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.

Matt 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 together… 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.

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