Reading the Blackboard Tea Leaves

If you are trying to do some tasseography about the announcement yesterday that Blackboard has acquired acquired Moodlerooms and NetSpot, here are a variety of links that have come to me via email, listservs and tweets.

Everyone should keep in mind that owning those companies is not anything close to owning Moodle. The two companies acquired are leading providers of Moodle (which is free and open sourced) service solutions to the education market. Moodlerooms is in the USA and NetSpot is in Australia and they are both official Moodle Partners. Part of the announcement said that each will continue their current programs to support clients with no changes to their leadership or their support and service models.

Why is Bb moving in this direction? Two reasons culled from posts by the company's CEO & CTO (see below) are "...this shift is the result of the broader perspective that has come over the past few years as we have updated our vision and mission. Rather than focusing just on the LMS market, we're looking at the entire student lifecycle within the education institutions we serve... online learning continues to grow all around the world, applied to increasingly diverse learning challenges every year. As usage deepens, needs not only expand, they also become more specialized. The result for education institutions is the need for increased choice among systems with different strengths and deployment models to best suit their particular situation.”

Blackboard Announces Continued Support for Angel – this is a change from the previous “expiration” date of October 2014 for Angel and from Blackboard’s tendency to eventually discontinue other products has acquired.

Senior leaders from Blackboard, Moodlerooms and NetSpot signed a Statement of Principles affirming that their work would continue a number of key initiatives currently supported by Moodlerooms and NetSpot, including contributions of software code to the open source community, financial support for the Moodle Trust, and continued support for community gatherings like Moodlemoots.

Blackboard Launches Open Source Services Group – “a new effort to support clients using open source education technologies. With the announcement, the company will continue to focus on its flagship Blackboard Learn™ platform as well as ANGEL and Edline, while also helping institutions successfully manage open source learning management systems (LMS) including Moodle and Sakai."

Blackboard Appoints Sakai Foundation Board Member Charles Severance to Lead Company’s Sakai Initiatives – “a longtime leader and one of the founders of the Sakai community, to a senior role to lead the company’s initiative on the Sakai open source learning management system.” And here is Chuck Severance’s own blog posting giving a fairly extensive explanation of why he accepted this position and his excitement for the future.

Ray Henderson (CTO and President, Academic Platforms for Blackboard) describes their plans in his blog post: Evolution Unbound: Blackboard Embraces Open Source – “…should we expand our offerings to include multiple LMS products, particularly the open source products that are now more widely adopted? Our answer is yes.The long game for Blackboard is to bring the full complement of our solutions across the student lifecycle to more institutions”

Michael Chasen (CEO) and Ray Henderson write An Open Letter to the Education Community – “The high level change is this: Blackboard is becoming a multiple learning platform company that supports both commercially developed software as well as open source solutions.”


Blackboard Acquires Moodlerooms, NetSpot (Sacramento Bee article) 

Blackboard, MoodleRooms, NetSpot: First Reactions (Inside Higher Ed)
Tony Bates’ blog

Blackboard Buys Mooderooms & Embraces Open “This announcement will make my OER friends nervous, but I think it has the potential to bring new investment and energy to open platforms. 

You Can Acquire Open Source Companies, But You Can’t Buy Open Source Community

Blackboard Inc. Buys Moodlerooms and NetSpot, with Eye Toward Open Source

Blackboard Acquires Moodlerooms and NetSpot

Today, March 26, 2012, Blackboard Inc. announced "a major investment in open source" with a news release that it has acquired Moodlerooms and NetSpot, two leading providers of open source online learning solutions to the education industry. Both organizations will "continue to operate independently to support their clients."

Moodlerooms and NetSpot are official Moodle Partners, and each will continue their current programs to support clients with no changes to their leadership or their support and service models.

In addition, each team will also become part of Blackboard’s new Education Open Source Services group, dedicated to supporting the use and development of open source learning technologies globally.

Global Mobile and other Megatrends

It is hard to predict a trend in educational technology for the next year. But I recently came across a piece attempting to identify the "Most Significant Metatrends for the Next 10 Years."

From this list, I definitely agree that taking 5, 7, 8, 9 & 10 collectively, we have much of my own argument for a new kind of school (School or University 2.0 are often the tags for these ideas).

This top ten of metatrends are from A Communiqué from the Horizon Project Retreat, January 2012, which is a NMC Horizon Project publication under a Creative Commons attribution license.

1. The world of work is increasingly global and increasingly collaborative. As more and more companies move to the global marketplace, it is common for work teams to span continents and time zones. Not only are teams geographically diverse, they are also culturally diverse.

2. People expect to work, learn, socialize, and play whenever and wherever they want to. Increasingly, people own more than one device, using a computer, smartphone, tablet, and e-reader. People now expect a seamless experience across all their devices.

3. The Internet is becoming a global mobile network--and already is at its edges. mobiThinking reports there are now more than 6 billion active cell phone accounts. 1.2 billion have mobile broadband as well, and 85 percent of new devices can access the mobile Web.

4. The technologies we use are increasingly cloud-based and delivered over utility networks, facilitating the rapid growth of online videos and rich media. Our current expectation is that the network has almost infinite capacity and is nearly free of cost. One hour of video footage is uploaded every second to YouTube; over 250 million photos are sent to Facebook every day.

5. Openness - concepts like open content, open data, and open resources, along with notions of transparency and easy access to data and information--is moving from a trend to a value for much of the world. As authoritative sources lose their importance, there is need for more curation and other forms of validation to generate meaning in information and media.

6. Legal notions of ownership and privacy lag behind the practices common in society. In an age where so much of our information, records, and digital content are in the cloud, and often clouds in other legal jurisdictions, the very concept of ownership is blurry.

7. Real challenges of access, efficiency, and scale are redefining what we mean by quality and success. Access to learning in any form is a challenge in too many parts of the world, and efficiency in learning systems and institutions is increasingly an expectation of governments--but the need for solutions that scale often trumps them both. Innovations in these areas are increasingly coming from unexpected parts of the world, including India, China, and central Africa.

8. The Internet is constantly challenging us to rethink learning and education, while refining our notion of literacy. Institutions must consider the unique value that each adds to a world in which information is everywhere. In such a world, sense-making and the ability to assess the credibility of information and media are paramount.

9. There is a rise in informal learning as individual needs are redefining schools, universities, and training. Traditional authority is increasingly being challenged, not only politically and socially, but also in academia--and worldwide. As a result, credibility, validity, and control are all notions that are no longer givens when so much learning takes place outside school systems.

10. Business models across the education ecosystem are changing. Libraries are deeply reimagining their missions; colleges and universities are struggling to reduce costs across the board. The educational ecosystem is shifting, and nowhere more so than in the world of publishing, where efforts to reimagine the book are having profound success, with implications that will touch every aspect of the learning enterprise.

The Personal Cloud


A new report from Gartner,"The New PC Era: The Personal Cloud,"predicts that in the next two years users will store more of their data in the cloud than on their personal computers.

While this means that those users will have greater device flexibility and probably be more productive, schools and businesses will have to rethink their delivery of applications and services.

Gartner identifies five "megatrends" to the personal cloud (as opposed to the services we already use in the cloud for work and school): consumerization, virtualization, app-ification, the self-service cloud, and the mobility shift.

I agree with Gartner's idea that the tendency that past decade has been for new technology to emerge first in the consumer market rather than the enterprise market. Why? Increasing user tech literacy, better mobile devices, the ubiquity of Internet access, social media, and, to a degree, the "democratization" of technology. (Though the shift to smarter and more expensive mobile devices and service plans also means the possibility of more limited access to this technology.)

My own community college campus is just moving to virtualization this academic year. Not everyone on campus is happy with having a "dumber" terminal on their desk that stores things in the cloud. They don't like giving up control, but the advantages are clear if done correctly.
I have spent a lot of time this past year thinking, writing and presenting on the "app-ification" trend in the way applications are being designed, delivered, and consumed by users. Apps have users continually accessing server/cloud-resident applications on their phones, tablets and pads - and increasingly on their more traditional laptops. Unlike the computer in my office that is getting dumber, my smartphone is getting smarter. Add to that better user interfaces, touch and gesture-based controls, speech recognition, location and contextual awareness and my phone IS my computer.

When I travel this week to a conference, my only device will be my iPhone. I will miss the bigger features of my laptopn, but I don't miss bringing it along. I have never been a fan of having to pay for the Net in a hotel that just got hundreds of dollars from me, when I can get it free in a place where I make a $3 coffee purchase. My phone will jump on the free wi-fi or get me what I need through my data plan.

Like many users, my first taste of any personal cloud was using Google Documents. I used it to store my own documents, share them with co-workers and access them at different locations and on different computers. It almost eliminated my use of flashdrives.

logoMore recently, I started using Dropbox which offers free cloud storage and also paid services for greater storage. You can get a free account on Dropbox easily. You can install their small app on a computer and then your Dropbox folder's files are automatically synced and backed up online. If I work on a document or PowerPoint at work, it's there when I get home and open the folder on my home office computer. If I am working on a computer that isn't my own, I can still access all my Dropbox files online at their site. I use that for all my presentations and for "carrying" documents to other locations. You could also use it to backup your photos or videos (though that might require purchasing additional storage). You get at least 2GB free.

The story is that Dropbox was initially written co-founder Drew Houston forgot his USB key on a bus ride. Students with a valid school email address get 500MB for each person they invite to Dropbox, so I recommend using it to my students.

This mobility shift because of the increased use of smartphones and tablets needed the cloud to allow these devices to do tasks that we associate with "computers."  Of course, what we think of as a computer or even as technology is also changing.

Are we in the post-PC era? Not yet. But personal computing is certainly changing and it will continue to impact how we work and learn.

Kids, Literacies and Lifelong Computer Skills

Jakob Nielsen wrote on his site that he believes that schools need to "teach deep, strategic computer insights that can't be learned from reading a manual." He gives this example:

I recently saw a textbook used to teach computers in the third grade. One of the chapters ("The Big Calculator") featured detailed instructions on how to format tables of numbers in Excel. All very good, except that the new Excel version features a complete user interface overhaul, in which the traditional command menus are replaced by a ribbon with a results-oriented UI.

Sadly, I had to tell the proud parents that their daughter's education would be obsolete before she graduated from the third grade.

The problem, of course, is in tying education too tightly to specific software applications. Even if Microsoft hadn't turned Excel inside out this year, they would surely have done so eventually. Updating instructional materials to teach Office 2007 isn't the answer, because there will surely be another UI change before today's third graders enter the workforce in 10 or 15 years -- and even more before they retire in 2065.
It is a tall order for educators. How do you make student truly literate in a skill and not just tech-savvy (a term I hate) in using a product? Teaching literacy is teaching deeper concepts that survive longer than specific applications. I hear parents say that their 6 year old can use their smartphone. Tech savvy kid. But with what real understanding?

What I am concerned with are life-long technology skills. That is more than just "computer skills" because our definition of what a computer is and will be is being changed as you read this post. Is my iPhone the only computer I will need one day? If you say that you will cling to your desktop or laptop computer, you have to consider that companies (including Apple) are already considering dropping those products from their product lines.

Nielsen offers these as general skills that he believes should be taught in elementary schools:

Search Strategies
Information Credibility
Information Overload
Writing for Online Readers
Computerized Presentation Skills
Workspace Ergonomics
User Testing and other Basic Usability Guidelines

If those sound outrageous for elementary school students, read Nielsen's post for more details. For example, when he says "Workspace Ergonomics" he means that kids need to be aware of the RSIs (repetitive
strain injuries, such as carpal tunnel syndrome and "text-message thumb") that are hurting adults now, and teach young people about proper usage (frequent breaks, monitor placement, lighting etc.) and head off the headaches, backaches and RSI that will come from an entire life of tech use. Those kids will be the user interface designers of the future anyway, so start early!

But seriously, he is also suggesting that living in an interactive environment means that usability heuristics like "recognition vs. recall" or "consistency" will be concepts that an educated person will need.

Finally, Nielsen referenced a book that I checked out. The New Division of Labor: How Computers Are Creating the Next Job Market by Frank Levy and Richard J. Murnane. The book looks at how people at work use tech and also at how researchers in cognitive science, computer science, and economics study how computers are enhancing productivity (as they also eliminate jobs).

The authors see a growing division between those who can and cannot earn a good living in the computerized economy, and see the challenge for educators to teach the new skills that will survive a changing technologized workplace. Three of those skills are ones that no educator should have a problem with including in a curriculum. The three are problem solving, understanding the relation between concepts, and interpersonal communication.