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Not Your Grandfather's Blackboard? My Recent Chat with Bb Learn President Ray Henderson

Blackboard's product strategy has moved from that of a course management platform to a suite of integrated, enterprise systems that span a range of institution-wide services from communications to e-commerce. And Blackboard leadership--including Blackboard Learn President Ray Henderson--has placed a new emphasis on client support and openness. Trent Batson spoke with Henderson about the company's new direction.

Blackboard and other LMS providers, almost alone, took teaching and learning from an exclusive classroom centricity to the multi-centricity of the virtual world in just one decade between 1996 and 2006, when the Web 2.0 revolution blossomed and other technologies then accelerated the change.

At times during the period since 1996, Blackboard in particular felt the growing pains of the revolution and did have its rough patches with the education market. Yet whatever your views of Blackboard, the company and the platform have been and continue to be major influences on the direction of the education enterprise throughout the world. Today, Blackboard executives assert that they've been listening much more closely to their clients, have added a number of new solutions, and are no longer the Blackboard we have known in the past. Recently, I talked with Ray Henderson, president of Blackboard Learn, to find out more about what he calls "the new Blackboard."

Ray Henderson was the chief products officer at Angel Learning until Angel was merged with Blackboard, and Henderson was then made president of the largest Blackboard platform group: Blackboard Learn, which comprises the company's online teaching and learning technologies. (The other groups are Bb Transact, Bb Connect, Bb Mobile, and Bb Collaborate, for a total of five).

Henderson noted in his talk at Bb World last summer that Angel, as a platform, had been rated more highly by customers than Bb for quality. Yet, when he took up his new post at Bb, he found that Bb had much larger teams of people dedicated to aspects of quality. Under Henderson's leadership, these teams were strengthened and partly reorganized. And just in the first year of the resulting multi-service approach Blackboard is taking, client surveys and focus sessions show a marked improvement in client support, transparency, openness, and quality. In all four of these areas, Henderson says that Bb has "improved"--which is just short of what he is aiming for: "excellence."

Has any of this effort resulted from the incursions of Sakai and Moodle? "We are, of course, aware of Sakai and Moodle, but the improvements we are making are just part of our ongoing efforts," Henderson said. Still, in a humorous video played at Bb World before Henderson talked, a mysterious employee sitting at the conference table while Henderson led the meeting had a name tag that said "Sakai," perhaps a nod to Blackboard's increased focus on openness. The company has focused on greater interoperability and flexibility for its LMS and collaboration technologies that are sometimes used in tandem with open source or with other commercial LMS solutions.

Blackboard has an increasingly diverse spread in the world. It is a growing company that has branched out with the acquisition of Wimba and Elluminate (now part of the Blackboard Collaborate platform group), with the addition of online security and e-commerce for students to transact business with the institution (Blackboard Transact), the addition of mass notification capabilities (Blackboard Connect), and the ability to use mobile technologies with Blackboard's LMS and in support of overall student life and services on campus (Blackboard Mobile).

The core is still Blackboard Learn, where the course management platform lives, but the company now offers the extension of enterprise management systems to all academic transactions for faculty and students (as we see in the paragraph above). Today, one may still say "we moved from Blackboard to Sakai," but that statement will look increasingly uninformed: What part of Blackboard do you mean? If you use all the platforms in the Blackboard suite, it becomes quite a chore to find a way to replace all functions. I have to wonder, what other company can offer this sweep of capabilities for educators at all levels of education throughout the world?

The next-generation Bb Learn platform, 9.x, was released earlier this past year (2010). Blackboard continues the Angel tradition, and its own, of actively supporting open standards, specifically now with the full support of IMS's Common Cartridge and LTI (Learning Tools Interoperability) standards for 9.x. Bb also now recognizes formally that the users own the data stored in Bb tools and now supports open data. This is one area Henderson points to with pride and rates "openness" more highly than any other criteria he uses for Bb performance. "When I first came to Blackboard, people told me that Blackboard is too closed. We needed to be more transparent," he said.

Henderson's vision for openness has extended to improvements to Blackboard Learn as a platform for development. For years Blackboard has allowed third-party developers to customize and extend Blackboard Learn with open APIs, and today there is a growing number of Building Blocks (built from those open APIs) available throughout the community. This past year (2010), Blackboard opened up access to its database for the first time, enabling better vision into system data and reporting to inform system performance management to academic program decisions. With this move, Blackboard seems to be recognizing the value of community involvement in the improvement of the software.

On behalf of openness and transparency, Ray Henderson writes a blog, appears at user group meetings, grants many interviews (such as the one this article is based on), and is generally available to educators and students.

When asked about portfolios, Henderson responded, "There are no announcements coming soon." But, of course, WebCT has a portfolio, as does Angel, and it would seem to me that Blackboard would wish to address this student-management-of-their-own-learning gap in some way.

Education technology folks have often said that course management systems, because they have mostly reinforced the teaching-centered learning model of the past, are not revolutionary technologies. They are the status-quo technologies. That has been a common opinion of many leaders and commentators for the past decade. With the new array of solutions, however, judgment is more dicey: If the Blackboard suite of tools is helping to populate and enable the virtual campus, it is really not the status quo any longer, but a major force in moving education, and education institutions, into the digital age.

It is hard to look at the new Blackboard capabilities and not see evidence of the tidal shift away from classroom centricity. In the early 2000s, those of us working in academic computing offices, as I did, often said that no matter what one might think of WebCT or Blackboard, "at least they were getting faculty onto the Web." But, now, once on the Web, both faculty and students find a second campus, and this campus has no parking problems.

Editor's note: This article has been modified since its original publication to correct a factual error. Ray Henderson was not, as previously stated, CEO of Angel Learning or of Blackboard Learn. He was chief products officer at Angel and is now president of Blackboard Learn. [Last updated Jan. 5, 2011 at 10:11 a.m.] --David Nagel
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