What to Tell Your Campus About the Blackboard-WebCT Merger

What interesting times at Educause, one week after the announced Blackboard-WebCT merger. Most of those involved in running a course management system, any course management system, were reading tea leaves, seeking assurances, reflecting on the plane ride home about what to report to campus. And somewhat ironically, those with the courage of their convictions would have that opinion, any opinion, reinforced in some conversation held along those interminable halls of the Orlando Convention Center.

For example, you could have heard both sides of these arguments:

1. The merger will be a boon to the open source community, providing a forceful rationale for preserving self-initiated pace of change, customization, managed cost, and multi-vendor support platform for innovation. Skeptical WebCT users will move in droves to Sakai and Moodle. (or) The merger is a major set-back for open source, the forthcoming standardization/harmonization between the two market leaders will facilitate content sharing and tool development among schools that use the new Blackboard. Finally, there is the opportunity for higher education to focus on content development and pedagogy.

2. Basic costs will go up more slowly; there is an economy of scale that can be leveraged to reduce the rate of growth in licensing fees. The new Blackboard will grow revenue mainly through volume and BuildingBlocks sales that add value to the core CMS functionality. (or) The two big fish are now one bigger fish; the uncertainty, and the competition, is over. There is yet another bigger fish (e.g., Oracle-Peoplesoft, Microsoft) waiting to consolidate the educational market with the corporate training market. Each phase of consolidation will be accompanied by rapid price escalation.

3. Others in the CMS space (e.g., Angel, Desire2Learn) will redouble their commitment to service--who but their current customers can really sell to the newly disenfranchised? (or) How can relatively small companies resist the urge to divert resources to sales and growth? Service may suffer, but there’s nowhere for the current customer to go so they will stay during turbulent expansion.

And on it g'es; the point-counterpoint continues along many of the dimensions on which you selected your current course management system. Listen long enough and you can be persuaded on either side of the argument—(1) less choice, higher price, straight-jacket interface or (2) more flexibility, slower price increases, customizable user experience.

Even if you yourself see risk in any course of action, what do you say to those on the home campus to calm their concerns? How do you phrase your response to your faculty constituency, looking for direction and assurance that after their Herculean training efforts another change is not upon them? Your staff asks about training, cross-training, benchmarking and where to find the funds and time for such activities when already pressed to the maximum on current implementation needs. Institutional leadership? Most presidents and provosts simply want the problem to go away. There are more pressing matters, like cost containment, a particular interest of Boards of Trustees.

So on one hand, your task is easy—you can support your own opinion with the opinions of others. There is no inarguable closure on the issues. On the other hand, this is probably dress rehearsal for other consolidations--Adobe-Macromedia, anyone?

Recommendations for Survival

Here’s what I would recommend you do:

First, calm the troops. The announcement came at a good time in the academic planning cycle. Major impacts, whichever way they may come, are one, two, or three academic years away--adequate, if not abundant, time to prepare for change--if you begin tracking developments now.

Return to EduTools (www.edutools.info/ ), a service you may have used in selecting your current CMS. One would expect EduTools to re-visit their core expertise here and assimilate comparable answers to questions of interest throughout the academic community. Respond to the surveys, talk with others using your CMS, and with those who use other systems. Share insights with colleagues, within consortia, and across systems. Collaborate on shared infrastructure and co-fund test beds. Distribute the cost of obtaining information.

Use the merger news to heighten awareness of the growing nature of eLearning as critical institutional infrastructure. Attention is the scarcest resource in any social system. Use this interest to your maximum advantage--for about one month folks might listen.

De-couple, to the extent you are able, the pieces of course creation, access and delivery. Research content management systems that can be called from any course management system, place a campus level authentication system in front of the CMS authentication system. What a great opportunity to begin developing a solid single-sign-on approach to campus authentication--unplug one service, plug-in the next.

Experiment with open source CMS. Open source CMS still is toddling, but its immaturity augers well for those who would like to participate in training an adolescent (not a task for the faint-of-heart, but potentially very rewarding).

Heed Scott McNeeley’s (Sun Microsystems’ CEO and Educause keynoter) formulation of the total cost of ownership. It’s not just the cost of acquisition, nor only the cost of acquisition plus the cost of operations. Total cost of ownership includes the cost of exiting. Those of us who have been through a CMS migration can attest to the fact that exiting is expensive, complicated, and never automated. Some may need to prepare for this again; all should seek processes to minimize exit costs in the future.

With a focus on cost of exit, press your CMS provider to build a reference model for course export, encourage that reference model to be standards-based, open, and not proprietary.

Get something in writing from your current vendor about your future together. There will be three levels of certainty in the response--contractual commitment (e.g., price increases < x%="" for="" y="" years),="" intentionality="" (our="" corporate="" vision="" and="" its="" implementation="" is="" this),="" and="" roadmap="" (we="" will="" accomplish="" these="" things="" in="" this="" order).="" move="" what="" you="" can="" to="" contractual="" commitment,="" but="" plan="" to="" live="" with="" ambiguity.="">

Ponder the virtue of monolithic systems. We’ve convinced ourselves that the benefits of standardization--for training, help desk, licensing, user experience, scalable hardware--seal the deal on campus standardization. Diversification may be the less risky, less costly strategy--it works with the stock market. Perhaps our student body has reached a level of sophistication that its members can move among several systems, much as they surf and interact in the broad Web environment. Back end interoperability may be enough, coupled with a mechanism to “load balance” based on the future that emerges. Give the faculty choices, some may move the pedagogy more rapidly forward when so endowed.

Look to best of breed in content management, delivery management, and presentation management rather than automatically leave the integration of these layers to the same CMS provider.

Use the disruption in CMS to invest energy in ePortfolio as an alternate, potentially preferred arena focused on student learning rather than course managing. The ePortfolio environment is still highly fragmented and perhaps open to influence not to follow the same path that describes the short history of course management. CMS is moving aggressively into the K-12 environment. Is the organization of education by course needs or by student needs the model we wish to support as the markets consolidate?

Conclusions

In summary, reflect on the issues above and then tell your campus the following about the future of Blackboard-WebCT after the merger, about the future of CMS:

Tell the faculty to preserve and back-up their work on their local hard drives, to responsibly participate in preparation for an unknowable future. Also, tell them that regardless of what occurs, your technology organization will be there to migrate/load next year’s courses.

Tell the IT staff their skills will not go unused. Whether migration, consolidation or change, their skills will be required next year and those that follow.

Tell the administration this technology world is risky business, experimentation at the fringe, in the emergent, is mandatory. The ROI on innovation is delayed, but much like a properly structured annuity pays off at the exit stage of the technology life cycle. The deferred capitalization of myopic focus, and the exit component of the total cost of ownership, escalates with singular commitment. Experimentation is insurance and worth every dollar of investment.

And for all of us: Build the technical environments with an eye toward interoperability. Follow the elegant LEGO model--trains, planes, and buildings (content, interaction, and assessment) all crafted from the same bricks. Read Clayton Christensen’s book on disruptive technologies--and believe it. Practice your balancing act; the next tipping point is hard to predict.

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