Blackboard's patently bad idea

Reports across the net on Blackboard’s patent and recent lawsuit. If you read the patent itself it claims ownership over the notion of "a course-based system for providing to an educational community of users access to a plurality of online courses." To read the patent you’d basically get the sense that Blackboard believes they invented the notion of online education and that any type of online course offered is going to fall under their patent. With any luck this ridiculous claim will fall flat, meanwhile a few observations on why this was a bad idea, even from their own perspective.

1. Though increasing numbers of faculty may be entering the area of online education, the practice is still heavily reliant upon a small number of faculty. They are the early adopters who then turn around and evangelize for technology, encourage campus support for new technologies, and support other faculty in taking that first step. On my campus, you’d be talking about a dozen or so faculty. Our campus has used Web CT (bought up by Blackboard last year).

Why would I, or any of these faculty, invest our time in learning or developing practices within a strictly proprietary environment that is wholly counter not only to the principles of academic freedom but also to the potential of global communication. After all, this is roughly analogous to giving some publisher a patent for textbooks!

2. Technology education is currently a field of scholarly investigation. Developments in online pedagogy rely upon such research. This far-reaching patent would essentially put an end to any research in online pedagogy. Why research new cooking recipes when you’ll be sued if you make anything but a Big Mac?

3. There may be a lot of money to be made in the area of online education, but not by teachers. It may be the case that many faculty are unaware of Blackboard’s patent claims or haven’t thought through the implications. However, when this situation is properly presented as an infringement on academic freedom, I think there will be a significant response. Specifically, it is difficult, if not impossible in most cases, to require faculty to teach online. If the choice is between Blackboard and not being online then we must not offer online courses.

However, I do not think we need to make this choice. Instead, perhaps Blackboard’s patent is the evil impetus to move us away from a "course-based system" of "online courses:" the bad idea that they want to claim as their fundamental intellectual property.

What happens if I establish a wiki, not associated with any particular course or even necessarily with my college? I let anyone create an account and participate on the wiki.  I might post material on the wiki and require my students to read it, just as I might ask students to read material on other websites. I might require students to add to the wiki. But it wouldn’t be a course-based wiki. That is, it wouldn’t be created for a course. It wouldn’t start and end with the course. The participants on the wiki would not be limited to students registered in the course. It wouldn’t even be limited to members of the college community.

Similarly, I have this blog. I use it for a number of purposes that have no direct relation to the courses I teach. I’ve been running it for a couple years now. If I invite my students to post here, does it suddenly become a course-based website. I don’t think so.

This is the direction in which we need to head anyway, away from the "course-centric" philosophy of "management" systems. Indeed the whole notion of courses and course-credit is atavistic anyway, left over from a time when formal learning was restricted to limited times and spaces. Yes, I suppose we are still in that "time," but we are also one foot out from under it.

In my view, the very fact that Blackboard’s claim begins and ends on the notion of the course is testament to their lack of vision and innovative thinking. Unfortunately higher education has long demonstrated an equal inability to innovate, but perhaps it doesn’t have to stay that way.

2 thoughts on “Blackboard's patently bad idea

Add yours

  1. Interesting notion you have here, but…..
    To do such a thing would require a certain stepping back from the concept of the discrete course , not just online, but as a whole.
    Like it or not, the economic model of most higher education is predicated on the students paying for discrete courses, which, if completed successfully, result in the granting of credit hours. Collect enough credit hours and receive a nice marketable degree.
    Now let’s take that same paragraph and substitute.
    Like it or not, the economic model of most children’s breakfast cereal is predicated on the consumer paying for discrete boxes of cereal, which result in the granting of box tops. Collect enough box tops and receive a nice prize.
    That ought to scare all of us.
    What you suggest may be good for learning, but it would require a sea change. Also, if online resources can’t be tied to a class, how can you offer courses/credits to those who can’t/won’t come to your campus?


  2. Thanks Jason. I agree that what I suggest off-hand here would require a major change in the economics of higher education. The Blackboard fiasco is really hardly a reason for moving in such a radical direction.
    However, I do think it is important to see that the course is an arbitrary unit of organization. Like the half-hour sitcom or hour-long drama (less commericials), it’s a product of set of material constraints that no longer apply.
    The online course is the horseless carriage of 21st century academics: a remediation of FTF instruction.
    I’ll try to answer your final, important question in another post.


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