Blackboard has purchased the leading open-source learning management system support organizations: Moodlerooms and NetSpot. Why am I not surprised?
They purchased ANGEL in 2009, Wimba and Elluminate in 2010, and acquired the data analysis firm iStrategy in early 2011 to begin their foray into learning analytics. Now, Blackboard is aggressively pursuing the one area of the learning management system (LMS) sector that, up until this point, has seemed somewhat out of reach of their corporate arms: The open-source community. While Blackboard can’t dissolve the open-source LMS completely, it can sure try to get a piece of the action by acquiring the organizations that offer paid support for Moodle, one of (if not) the most popular open-source LMS solutions. The Chronicle of Higher Education broke this story (at least to me) and has a fine analysis of some of the major points of contention that could arise from these purchases. But I do have a few direct questions that concern me and, I believe, will concern many others.
Will the purchase of these support units of Moodle and subsumption into Blackboard’s corporate entity and its newly created Blackboard Open Source Services arm generate a wave of concern from those who have chosen Moodle for their campuses in part or in whole due to philosophical leanings to support those organizations whose goal is to innovate, support, and give back to the campus community devoid of profit? Yes, Moodlerooms and NetSpot made a profit, but the Moodle does not. It exists as a community to innovate in this particular area. Moodle will still exist as an open-source LMS. That does not change with these purchases. What does change is how campuses view their contracts with Moodlerooms and NetSpot. Are they serving the community (even if for-profit) or are they now serving the monolith that is Blackboard? It depends on your vantage point, I suppose.
This activity marks Blackboard’s first direct shots across the bow at the open-source community. The inevitable question ensues: Is Blackboard trying like it has with other areas of the market to dissolve and/or subsume competition? If you believe that their Open Source Services initiative is relatively harmless and actually beneficial to institutions who need the support structure that Blackboard can support than you’re less concerned with this question than I am. I’m skeptical though. Not only has Blackboard purchased Moodlerooms and NetSpot, they’ve also enlisted Charles Severance, the chief architect of Sakai, to lead Sakai support projects on their behalf. Strategically this makes sense. Who better to support Sakai than the one who understands its technical framework the best? Understandable. Much like Verizon and AT&T’s control of the “pipes,” Blackboard is strengthening its grip on the communication lines between institutions and open-source LMSs by removing freely acting support companies and absorbing them into their structure. The skeptic in me is concerned about the type of persuasion that may be used to lure institutions towards Blackboard Learn (their own LMS) and away from open-source alternatives.
Finally and most importantly, what effect will this have on the innovation and evolution of Moodle and its brethren if the perception becomes that nothing, even the stalwart open-source LMS, is free from the reaches of Blackboard? Contributors to the project may not wish to see the fruits of their labor picked by a company that has caused such animosity due to its aggressive business tactics.