I can't think of another education company that seems to elicit such a vitriolic response as does Blackboard. Ask students. Ask professors. Ask administrators. Ask journalists. Blackboard -- fairly or not -- is often cited as the premier example of how education technology is frustratingly outmoded and ridiculously overpriced. And the LMS is often pointed to as one of the unfortunate ways in which academic content is siloed and sealed off from public access.

But Blackboard made an interesting announcement today, one for which the company seems to be earning some applause. Blackboard says that it's launching a series of initiatives to provide greater support through its platform for open educational resources (OER).

A Chink in the Wall?

The change will allow instructors to publish and share their courses -- syllabi, handouts, and so on -- under a Creative Commons Attribution license (CC BY). This will mean that, for the first time, content in Blackboard will be available to those who aren't registered for a course -- learners not enrolled, learners not on campus. Professors will be able to share their material to Facebook and Twitter.

Yes, Blackboard is adding a "share" button.

Currently, the "share" functionality only works with CourseSites, Blackboard's new, free cloud-based service used for creating course websites. The company says that similar support will come soon to Blackboard Learn, its main LMS offering.

Blackboard also says that it's revising its policies so that institutions that do open up their course materials this way don't incur any additional licensing costs when people access the materials, even via webinars and the like. That means non-traditional, non-enrolled, non-revenue generating students will be able to access the material as "guests" without forcing schools to pay more.

The Challenges of OER -- Beyond the LMS

But addressing licensing fees is just one piece of what will have to be a much larger effort in higher education to support OER on campuses. While we can point the finger at the technology infrastructure provided by Blackboard for preventing open access, it's still the case that many universities themselves have chosen to embrace a closed approach to content. They've opted for Blackboard's services because it offers a walled garden.

As MIT OpenCourseWare's External Relations Director Stephen Carson notes on his own blog, there are still a lot of questions that schools must address. "Sharing educational content is much more complicated that simply clicking the new 'Share' button," he writes. How will universities handle the licensing of courses? Is it up to individual faculty? Will universities devise larger strategies to connect their open course content to other online efforts -- both on their own campuses and alongside others?

Free and Open, Round Two

Blackboard's news comes less than a week after Pearson's announcement of "OpenClass," its own allegedly "free" and "open" LMS. While "OpenClass" seemed to be a shot across the bow of Blackboard, it now seems as though Blackboard has fired back, claiming, as InsideHigherEd suggests in its headline this morning, that it's "opener than thou.

While OpenClass reeks of marketing-speak with its usage of the "free" and "open" adjectives, Blackboard's news does have the imprimatur of Creative Commons to lend it credence.

But in both cases, one still should look closely at the model behind these two giants' offerings. Even with the promise of a free LMS or open content, there are real costs here.

Remember too: there are plenty of free and open alternatives that have been long making it possible for professors to share their course material openly online. Like, ya know, WordPress.

Audrey Watters


Hack Education

The History of the Future of Education Technology

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