Lawsuit questions Blackboard’s role in academia

A court victory for Blackboard last Monday has placed today’s market for learning management systems (LMS) in the national media spotlight. Blackboard is an electronic file transfer system for courses that allows professors and students to post and share information.

Blackboard sued a smaller competitor, Desire2Learn, for patent infringement and was awarded $3.1 million in a favorable decision by the court. The decision was based on Blackboard’s patent, one which has been largely criticized for allowing the company to monopolize approximately 80 percent of the industry, according to Inside Higher Ed.

Although Blackboard had requested $17 million, the fact that it won the case based on dozens of examples of patent infringements has prompted many questions by the LMS market regarding the role of Blackboard and other services in higher education.

The court case began the very day after Blackboard was granted its patent by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in 2006.

The patent grants Blackboard control over not only its specific items and manner of presentation but also over the ideas behind the website. Many of the ideas behind Blackboard are those claimed by all LMS companies, including class discussion boards and file sharing through digital drop boxes.

Blackboard’s acquisition of such a patent angered many members of the academic computing community, many claiming that its wording is too absolute.

“[The patent] is antithetical to the way that academia makes progress,” said Michael Feldstein, assistant director of the State University of New York’s online learning network, in Wired magazine.

Carnegie Mellon Director of the Office of Technology Education (OTE), Joel Smith, who also serves as vice provost and chief information officer, agreed with Feldstein.

“I think it unfortunate that Blackboard chose to apply for ... a very broad patent ... because of the effect of dampening innovation in the field,” Smith said.

Blackboard claimed in a press release that such a patent is necessary to “protect its $100 million investment in the technology.”

In 2005, Blackboard accounted for 60 percent of the LMS market, but the company expanded even more when it acquired its closest competitor in the market, WebCT, also in the same year.
Although Blackboard may dominate the industry, LMS companies have become increasingly popular at colleges and universities across the nation.

According to Eduventures, a Boston online-learning research company, 46 percent of classes within 90 percent of colleges utilize LMSs.

LMSs are developing at an extremely rapid rate. Though formerly limited to displaying syllabi and hosting links, LMSs are now being used to run entire classes online.

Blackboard has been Carnegie Mellon’s LMS since its adoption by the OTE in 2000.

Smith said that the computing world at Carnegie Mellon has benefited greatly since Blackboard’s introduction.

“It has been a reliable tool and heavily used on campus,” Smith said.

However, Smith also pointed out that with the technology’s rapidly changing course, challengers are emerging.

While Smith noted the reliability of Blackboard’s service, he also mentioned its lack of uniqueness.

“There is little about Blackboard that makes it special in the CMS domain in my view. Blackboard’s authorization system is important ... individual and group authorization features are special in that sense,” Smith said.

Smith said that Carnegie Mellon is open to switching from Blackboard to another LMS, but that the decision cannot be taken lightly. There is a definite need, Smith emphasized, for an online course management system.

“OTE typically gets around 1000 requests for sites each semester,” he said.

“Any transition must be done thoughtfully because it involves a substantial transfer of data and users getting accustomed to new terminology and a new interface.”

Smith noted that the switch, if made, will be an informed decision, following an extended period of consideration.

“We will have an answer in time to make decisions for the 2009–2010 academic year,” he said.