Chronicle Article: Bb customers looking elsewhere?

The Chronicle of Higher Education just published an interesting article about Blackboard in which Sakai is mentioned several times (along with Moodle and D2L). Overall, the article is well written and balanced. It’s rare that I read news coverage about something I know well and end up feeling the reporter did a good job of capturing the issues. This article does an excellent job, so hats off to Jeffrey Young.The basic topic of the article is this:

“There are a lot of institutions right now that are upset with Blackboard, to say the least, and looking for alternatives,” says Michael Zastrocky, vice president for research at Gartner Inc., a consulting firm that tracks trends in higher-education technology. “They caused a backlash that’s been very difficult for them to overcome.”

Blackboard is heading for a showdown with the free-software movement, according to some observers. Although Blackboard remains the clear market leader — about 66 percent of American colleges use its software as their standard, says the Campus Computing Project, an annual survey — there are signs that open-source alternatives are starting to gain ground.

I’m not sure a “showdown” is how I’d characterize it, at least from my point of view. In any case, you should read the full article. A few observations..

  • Trace Urdan, an analyst I know from my days at DigitalThink and who I think really knows the education space extremely well, is quoted.  I love his comment:

“They’re sharks operating in this universe where you don’t see a lot of sharks,” he says of Blackboard’s leaders. For him that is a compliment. “They’re smart,” he says.

I agree with this overall. I think the diversification of the business away from higher education course management is smart (I’ve written about that previously on list, but can’t find the Nabble reference). I think the D2L lawsuit was not smart.

  • The reporter repeats the old myth about open source means there is nobody to call if something goes wrong (it’s my only real criticism of the article). Of course there is someone to call–that’s what commercial support is all about. See rSmart and Unicon and NetSpot and CampusEAI and Serensoft and Portfolio4U and Stoas. Not to mention the other members of the community who work on the product. If you ask Sakai users to compare the responsiveness of the Sakai community to their commercial vendors, I’m sure we’ll come out very favorably.
  • Michael Chasen, Bb CEO, says that he has “I have 300 people on my development team working full time on our products and services…I don’t know if there are 300 full-time people currently working on Sakai.” This is apples and oranges, first of all. Given the diversification of the business, Bb doesn’t have anywhere near 300 people working on their CMS product. And if you count the different versions of the CMS they’ve been supporting (legacy Web CT, legacy Bb and now Bb NG) its spread even thinner. I could make a similarly irrelevant comment about Blackboard’s staffing, it would be to note how much of their spending goes to sales and marketing (30%) and administrative costs (16%)–3 or 4 times what they spend on R&D across their product lines.  But I won’t make such a comment 😉

Regardless, counting people is not a great metric –I think overall quality and pace of innovation in the product is what matters, and I think Sakai and Moodle stack up very well in that regard.

As I’ve said before, healthy competition makes things better for everyone. I think it is uncontroversial that the success and Sakai and Moodle (and D2L and Angel, although this article focused on FOSS solutions) have made things better for those institutions that will continue to be Blackboard customers–and many will not change to save licensing fees (the cost of change itself is significant, after all, and for awhile you need to run both systems and budgets are tight). The fact that there are viable alternatives spurs innovation and keeps pressure on commercial vendors to keep prices reasonable.


One Response

  1. […] “Blackboard Customers Consider Alternatives“. As usual, Michael Korcuska has insightful things to say about it. I only have a little bit to add on one quote from Blackboard CEO Michael […]

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