Blackboard’s World

death_starI have just finished making my flight and hotel reservations for Blackboard World 2014. I finalized these plans with a somewhat troubled heart, loathe to participate in an event that to me is a frenzied celebration of the commercialization of education,  couched as a probing, open, academic conference. Let me just come right out and say it: Blackboard®, Inc. is an easy company to hate. Once an inferior product with a sizable market share, Blackboard went on a buying spree, gobbling up smaller web service companies and absorbing them into their product ecosystem. Angel integrated with Learn. Elluminate and Wimba became Blackboard Collaborate. TerribyClever Design became the platform for Blackboard Mobile. iStrategy became Analytics. Presidium was transformed into Blackboard Student Services. Moodlerooms. The list goes on.

Over the past year, Blackboard has been civilizing the Frankenstein monster they’ve created from the spare parts of other companies, trying to build an integrated product line that can compete with some of the new upstart in the LMS market, notably Instructure’s Canvas. I’ve generally liked the direction Blackboard is headed, and how much more responsive they have been to both customer and user feedback. But, like all LMSs, no matter how good Blackboard is or becomes, it will still be a problem disguised as a solution. More on that later.

The VCCS is a big customer of Blackboard, Inc., and part of my job is to oversee our LMS, Blackboard Learn, including xpLor, and Blackboard Collaborate.  It makes sense that I should go despite how uncomfortable I feel about attending. Appropriately, the conference is being held in Las Vegas, the City of Mammon, which only adds to my sense of loathing (to reference Hunter S. Thompson). Any fascination I had for Vegas has long worn off. Regardless, the die has been cast. It’s Vegas or bust. I have been to Bb World once before, in New Orleans in 2012. I  spent most of the conference agog at the sheer monumental size of everything:  from the clamoring hordes of badged participants to the soaring spaces of the  Convention Center that seemed to stretch on for miles. I felt I was strolling through a gigantic product placement. For 2014, I have been invited to be on a panel titled Instructional Content & the LMS in which the moderator, a Bb employee, offers a rather vague description of the session: “The LMS has transformed education. It has brought traditional teaching online and has enabled a level of experience in education that was not previously possible.” You could read this in a number of ways, depending on how you define traditional teaching and level of experience.

I will use this blog to reflect on my experiences at the conference, and report on any notable announcements that Blackboard inevitably makes at these events. Until then, what are your thoughts about the various products Blackboard offers? About the LMS in general? Have you been to Bb World before? Was it a valuable experience?



  • I have never been to Blackboard World but I did just return from my second InstructureCon. Though not too far away from Las Vegas geographically, I can’t imagine a much different experience than a conference in Park City, UT. I’ve been to many conferences but InstructureCon surely has a more grassroots tone. If Blackboard World is an Armani suit, then InstructureCon is an unironed shirt and a pair of jeans. There were dozens of 30-minute sessions, mostly given by schools and mostly not commercials for Canvas. The overarching message in most sessions were, “Let me show you how our school gets the most out of our technology.” It was limited to 1,500 registrants this year but the Canvas client base is growing so fast that I don’t see how they can do that for long. Anyway, I really enjoyed it and left pretty energized. I will look forward to hearing about your thoughts on Bb World.

    • Richard Sebastian

      I think it is great that your experience at InstructureCon was so enjoyable. My I ask why you chose to go? Are you associated with an institution that is a Canvas customer, or did you go because of the agenda?

      To be fair, I am hoping to be surprised by the sessions at BbWorld. Instructure is selling itself as the hip LMS alternative (in the unironed shirt and jeans) that cares more about teaching and learning than making money. Perhaps. But like any company, they have a bottom line and it is profits. So I would have just as hard a time going to InstructureCon as BbWorld. I don’t think you can help but be influenced when you are so fully immersed in a corporate conference, even Instructure’s “non-corporate” corporate conference.

      The VCCS is already a Bb customer, so hopefully my participation will help facilitate getting more out of the many Bb products we license.

  • Richard. — I appreciate your comments about Blackboard, and I look forward to hearing about your experiences at this year’s BbWorld. I joined Blackboard about a year ago, and am proud of the changes we are making to better serve our customers, tie together our products into integrated solutions, and innovate for the good of education. If you have time, I would be happy to meet with you at the event to learn more about your experiences, both positive and negative, and how we can be a better partner to you and to VCSS. — Mark Strassman, Blackboard Product Management

    • Richard Sebastian

      Thanks for the comment Mark and I do appreciate the changes Blackboard is making. The VCCS & Bb, Inc. recently initiated quarterly discussions, which, though a long time coming, have been really helpful. I look forward to seeing you in Vegas.

  • I share your views of both Bb and Las Vegas…ground zero for pretty much everything wrong with the U.S.

    And I was (maybe) hip once, just like Canvas…but as you point out as things age they change…

    Meanwhile, we should focus more on the artificial time structure in education; there’s no need for “semesters” anymore. I mean…who knew…you can teach anything anyone needs to know in 8, 10, or 15 – week chunks. How amazing is that? We could leverage our crappy LMSs a lot more if we could just let people punch in and out when they want to. Well-designed hybrids could easily accommodate a pay as you go plan for folks.

    Good luck in Vegas…don’t take any wooden nickels.

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