Blackboard, the Metallica of e-learning
Blackboard, the owner of WebCT, the cumbersome monolith of Learning Management Systems, has been granted a patent on the very idea of merging email, web, chat software and secure hierarchical access into a single enterprise system, for use in training or education. Having been granted the patent in the US, Blackboard promptly sued its rival Desire2Learn, claiming that the latter owes them royalties.
Surprise! Academics, including myself, are furious. ABC News has a good summary of the instant, hostile reaction by the academic community, an extensive Wikipedia entry has been assembled on the prior art of Virtual Learning Environments – arguing that key inventions in the field, including the development of the original Blackboard system at Cornell University, firmly belong to the intellectual commons and have been developed for decades in an environment fostered by public funding.
It’s possible that Blackboard’s case may hold water, in the context of US patent law, and that there is no need to worry about a shrinking of the commons and suffocation of innovation because of litigious private corporations sucking all the intellectual property out of the public realm by patenting innovations pioneered and utilized in publicly funded education.
But that’s beside the point.
Academics are notoriously touchy about the privatization of public good – in particular when that public good takes the form of widespread ideas, processes and practices. Acting with unusual speed for a university, Oklahoma State University has voted with its feet and is now dropping Blackboard/WebCT and migrating all courses over to Desire2Learn’s system, in protest. I would not be surprised if others followed suit.
Why? Because Blackboard is learning what Metallica learned years ago when they became the litigious poster boys for the music industry’s war on file-sharing: Alienate your customers at your own risk. In this case, Blackboard looks like a monopoly trying to squash competition and innovation across the entire field of education.
The vehemence of the response to Blackboard’s patent is instructive. It’s not that a previously popular company has now made one misstep: Blackboard was already unpopular for pursuing a monopoly on Learning Management Systems in higher education by buying up its competitors rather than competing on grounds of usability, innovation and flexibility.
Ultimately, the reason for the hostility towards Blackboard is that they appear to teachers the world over to be trying to colonize part of the toolbox of pedagogy itself. Academics know that there is no real distinction between conventional learning and e-learning, because the two are hybridized in practice all the time. Therefore, Blackboard’s move looks like an attempt to privatize pedagogical techniques that teachers had assumed belonged to the greater educational commons.
Now excuse me, I need to go file a patent on this brilliant new invention of mine – it’s called a “seminar”…