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Blackboard-Angel deal gives pause to some

Learning managment system giant Blackboard Inc.’s May 6 announcement that it would acquire up-and-coming competitor Angel Learning for $95 million has some educators concerned about Blackboard’s continued growth–and the dwindling of learning management system (LMS) options for schools and colleges.

Blackboard officials said the acquisition would bolster the company’s service and support, allow for more investment in research and development and increased interoperability in schools.

"Now as part of Blackboard, we’re confident that we can together help the combined client community advance eLearning and student achievement," Christopher Clapp, Angel Learning president and CEO, said in a statement. 

Blackboard merged with rival WebCT (at the time the No. 2 supplier of LMS software in the United States) in October 2005. That move gave the company 80 percent of the U.S. market share in higher education–and university technology experts said Blackboard’s purchase of Angel would further narrow school LMS choices.

"If you’re an organization that doesn’t want to purchase from Blackboard, your options are becoming fewer and fewer," said Chuck Severance, a faculty member at the University of Michigan’s School of Information and a developer network coordinator for the IMS Global Learning Consortium, which produces technology standards for education. "Blackboard has the financial wherewithal to buy whatever they want at this point."

Michael Chasen, president and CEO of Blackboard, said in an eMail to eCampus News that the proliferation of education technology over the past four years demands greater interoperability– a goal advanced by Angel’s acquisition, he said.

"So having options is as much about being able to knit all these technologies together as it is about choosing between them," Chasen said. "And this acquisition advances that cause. Because creating the connections between all the technologies students may use to learn and stay engaged takes investment."

"Investment that we’re making now, that a smaller organization like ANGEL couldn’t make as well on its own, and that the ANGEL community will ultimately benefit from in the future," Chasen added.

Chasen said Angel customers should expect the same service and technical support they have always received from the company. Angel Learning products "will continue to be supported as they are today," he said.

Desire2Learn, Blackboard’s main LMS competitor during a protracted legal battle over patent infringement for the past few years, released a statement May 7 reassuring customers and investors that it has "no intent on selling." Desire2Learn officials were critical of Blackboard’s acquisition, raising the specter of a near-monopoly in the LMS market.

"Desire2Learn values competition and believes that monopolies are unhealthy," company president John Baker said in the statement. "We are not surprised by this latest Blackboard action; we have seen it before with the takeover of WebCT. We are very interested in engaging Angel Learning and other Blackboard clients that are interested in starting a conversation to ensure they are aware of their opportunities."

Education technology officials said the lengthy court battle between Desire2Learn and Blackboard saw many buyers gravitate toward Angel Learning, or open-source options such as Moodle and Sakai, for their LMS services. Last June, the litigation took a contentious turn when Blackboard filed a motion against Desire2Learn asking a U.S. federal court in Texas to cite the company for contempt. Blackboard claims Canadian-based Desire2Learn "made only transparently cosmetic changes" to software that mimicked Blackboard’s.

Ray Schroeder, founder of the University of Illinois’s Office of Technology-Enhanced Learning and a blogger who tracks developments in educational technology, said customers were leaving Blackboard and signing on with Angel in recent months as litigation continued. By purchasing Angel, there is very little threat remaining to Blackboard, he said. 

"That leaves far fewer non-open-source options available to those seeking an alternative to Blackboard," he said.

Angel Learning wasn’t the only beneficiary of the patent infringement fight. K-12 educators said last summer that open-source options like Moodle were gaining popularity as the two LMS firms battled in federal court.

"In some ways, this type of patent dispute makes both companies less attractive and open-source alternatives a more likely alternative to consider," said Jim Hirsch, associate superintendent of technology for the Plano Independent School District in Texas.

Acquiring a company that could one day challenge Blackboard’s dominance in LMS software was a shrewd business move that would also add to Blackboard’s involvement with K-12 schools, a strength for Angel Learning, Severance said.

"Angel was growing strongly," he said. "Blackboard would actually have to deal with a reasonably equal size competitor some day. … But if I’m Blackboard, it makes perfect sense to acquire up-and-coming competitors. That’s something that is a brilliant move on their part."



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