Blackboard Inc. Buys Moodlerooms and NetSpot, With Eye Toward Open Source

Blackboard Inc., the largest in a crowded field of learning management system (LMS) providers, is getting larger. The Washington, D.C.-based company announced today that it has acquired Moodlerooms, of Baltimore, and NetSpot, of Australia, two LMS providers whose products are built off of the Moodle platform. Terms were not disclosed.

This is strange news— Blackboard’s academic platforms CEO Ray Henderson admitted as much in a lengthy blog post—because Moodle is both open source and free for users, while Blackboard is a paid, proprietary product. Moodle, based in Perth, Australia, is a popular, though higher-maintenance alternative to Blackboard because of its cost and because it can be used to build more robust software.

Moodlerooms and Netspot are examples of that robust software. They are paid services, but use the open-source Moodle platform to provide a wider range of learning management tools for users, so district and school-based IT departments don’t have to do it themselves. Basically, through this purchase, Blackboard will be offering products built off its competitor. The company can now offer an LMS for customers who aren’t interested in using Blackboard’s LMS.

Blackboard—which was purchased last year by privately-held Providence Equity Partners for $1.6 billion—is also announcing a deeper foray into the open education resources (OER) movement, by establishing its Education Open Source Services group, which will offer essentially the same services as Moodlerooms and NetSpot.

The announcement was initially met with skepticism by the ed-tech community on social media. George Siemens, who blogs at elearnspace.org and works at Technology Enhanced Knowledge Research Institute at Athabasca University, in Canada, suggests the move shows Blackboard’s lack of confidence in the future success of its own product.

“Why, if you’ve spent years promoting your platform as the best one for complex implementations, do you suddenly start hosting an open source alternative?” he wrote.

As we’ve reported in the past, Blackboard’s products are comprehensive, but they aren’t cheap, running upwards of $75,000, according to this 2008 Education Week story. If Siemens is right, this may be Blackboard’s attempt to corner a thriftier market without lowering the prices of its flagship products.

Ed-tech blogger Audrey Watters isn’t sure Blackboard is embracing the open source movement, but instead stymieing it under the guise of support.
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Blackboard seemed to anticipate this reaction. Products like Moodlerooms and NetSpot are official Moodle Partners, which contribute services or money, or both, to Moodle. That arrangement will continue, according to Blackboard’s announcement. Blackboard, Moodlerooms, and NetSpot executives also met with Moodle CEO Martin Dougiamas in Australia to discuss the move. He even contributed a quote to the press release that, it’s worth noting, isn’t as ecstatic as most press release quotes.

“The decision of Moodlerooms and NetSpot to work under Blackboard may sound very strange at first to anyone in this industry,” said Dougiamas, “but it’s my understanding that these three companies have some good plans and synergies.”

Henderson and Blackboard CEO Michael Chasen also wrote a letter explaining the move to the open education content community. In his blog post, Henderson acknowledged the potential criticism, but didn’t address it head-on. He said the move allows Blackboard, which also offers collaborative learning and analytics tools, to become an even-more comprehensive “education solutions provider.”

“Our announcements today are motivated by a belief that we can contribute positively to these projects in the eyes of the community, while still building viable businesses around them,” Henderson wrote.

How large that business grows, and how Blackboard’s new and old customers are affected by that growth, will have big implications on the open education movement.

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