Lou Pugliese, CEO of Moodlerooms, said Blackboard’s purchase of his company and another firm that hosts and supports the popular open-source learning management system (LMS) Moodle should be welcome news to educators who support the open-source movement over proprietary options because, finally, an open platform has the financial backing of a large company.
Blackboard, by far the largest LMS provider to U.S. colleges and universities, announced March 26 that the company had purchased two providers of the open-source Moodle LMS platform, Moodlerooms and Australia-based NetSpot.
In its entrance into the open LMS world, Blackboard secured the backing of respected open-source advocates like Pugliese and Charles Severance, who has held a number of positions with the Sakai Foundation, another open-source advocacy organization.
Pugliese said Blackboard’s massive customer base would be a built-in market for Moodlerooms’ open LMS, which has, until now, relied heavily on word-of-mouth promotion from campus to campus.
“This will allow us to work much more aggressively in a much more contributory way to open source,” he said in an interview, adding that “nothing changes” in Moodlerooms’ leadership in the wake of the Blackboard acquisition. “We’re now resourced in ways that we couldn’t contribute before. Blackboard has a very significant customer base into which open source can be introduced. Those customers can now be contributors to the community both from a technical perspective and from an academic perspective.”
Blackboard has seen campuses slowly migrate away from proprietary LMS software that was dominant in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and toward LMS platforms that use open source code to customize course websites. About half of nonprofit universities now use Blackboard, down from 71 percent in 2006, according to the Campus Computing Project.
Moodle’s share of the higher-education LMS market has grown by 15 percent since 2006. About one-fourth of nonprofit campuses use an open-source LMS. Source codes for open LMS programs like Moodle are free, but many schools hire companies like Moodlerooms to host and customize course web pages.
Blackboard said Moodlerooms would become part of its new “education open-source services group,” which will support and develop open-source learning technologies globally. But Josh Coates, CEO of Instructure, which developed another open-standard LMS called Canvas, said he is skeptical of Blackboard’s new promotion of open-source learning.
“They don’t care what LMS you pick,” Coates wrote in a blog post. “They will gladly take your money for whatever flavor of LMS you choose, as long as they can bill you for generic IT software and services.”
Blackboard’s wealth of technology and financial resources, Coates said, won’t guarantee that educators who use the Moodle platform will see an improved product in the coming weeks and months.
“I don’t think it requires much imagination to suppose that the Moodle and Sakai community will become even more jumbled and Blackboard will shove innovation even further back on the burner,” he wrote.
Jason Cole, CEO of Remote-Learner, a member of the open-source Moodle Partners Network, said in a statement that educational technology leaders could take a defensive stance after the LMS market shakeup.
“The impact of Blackboard’s acquisition of Moodlerooms and Netspot on their open-source commitment remains to be seen,” Cole said. “They have a lot to prove.”
Deep skepticism in the aftermath of a major purchase like Blackboard’s was expected by the LMS giant, said Ray Henderson, chief technology officer and president of academic platforms for Blackboard.
“Longtime participants in the open and community source communities may be concerned about our corporate intentions, and how we’ll conduct ourselves given that we are governed by an interest in business growth,” he said in a statement. “Similarly, for those who are clients of the firms we’ve acquired, there will naturally be concerns about our entrance to the community and our execution against the commitments made to them by companies and people that have now joined forces with us.”
Watchful ed-tech leaders wary of education’s most dominant LMS will only be satisfied if Blackboard shows that its commitment to open-source classroom technology is long lasting, and not just a theme of its Moodlerooms rollout, said Brett Frazier, senior vice president of Blackboard Learn.
“We ultimately at Blackboard will be judged by our actions and not by our words,” he said. “I think the blogosphere and the naysayers will say what they want to say, but we’ll be focused on our actions speaking much louder than our words.”
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