Updated on March 12, 2020. Blackboard has confirmed the sale of its Moodle product, Blackboard Open LMS, to British company Learning Technologies Group. Details are yet to come. It would appear the new product name is just “Open LMS”:
The honeymoon may be over, but the reasons that hold Blackboard and Moodle together are far larger than the ones that keep them apart.
A look at Blackboard Open LMS (formerly Moodlerooms) roadmap, released last June, shows no exciting new features, only a diligent couple of ideas. A future outlook not too different from Moodle, with key exceptions. The brightness of the future for the largest, open source LMS would be similarly in question were it not for the army of volunteer contributors around the world, as well as the Moodle Users Association’s Project Development Cycle.
BOLMS might not be technologically superior to Moodle. In fact, it launched support for Moodle 3.6 last May, at a time when Moodle 3.7 has upped the ante. But it holds a secret and powerful weapon. One so secret it is impossible to gaze from their PR and corporate blogging. One that I realized existed only a few months ago, but one that’s been thriving for years. What for Moodle is one of its unquestionable strengths, the online community that surrounds Blackboard is a wealthy and effective environment of collegial help and support that barely gets any recognition. Signs of internal turmoil —with notable leadership positions switching and lots of scrapping of bold new initiatives— can only be a matter of speculation. The virtues of the online community, mostly residing at community.blackboard.com, are undeniable, and in many of the cases we list below the reason why good ideas remain active and makes BOLMS not ready to be sworn off.
Blackboard technological offering… What happened?
Once a new client joins Blackboard, they have access to a shopping list of services. Most of them are provided by Blackboard itself. Blackboard does offer compatibility with LTI, but there is nothing resembling the LTI Apps center from Instructure Canvas, or even the Moodle Plugin Directory. (Moodle-based BOLMS does support Moodle plugins.)
Focusing on the extra functionality provided directly by Blackboard, we find that most of it was built externally, and is provided in-house only after an acquisition. Gobbling up key EdTech providers (and potentially threatening competitors) was for a long time standard practice. These deals did not always succeed, so there is also a long list of decommissioned products. One of the latest, for example, is Blackboard Transact, an in-campus cashless payments and ID Monitoring solution resulting from the acquisition of Cashnet. While a contract with Blackboard for the classic Learn LMS, Ultra (SaaS, cloud-based) or BOLMS often includes support for the value-added services, the fate of support for decommissioned offerings such as Transact is unclear.
Phasing out technologies, however, is not the only way in which promising Blackboard initiatives end up shelved without much explanation. Nothing more illustrative than the Open Innovation Initiative, promoted with much fanfare and intended to open a new array of gateways: It would introduce open source developers to the Blackboard ecosystem, and Blackboard developers to the heavenly AWS cloud. In some of the updates at the time, it looked like Blackboard’s response to MUA’s development cycle. (From which BOLMS benefits anyway.) Updates about the Initiative abruptly ceased 2 years ago.
A pattern of good ideas that somehow stops mid-sentence starts to emerge. This is not a problem in itself, in fact it is the reality of the tech industry. The real problem seems to be a lack of validated learning. With the seeming absence of an internal learning validation system —let alone public ones— to gain insight from failure, practices are destined to repeat similar dooming cycles, as illustrated next. There is not much a strong community can do facing a leadership that does not engage with it.
Solutions and service approaches: Get to know the best BOLMS can offer
A comprehensive portfolio of solutions for Blackboard Open LMS focuses not only on the features, but on customer approaches, which combine services for specific solutions.
The “Learning Solutions” consulting learning team assists instructors and organizations with the learning content lifecycle and its implementation in the Moodle LMS. This includes:
- Course design review
- Course building
- Course redesign
- Training (one-on-one or group-based)
- Troubleshooting specific features
Blackboard’s Learning Solutions team is perhaps the largest consulting solution currently available for education worldwide. But this is not to say it is an easy sail through, as there is strong competition in every market they are present. Globally, eThink Education is most likely the strongest contender in the Open Source LMS, with a similar tenure of experience in consulting, better customer support, and more dynamic offerings, particularly in training with the recent launch of eThink Academy.
In other countries, Moodle providers, certified and otherwise, can also help BOLMS customer with high-level instructional design and related consulting, likely at lower price points, even though customers might not be fully aware. In the case of eThink Academy, for example, the aim is exactly these segment of users who wants to get the most out of Moodle without sacrificing their L&D budgets.
For now, it seems Blackboard has a hold on consulting services for their own clientele.
When first launched, X-Ray was not only a groundbreaking technology but a fertile playground for insights about how students learned, behaved and performed within the LMS. It was smart to allow the X-Ray platform to be available for Moodle, as it provided a much more robust dataset.
This was not the only smart choice by Dr. John Whitmer, who at the helm of Blackboard’s Data Science team pioneered many of the ground rules and first elementary discoveries in Learning Analytics, especially as it sources LMS Data. Having data behind our widely held intuitions that most LMS implementations are glorified file repositories was a significant step towards a more fruitful conversation about issues such as interaction and engagement.
As you might guess, Blackboard’s role as a leading Learning Analytics think tank forestalled. What in retrospect could be seen as a post-mortem took place in early 2018, at Blackboard’s Analytics Symposium.
X-Ray, however, continues to provide the elements of analytics it once delivered exclusively:
- At-risk student verdicts
- Student behavior and performance analysis using machine learning methods
- Rich, interactive visuals
- Automatic instructional advice
Whitmer, a former Moodler, left Blackboard in July 2018, for the American College Testing Organization.
Training and Support Plans
Customer support is one of Blackboard’s gray areas, and seemingly the strongest driver for switching away toward another vendor.
While Instructure Canvas can get away with tiered support at increasingly higher prices (for now), BOLMS could have taken a page from their North American Moodle competitors and make customer support a delighting part of the Blackboard experience. Instead, it seems assistance is seen as a frustrating cross-selling opportunity for training and consulting.
Fortunately for those who remain stuck, fellow members of the Blackboard community have proven essential survival allies.
Blackboard Open Content
Content repositories are still a promising avenue for the LMS. To the cadre of content partnerships, including subject-matter specific providers with LMS vendors and partners, for a few years now the debate on educational resources is warped by OER.
Blackboard Open Content is set to be decommissioned on December 31st, 2019.
Along with the LMS, Blackboard Collaborate could be considered the other flagship product, and possibly Blackboard’s best technological advantage. It is a real-time video conferencing solution featuring expected goodies like file sharing, whiteboard and so on, seamlessly integrated across the LMS. It is a head-to-head contest with open source counterpart BigBlueButton towards the “one-click virtual classroom.”
One of the only few automation tools available across LMS, and one that’s surprisingly hidden across marketing materials. It allows admins, and sometimes regular users, to create and schedule tasks comprised of several steps which are often performed in the same scope or regularity. It also allows for code scripting for higher control of workflows. For unclear reasons, automation has been a failing subject across LMS systems, and for once BOLMS subverts the trope.
Conduit provides a comprehensive set of workflows, many presets which can be customizable, including:
- User and course management: Creation, enrollment, update and deletion.
- Data upload using plain text or CSV files.
- Compatibility with RESTful APIs, which provide a simplified, yet secure method to interact with other applications and platforms.
- Course templating
- Detailed logging and email notification
According to its spec page, Conduit has been responsible for over 100,000 automated user creations and “up to one million course enrollments.”
Personalized Learning Designer (PLD)
Along with Conduit, this is another one of what are arguably BOLMS hidden gems, and innovation drivers found nowhere else in the LMS space. PLD is the closest solution there is to a planning and envisioning tool for course and instructional design.
There is reason for hope, as PLD development seems ongoing. Not only that, it integrates next-gen features such as a smart assistant, and even some automation. Based on historical data, it can deploy full courses and implementation settings to go along, including beginning-to-end notifications, assessments and retention checks, all the way to course completion reports.
If only it was better marketed, and available beyond BOLMS…
Accessibility (What happened to Ally?!)
Perhaps the most heart-breaking halt is Blackboard Ally, a platform-agnostic, award-winning solution that makes accessibility a breeze. It applied machine learning to identify not only places where accessibility was missing, but how it could be fixed to comply with the current WCAG.
Now, while an Ally landing page is still up, most of the information about Ally has been dismantled, including a comprehensive video tutorial playlist. Development, however, is ongoing on the Ally User Group, and BOLMS leverages Moodle’s own work on accessibility and WCAG compliance.
Third party apps: Mahara, IntelliBoard, SafeAssign
Partnerships or in-house abilities have allowed BOLMS to integrate key services, often the leaders on their respective fields.
Mahara (ePortfolio, Open Source)
Mahara is an Open Source portfolio solution whose main premise is “smart evidence.” It is the most popular ePortfolio solution, the most modern and well-featured.
IntelliBoard (Learning Analytics and Reporting)
The de facto learning analytics solutions for the top LMS, including a Moodle Premium Integrator status, is available as seamless integration for BOLMS customers.
The BOLMS specs page provides a good enough walk-through of its main features and visualizations. It is interesting to note that, at least on a basic level, IntelliBoard and X-Ray can be considered as direct competitors. IntelliBoard’s availability is at odds with Blackboard’s “walled garden” motive, yet it is a benefit for the BOLMS user.
Launched with BOLMS 3.3, SafeAssign is one of the most comprehensive plagiarism solutions in the market, and one that provides a more constructive take on the process of examining originality in student work. Technically owned by Blackboard, its original team and technology seem to have been kept at bay, and therefore its development continues.
SafeAssign is promoted as a plagiarism as much as an educational tool. Unlike other tools seemingly ready to punish, SafeAssign’s “Originality Report” highlight areas of focus which become opportunities for further argumentation and proper citation.
BOLMS also adds a series of services which help customers make sense of the offering and ease the process of migration, often from platforms provided by Blackboard itself but that are no longer supported.
- Course conversion: From other LMS, as well as WebCT and ANGEL (acquired by Blackboard). Batch conversion is also available
- App Branding Service: Equivalent to the Moodle Branded app
- Competency-Based Education
Solution: Flipped Classroom
There is no denying that at its peak, Blackboard was the epicenter of technological solutions at the heart of the LMS. Still to this day, a couple of features across BOLMS are the envy of a few Moodlers. At least until its finally provided there.
Flipped Classroom is one example. It was no mean a Blackboard creation, most likely a customer request. After the spread of educational videos, primarily on YouTube, flipped classroom started to feature in academic reporting and across progressive campuses. It would not become a mainstream LMS request until a few years ago.
BOLMS provides a flipped classroom using Collaborate, X-Ray and BOC
Solution: Implementation Packages
They include access to the platform and varying levels of human interaction, from “two Q&A sessions” with a BOLMS expert (“Foundations” package) to “face-to-face meetings, several guidance sessions and three Q&As” (“Enterprise” package).