Higher Education

the black angel rises

If you follow such news, it is likely that you've already heard that Blackboard has acquired Angel. If not, you can read about it in Inside Higher Ed or at Blackboard. There are also some early blogs at eLiterate and EdTechPodcast. There is also a running discussion on Twitter #bbplusangel.

My current institution, Cortland, moved from WebCT to Blackboard after that merger. My new institution, UBuffalo, uses Blackboard. For purposes as an individual faculty member, an institutional CMS is just an overinflated grade book. I don't use it for anything else. I find it difficult to imagine that I would. Instead, I use a constellation of free or cheap social media applications–twitter, ning, pbworks (aka pbwiki) and so on. My basic thought on the matter is this: no one company is going to out innovate the web.

However at UB I will not just be an individual faculty member. Eventually I'll be taking on the role of directing the composition program, and one of the things we will certainly be doing is addressing the use of technology across the program. As I see it, there are two primary reasons for a CMS.

  1. Faculty lack the knowledge, skills, time, and/or interest to kludge together their own online learning environment (not that it takes much of the first three as long as you have the interest, imho).
  2. Institutions like uniformity for any number of reasons (e.g. support, assessment, accreditation, marketing).

Because of reason #2 we will not soon see a time when a university does not have a CMS of some kind. For reason #1, it may be some time before a critical mass of faculty become concerned about the choices the institution makes. But faculty in general are not well-enough educated about technology to understand what is at stake. Imagine a university trying one of the following analogous policies.

  • From now on, faculty can only order textbooks from Pearson.
  • The campus will be redesigned so every classroom looks the same, and all the desks will be bolted to the floor.

Now, one might complain that Blackboard offers more flexibility than either of these scenarios, but relative to the potential flexibiity out there, I would contend this is a fair analogy. In fact, I would suggest that one of the features of a CMS that attracts institutions is that they do reduce faculty choice and flexibilty by creating standardization.

But it's only academic freedom, right? Why would anyone care about that?

While that may seem like a key issue, there's really a more important lesson to be learned from this merger. The uniform story about this merger is that Angel was great with customer support and Blackboard is horrible with it. Clearly though the market dictates the limits of Anglel's commitment to its customers. Any Ed Tech corporation is ultimately going to do what it imagines/hopes will be most profitable. Now maybe you want to also imagine/hope that Blackboard's interests in profit, our students' interests, faculty interests, and university interests run the same course… yeah, right. Clearly that was not the case with today's news. I don't think anyone outside these corporations' PR departments really believes that having fewer CMS options will make online learning better.

So the lesson for universities (and faculty) ought to be a cautionary tale about relying on a dwindling number of corporations to provide an increasingly indispensable feature of higher education.

My dream resolution to all this is a proliferation of standards-driven, interoperable  new media applications produced by a mixture of corporate, academic, and open source communities… and a savvy university and faculty committed to maintaing a flexible virtual space that extends from the classroom through university service to scholarship. I don't know how we get there but I'm pretty sure it begins with significant faculty development, starting with graduate education, and that we don't get there by putting all our resources into a single corporation whether that's Blackboard or anyone else.