired person like me," and he sort of mumbled a response that I couldn't quite catch but that I am sure had the phrase "energy levels" in it somewhere. Then we had a nice interview.

Well, Blackboard moved on from being a free service that lured institutions in by offering software and support to bleeding edge faculty, and it also hired a few grey-haired, mature men, but Matthew is still firmly the leader and it has done well. Now it's public and the ride could get wild.

I hope it maintains its focus on providing functionality that suits students, faculty, and staff. I also hope it d'esn't immediately get bought out by some larger entity that will consider higher education and teaching and learning software a sideline of one of its smaller parts. Having the developer and maintainer of teaching and learning software heavily connected with the users and customers, and focused on their particular needs is important. As with many IPOs, I hope the investors and early leaders of the company don't just take their dollars and slit. (I don't think they will.)

Maybe even more important in the use of a course management system or learning management system, of course, is the on-campus human support system and relationship networks that let users maximize its utility. Blackboard certainly has built up a large core of users, within and across campuses, and that bodes well for its future if the company can maintain its focus on the higher education niche. We'll see.

Meanwhile, I expect the Sakai Project will help keep Blackboard, eCollege, WebCT, and others in line. A strongly-supported open source development coalition may be the best way to ensure that the folks who are doing this for profit stay focused on customers, and not just the bottom line for shareholders, which can often be the next quarterly earnings report.

The Sakai Project, initially begun by a small group of big-time research institutions has shown a real understanding of the higher education world by recently expanding its collaboration efforts to include progressive Foothill-De Anza Community College District in its development group, intending to ensure that its tools work well for community colleges, too.

I urge every institution to support the Sakai Project. And I expect that many of you, like me, already have purchased some Blackboard stock. So, we have reason to wish Blackboard well, also, and I do. Let Blackboard and Sakai and the others develop the tools, with our support and best wishes.

We need to focus on the back-end changes in what we do with the tools, and how we support the users. Having talented, visionary people in the for-profit and non-profit world making our tools should let us do that, and that's my wish - that we get the tools, that the tools work and we don't have to think about the tools, so we can use them transparently to just do our jobs.

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