Can Blackboard patent online learning?

Image from noblackboard.org.
Image from noblackboard.org.

A lot of schools use a “learning management system” called Blackboard to make course materials and registration functions available online. If you’ve ever used Blackboard, though, you know that it’s like a magic portal back to 1999.

Blackboard’s design is truly hideous (frames everywhere!), the options for customizing course sites are dismal, and the interface makes even the simplest functions baffling. (Google “I hate Blackboard” for some entertaining commentary.) The City University of New York recently got an object lesson in Blackboard’s shortcomings when the system crashed and burned, paralyzing CUNY’s online functions.

Anyway, awesome news! Blackboard apparently believes — with some backing from the U.S. Patent Office — that it is the originator and patentholder of the Learning Management System (LMS). (“LMS” is what online-eduction types call the software for organizing and delivering online course material.) More specifically, Blackboard believes that it is the originator of “a course-management system where a single user with a single log-on could have multiple roles across multiple classes.” So fervently does Blackboard believe this that it successfully sued a competitor, Desire2Learn, for patent infringement.

There are ongoing challenges to the lawsuit and to the patent itself. Most recently, Desire2Learn offered to donate a million dollars to non-profit educational institutions if Blackboard agreed to drop its suit.

Many schools are so grossed out by Blackboard that they’re looking at alternatives, including open-source LMSs. Two major open-source alternatives are Sakai and Moodle. Yale uses Sakai and it’s okay — certainly better than Blackboard. It’s not clear how Blackboard’s lawsuit will affect Sakai and Moodle, but at least some people believe that Blackboard’s patent is bad news for Sakai, Moodle, and other LMSs.

Blackboard is baaaaaad, and this seems like a classic case of free-market economics: companies should not have monopolies, because the products they put out will be crappy and expensive.

I’m intrigued by some fairly heated bloggy arguments that LMSs in general are just wrongheaded. (If you’re interested, “edupunk” is the appropriate buzzword to Google.) LMS opponents argue that the platforms needlessly privilege top-down, closed-access models of learning. These opponents favor more piecemeal approaches, in which educators cobble together wikis, blogs, and content-delivery software that meet their own needs.

I like the anarchic spirit of these arguments, but I think it’s delusional to expect most professors to develop their own solutions to online content. I don’t think an LMS is necessarily bad, but I do believe most of the existing options are abysmal. And heavy-handed corporate control of LMSs make them even abysmal-er.

For the last class I taught, at the University of Rhode Island, I obediently used Blackboard, but I’d definitely come up with my own (probably WordPress-based) solution if someone tried to make me use Blackboard again. That may be moot, though, since URI has switched to Sakai.

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