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The Empire Strikes a Deal?

The acquisition of Moodlerooms by Blackboard brings two archrivals under the same tent. Just what does Blackboard have in mind for open source education?

In discussing the higher ed LMS market, pundits invariably fall back on Star Wars analogies: Blackboard is the all-powerful Empire waging a scorched-earth campaign against the struggling Rebel Alliance, made up of smaller competitors such as Desire2Learn, Moodle, Sakai, and Instructure. But not even Hollywood could dream up the kind of plot twist unveiled on March 26, when Blackboard announced the acquisition of Moodlerooms and NetSpot. That 's like Darth Vader adopting Yoda and joining a bowling league with Obi-Wan Kenobi. Just what is going on here?

Certainly, Blackboard 's acquisition of two major players in open source LMS services has set the education community buzzing. Moodlerooms is the developer of Joule, a custom version of Moodle, as well as a number of services to host and support Joule for other organizations. NetSpot manages Moodle operations --as well as Pearson 's Equella Digital Repository and Mahara, an open source e-portfolio product --for education organizations in Australia, New Zealand, and Hong Kong.

But what has observers of the education sector truly gobsmacked is the company 's approach to the acquisitions. In the past, Blackboard 's strategy toward competitors could best be summed up by the old Microsoft philosophy of "extend, embrace, and extinguish. " This time round, Blackboard is touting its intention of entering the open source business wholeheartedly. Indeed, the company announced that it has hired Charles Severance, the founding architect of the open source Sakai Project, and that it is launching Blackboard Education Open Source Services, with the goal of offering "a full range of services that support the use of open source technologies in education. "

However, the company 's foray into the open source market does not mean a pivot away from its flagship platform, Blackboard Learn. Indeed, Blackboard seems at pains to reassure customers of all its brands --new and old --that the sky is not falling. Clients of Moodlerooms and NetSpot, for example, have been told that there will be no changes to their leadership or business models. Interestingly, Blackboard even announced that its Angel LMS --acquired in 2009 and scheduled to be retired in 2014 --will now be supported indefinitely.

What appears to be happening is that Blackboard is hedging its bets. Technology-research company Gartner sees Blackboard 's move as a sign of maturity for open source LMSs. "When major providers take on service and support for open source applications, it is usually a sign of stability and general acceptance of the open source applications, " wrote IT analyst Marti Harris in a research note. "In this case, there is business opportunity for Blackboard to support open source in education, rather than to try to limit or eliminate its growth. "

Regardless of the merits of the acquisition, it has certainly made for some interesting bedmates. In a bid to secure his blessing for the union, Martin Dougiamas, founder and lead developer of Moodle, was courted by Blackboard President and CEO Michael Chasen, Blackboard Learn President Ray Henderson, and Moodlerooms CEO Lou Pugliese, who all made a pilgrimage to Australia to meet with him.

"The decision of Moodlerooms and NetSpot to work under Blackboard may sound very strange at first to anyone in this industry, " said Dougiamas in a statement released by Blackboard. "But it 's my understanding that these three companies have some good plans and synergies. I 'm happy to say that Moodlerooms and NetSpot will remain Moodle Partners, and have promised to continue providing Moodle services, participating in the community, and contributing financially to Moodle exactly as they always have. "

For his part, Henderson also seems to recognize the odd nature of his Australian trip. "It 's fair to say, for all parties involved, it was a bit surreal --we 'd been on opposite sides of the table before, " he recalls. "We discussed the rationale for this [acquisition] and our commitment to building a services organization, ultimately with the goal of strengthening this community by a long-term contribution to it and helping grow it. "

To publicly reinforce its commitment to the future of open source, the company released a statement of principles signed by those three executives, as well as NetSpot Managing Director Allan Christie and the newly hired Severance. These principles include promises to "support and honor the values of the communities we serve, " continue with code contributions and support for open standards initiatives, and keep up financial support for the Moodle Trust and other open source organizations.

Wooing Moodle Customers
Lofty proclamations alone are not going to sway every educator who has had past dealings with Blackboard, however, particularly some Moodlerooms customers who find themselves back in the Blackboard fold.

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Keystone College (PA), for example, is just now completing its transition to Moodlerooms ' Joule platform from Blackboard. "I have mixed feelings on the acquisition of Moodlerooms by Blackboard, " says Kurt Sussman, director of educational technology. "While the backing and resources of a large educational service provider could be beneficial to Moodlerooms and, ultimately, its customers, I am also concerned because dissatisfaction with the product and less-than-optimal customer service and support are why our institution moved from Blackboard to Moodlerooms in the first place. " The Pennsylvania college expected to shut down its Blackboard server "for good " on May 31.

It's a similar story at Clackamas Community College (OR). Following a spring pilot, the college began its migration from Blackboard onto Joule in summer 2010. Steve Beining, instructional designer and chair of the Distance Learning Department, recalls that he was surprised and worried when he heard about the acquisition. "It seemed to be incongruent with the marketing plans that I had heard of for Blackboard, " he says.

Besides, he adds, "Anyone would have concerns about the sale of a company they 've been working with for a couple of years: Will services change? Will prices change? Will they change the trouble ticket system? Will we lose the technicians who have been working with us? "
Moodlerooms hosts Clackamas ' Joule implementation and provides storage space and security. The vendor also manages trouble tickets for IT support. While communications from Moodlerooms have been reassuring in the wake of the buyout, the original salesperson who worked with the college left within a month of the acquisition. "I don 't know how that decision was made or whether it will directly impact our service levels, but he was somebody I liked working with, and now that person has gone, " says Beining.

Since Clackamas is committed to Joule for the short term, Beining has this suggestion for its new owner: "Consider opening your other platform to be open source. " Doing that, he explains, would resolve some of the controversy about Blackboard 's patent battles with companies like Desire2Learn. "All of that would be settled if they just returned all of that intellectual property back into the open source world, " notes Beining. "That, I think, would bring back some of the people who lost faith in the company over time. "

At some point down the road, Beining 's suggestion may not be too far off the mark. After all, in its newly released statement of principles, Blackboard 's fifth and final promise is to deliver "innovative, visually elegant, and technologically robust education solutions to clients regardless of whether they are open source, proprietary, or a blend between them. "

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