Jeff Longland

Relax, don't worry – have a home brew!

A Call to Blackboard Openness

with 7 comments

Blackboard needs to be more open.  You might think: “But Jeff!  Look at everything they’ve done in the last 18-24 months.”  I don’t want to diminish Blackboard’s recent efforts towards being open and transparent.  But I want more!

Later today, Ray Henderson will present his annual report card for Blackboard Learn.  I expect there will be good grades for Blackboard’s efforts towards openness.  In recent years, Blackboard has adopted client crowdsourcing to prioritize bugs and product enhancements.  They’ve converted Dr. Chuck into a Blackboard believer by shipping releases with support for IMS Common Cartridge, LIS, and LTI – enough for Chuck to get a Blackboard tattoo.  Product development programs are numerous and open (at least for clients who have joined BIE and signed an NDA).  These are considerable steps towards a product strategy that embraces client engagement, standards, and openness.  Clients have a voice and can influence product development.  It’s the direction of a company that is realizing they don’t need to rely on vendor lock-in.  I see it as Blackboard welcoming client input and competition in the marketplace – people choose to run Learn.  You can debate the lack of alternatives and Blackboard’s acquisition strategy – but institutions are choosing Blackboard.

As someone who has been critical and outspoken about Blackboard in the past, I need to give credit where credit is due.  Kudos!  You’ve come a long way in recent years.  But dear Blackboard, don’t rest on your laurels.  You’re heading in the right direction, but there’s more you can do.  More that you need to do.  As someone who works with the product and community on a regular basis, I want to lay out some suggestions….  maybe Ray will look at these as goals for next year’s report card.

  1. Extend the availability of the Building Blocks framework.  Currently, only clients or partners can develop Building Blocks.  This is contrary to all the marketing buzz about Blackboard’s “Open APIs” and how Building Blocks can be an open source layer on top of a closed source product.  If there’s a significant barrier to entry, I’m sorry, that seems more closed than it does open.  Yesterday, Szymon Machajewski tweeted a suggestion that Blackboard make Building Blocks freely available to developers releasing their work under open source licenses.  A suggestion of this value should not be discarded – I strongly support it.  Such a move would embrace the innovation that can come from an open community.  One needs to look no further than Moodle to see that openness can be immensely successful.  While Blackboard owns the marketplace, I think the Moodle and Sakai communities own many edtech hearts.  But don’t fear Blackboard, you too, can be embraced in this way.  All you need to do is be more open.  So put the legal team to work and draw up some license agreements.  Let’s get the Building Blocks framework into the hands of anyone who cares to use it.
  2. Provide the source code for Learn.  Pause.  Now that the laughter and/or derision has subsided, let me explain.  A commercial product can provide source code.  Blackboard need look no further than the provider of their software development tools – Atlassian.  When you buy an Atlassian product (at a reasonable price, I might add) you receive access to the source code.  The intent is to allow clients to develop bug fixes, customizations, or new features.  I vaguely recall that Penn State has an agreement with Angel/Blackboard that provides them with access to source code.  They fix bugs and ship them back to Blackboard for general release.  But….  I appreciate that this is asking a lot.  So let me reign in the scope of my request – provide the source code for the Building Blocks framework.  At DevCon11 I heard a number of developers talking about the various issues with Learn 9.1’s web services – perhaps we could help fix them?  With OSCELOT projects that expose additional web services, I think it’s clear that clients are capable of building / contributing to the framework.  Consider this an experiment in openness – the scope is limited, but the potential is huge.

While there are countless other things Blackboard could be doing to be more open, I think the above suggestions are reasonable and more than feasible.  I’m sure some folks in the company will disagree, but I’ll wager (we are in Vegas after all) that there’s support within Blackboard for these suggestions.  Hopefully these will be accomplishments to celebrate in Ray’s report card next year.


Written by jlongland

July 13, 2011 at 9:37 am

7 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. I think the big problem with BB open community is who wants to participate to help advance a company pulling in 100’s of millions per year, what is in it for a dev besides it being part of the job? The thing Moodle has going for it is a passionate community that really wants the product to be an alternative to BB so they will put the blood sweat and tears in. I believe point 2 of your post is not laughable there are products that will come out that will trump BB in the future and will be open so any school willing to “change” would have to truly question the logic behind going to a closed product. IT managers have to just think back 8-10 years ago to when Linux was a scary concept to grasp… a LMS this is infinitely less complex software than a OS kernel and the Enterprise community has now adopted variants of Linux as the default goto OS.
    MoveableType is a good example of the death by closed when 3.0 came out they were closed this lead to the creation and success of the WordPress community where is MT now? dead.

    Staying closed slows development and leads to a passionless community no matter how hard they try. I wonder if BB “devs” feel somewhat like suckers sitting through the developer conference?

    I personally hope BB stays closed.


    July 13, 2011 at 12:07 pm

  2. Jeff – Interesting post. I do agree with your first point – I think that creating a more porous boundary between Blackboard and its community is in their best interest and will happen in time. I disagree with your second point somewhat. Simply calling for the release of source code is kind of pointless. Open Source is just a small part of an overall equation. Companies like Instructure do it from the beginning and that is good – but rest assured that there are plenty of bits that Instructure does not release. MoodleRooms has their secret sauce that does not get released. Simply getting your hands on a ZIP file with some Java code almost means nothing unless it is embedded in an open ecosystem. I am sure that the Atlassian release of their code was just a small step in an overall evolution of their culture that took many small steps. Releasing source is not a step function.

    That said, I think that it would be a cool step forward if folks who had proprietary software had forums where they could share their production experiences, good and bad. One thing good about Sakai is that our warts are on display in public lists. When someone has a crisis, we all have it with them and learn together. I understand it is scary to let those kinds of conversations happen in the open – but it is also freeing after you get used to it.

    In terms of the Tattoo – it is not just a “Blackboard” Tattoo – the Tatoo has a Sakai logo at the center circled by a ring of smaller Tatoos. The ring is a logo for each Commercial or Open Source LMS that releases a Certified Basic LTI 1.0 support in their core product (i.e. not a patch, building block or add on – part of the core code). I am staging the tattoos so my shoulder is not all healing at the same time. The first two tatoos were an IMS logo and a Blackboard logo. The next logos that will be added in the next few weeks are Desire2Learn, LearningObjects, OLAT, and Jenzabar. As best I know, Instructure has Basic LTI Consumer in their repository but no one has seen it in a release – and it is not yet certified. Also Moodle has a module (basiclti4moodle) but it is not in the core code base so Moodle is not yet eligible for a Tatoo. But we are hopeful Moodle will ship support for BLTI in 2.2 so they too will be on my shoulder.

    If Moodle and Instructure release Basic LTI, that will complete my tattoo as there are 8 slots in the “ring of compliance”.

    And then of course I will write another book and use that Tattoo as the cover of that next book.

    You can see the Sakai Tattoo without Blackboard or IMS on the cover of my current book 🙂

    Charles Severance

    July 13, 2011 at 12:44 pm

    • Thanks for the comments Chuck – feeling rather flattered that you took the time to reply. Apologies if I misrepresented your tattoos – I should have been more clear that your tattoos are in recognition of IMS Basic LTI certifications. Re-reading my post, I was naively assuming a reader with knowledge of LTI’s history and current state.

      Glad that you’re also supportive of Blackboard making Building Blocks freely available to OSS developers. I understand from George Kroner that this is in the works.

      With regards to my second point about providing source code for the Building Blocks framework (or specific components like web services) – I want to draw a distinction between providing source code and open source. I see the two as fundamentally different. Releasing source code doesn’t make a product open source. My point is that Blackboard can cultivate a richer developer community by allowing developers to contribute and grow the framework. A specific example, as I gave, is that developers could fix some of the current bugs that Blackboard has been slow to resolve. Beyond that example, I can see this allowing for an enhanced debugging experience. Depending on the implementation, it might even allow opportunities for developers to enhance the framework.

      I’m in complete agreement regarding the sharing of experiences in the proprietary software world. It’s something I love about the Moodle and Sakai communities – everything is out in the open. There are some similar groups in the Blackboard world, but it’s not widespread. I co-facilitate the BbSWAT user group (formerly VistaSWAT). Every other week, we meet in a Wimba room to collectively share and work through our problems. We also have a mailing list that fills the gap between our regular meetings. I’ve observed some reluctance in new participants – as you noted, it’s scary to be open. But once/if they realize the benefits, they embrace it.

      I’ve had some conversations this week about how we can make this a more widespread experience for Blackboard clients. I’d like to fold BbSWAT into the TechBUG – I think our bi-weekly meetings could be the basis for TechBUG ‘office hours’ to supplement their scheduled webinars. If you have thoughts on how to further this sort of openness, I’m all ears.


      July 14, 2011 at 2:04 pm

  3. There is a set of motivators for developers to get engaged in extending Blackboard Learn via building blocks. Many shadow the motivators of programmers who support open source in general. Even if majority of B2 developers are Blackboard Learn clients, the reasons are strong.

    1. Community recognition and building references for professional portfolio.
    2. Recognition by host organization peers and leaders.
    3. Peer review of building blocks code via OSCELOT (improvements in security, performance, testing, functionality etc)
    4. Building up of a developer’s self-confidence. Much has been written about best programmers thinking little of themselves which holds them back in business ventures. In the economy where “talkers” not “doers” gain power, developers often find themselves in politically charged environment. The value of their contribution validated by other organizations is an important factor.
    5. Filling the gap between the custom needs of the local organization and the delivered functionality in Blackboard Learn is of great business value. Developers are motivated to pursue this value.
    6. Engineers or GUI Bb Learn administrators often find it as an opportunity to migrate into Java development via building blocks. The OSCELOT community and introduce individuals to programming. In general developers have more employment options and are better paid then system administrators or engineers (check This creates an audience for contributors.

    • Thanks for the comments Szymon – I’ve been meaning to reply to SM for a few weeks. SM certainly has a point that developers are contributing to Blackboard’s bottom line, but in a round-about way, the same could be said for contributors to any Linux-related project. There are countless companies that benefit financially from open source contributions.

      There are certainly times when I’ve been working on Blackboard-related projects and all I can do is shake my head, wondering why I’m working on XYZ. But you’re right, there are a number of reasons to contribute. Many of which are intrinsic to the developer him/herself – motivation to fill gaps, desire to build something, improving one’s abilities, etc.

      At the end of the day, we all can’t work on open source products. Without going on a rant about capitalism, it’s inevitable that programmers will have to work on closed-source or closed-community projects. So… we make the best of the situation.


      August 19, 2011 at 10:14 am

  4. Here is a great review of what motivates developers to contribute:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: