I don’t know how many of you are interested in higher-ed IT issues, but this is a really provocative situation. To sum up: there used be two major corporations in the course management systems (CMS) game, Blackboard and WebCT. There are also many smaller companies and open-source initiatives providing similar products and services. The U of I has been a customer of WebCT, supported by my group, since 1997 or so; a few years ago, we started supporting Blackboard as well, upon the request of a college that had been using it and found the cost of supporting it too high.
It ended up being inefficient to support two systems, so a couple of years ago, we initiated a process to settle on a single system. We expected it to be either WebCT or Blackboard, since it was a cross-campus decision and those were the products our users were familiar with, but in the interest of making a well-informed decision, we opened the RFP to other companies as well.
Much to most people’s surprise, including our own, we ended up choosing Desire2Learn, a young Canadian company. The product isn’t perfect, but it’s a lot better than WebCT and Blackboard in a lot of important ways.
Shortly after we made that decision, we heard the news that Blackboard had acquired WebCT. Giant 2 consumed Giant 1, and now Blackboard has something like 90% of the CMS market.
Earlier this summer, at the Desire2Learn conference no less, we learned that Blackboard had been granted a patent, and Blackboard subsequently sued Desire2Learn for infringing upon it.
The patent is extremely broad; I won’t go into the details here, but it basically patents course management systems as we know them, the paradigm used by WebCT and all the little companies, including Desire2Learn.
This ignited an uproar in the higher ed IT community, not only because its groundwork is shaky, but because it goes against the spirit of collaboration so prevalent in the academia. It has the potential to ruin Desire2Learn, which is a small company that could be financially destroyed by a drawn-out lawsuit. It also makes other small companies nervous, and it makes people disinclined to innovate for fear of litigation.
EDUCAUSE is an organization dedicated to furthering technological advances in higher ed; they generally keep their noses out of vendor squabbles, so it’s extremely notable that they took a position on this issue.
Read their letter to Blackboard. It’s effing scathing (at least by polite standards).