The top two providers of learning management system (LMS) software and services for higher education, Blackboard Inc. and WebCT Inc., have announced an agreement to merge. The merger would leave the combined entity with more than 80 percent of the LMS market share in higher education, which includes the software platforms that drive online learning. The impending deal has a price tag reported to be approximately $180 million.

Blackboard says the transaction will combine two academic eLearning organizations into a single company with the client base, resources, and expertise to meet the rapidly evolving needs of educators around the world. But the deal also has the potential to squeeze out other LMS providers and reduce competition, some observers fear.

Both companies’ boards of directors have approved the merger. The combined firms will operate under the Blackboard brand. Blackboard President and CEO Michael Chasen will continue to serve in that capacity for the new entity.

The ultimate value of the deal will depend on WebCT’s cash balance at closing. Under terms of the agreement, Blackboard will acquire WebCT in a cash transaction for $180 million, which values the offer at approximately $154 million when considering WebCT’s Aug. 31 cash balance of $26 million.

According to Blackboard, more than 3,700 higher-education, K-12, corporate, government, and commercial academic institutions use solutions offered by the two organizations. A survey done by Market Data Retrieval (MDR), a provider of education market research, found that Blackboard and WebCT held the top two slots in the LMS market for U.S. colleges and universities in 2005. Blackboard held 51 percent of that market, while WebCT held 32 percent.

Another education market research firm, Eduventures Inc., estimates the 2005 eLearning platform market in higher education will reach $220.7 million, a growth rate of 17.9 percent. Eduventures also estimates the 2005 market for K-12 schools to be $136 million, with an expected annual growth rate of 5 percent over the next two years.

“The two companies combined create a powerhouse for the learning management system market, [leaving] a pack of smaller players–and open-source solutions–to jockey for position,” said Catherine Burdt, lead postsecondary analyst at Eduventures.

“This is a dominant market position in higher education … so their real opportunity will be in leveraging digital content and add-on services, as well as strengthening positions in K-12 and international markets,” Burdt said.

Another analyst, John G. Flores of the United States Distance Learning Association, agreed the merger would change the landscape of the eLearning market.

“WebCT and Blackboard both hold dominant positions in the LMS sector of the K-12 and postsecondary education markets. Combining the two companies should bring new services, products, capabilities, and an economy of scale,” said Flores.

Tim Wiley, an Eduventures analyst for the K-12 market in the United States, said the numbers for Blackboard and WebCT in K-12 education are not as strong as those in higher education.

“Blackboard’s 2004 revenues from K-12 were $8.9 million, about 7 percent of the total LMS market,” Wiley said. “WebCT’s K-12 revenues are even less, about $2 million.”

But Wiley suggested that the merger of Blackboard and WebCT would lead to a larger K-12 market share for the new entity, because the larger company would have greater flexibility to accommodate the peculiarities of that market.

“We’ve been saying all along that given the very fragmented nature of the K-12 market–based on geography, policy, customer size, and long sales cycles–consolidation in most market segments, and certainly LMS, is to be expected,” Wiley said.

Despite a more than 80-percent market share in higher education and analysts’ optimistic predictions, Blackboard CEO Chasen dismissed the idea that Blackboard is positioning itself to monopolize K-20 eLearning solutions.

“We’re far from having any sort of monopoly–we don’t have influence at that level. The [K-20] market is so big, and there are so many companies in this space, that there are a lot of competitors out there,” Chasen told an eSchool News reporter. “Certainly, we’re technically the largest [eLearning platform provider] for education [in the United States], but a relatively small piece of the overall market, which includes international education and corporate markets.”

He added: “One of the main reasons behind the acquisition is that WebCT has a great reputation for service and support. Through this merger, we can take some of WebCT’s best practices and really improve the level of service that we’re able to offer our clients.”

Blackboard says it plans to enhance and support both companies’ products, while also developing interfaces that will permit the existing product lines of both companies to interoperate with one another and with other applications. Over time, the company says, it will work to incorporate the features of the two product lines into a single, standards-based product that incorporates scalable architecture, the use of web services, ease of use, and more.

Users of both Blackboard and WebCT are optimistic about what the merger will bring–though some are more cautious than others.

“I have had experience with both companies and view this merger as combining excellence with excellence to advance the eLearning industry,” said Jack Wilson, president of the University of Massachusetts. “I also see this combination as a way to … open the door to new opportunities for collaboration among institutions using different eLearning platforms.”

The University of North Texas, which has the largest number of online courses in the state of Texas, has been a WebCT customer for some time. Philip Turner, the school’s vice provost for learning enhancement, said he hopes the merger will lead to a better product.

“Of course, I think we feel a little scared,” said Turner. “I think that any time you face change in a learning management system when it’s integrated throughout your university, there will be some trepidation. But when you put those two companies together, the possibilities are probably endless.”

LMS software “is absolutely a mission-critical piece of the University of North Texas,” Turner said. The LMS learning environment “is the total university [experience] for 3,000 students that are totally online, and we have 38,000 enrollments that are in classes that use that platform. They use it for discussion, posting syllabi, grade books, and what have you.”

If Blackboard and WebCT do it right, he concluded, the merger “has the potential for some wonderful things. It has the potential to be problematic if they do it wrong. … We’ll certainly be a strong voice in guiding this, we hope, since we’re such a major user.”

See these related links:

Blackboard Inc.

WebCT Inc.

Eduventures Inc.

Market Data Retrieval

United States Distance Learning Association