Educause Chides Blackboard

In January of this year, Blackboard, maker of a very popular courseware suite, obtained a patent [pdf] from the U.S. Patent Office for what is described in the abstract in part as:

A system and methods for implementing education online by providing institutions with the means for allowing the creation of courses to be taken by students online, the courses including assignments, announcements, course materials, chat and whiteboard facilities and the like, all of which are available to the students over a network such as the Internet.

The genius must be in the details, because there doesn’t seem to be much that’s novel or unique here — and indeed: there are 41 “claims” and 41 “drawing sheets” attached.

Six months after acquiring the patent, Blackboard sued a Canadian competitor, Desire2Learn, for patent infringement; Desire2Learn defended on the basis that the patent was invalid and unenforceable because there was a lot of “prior art.”The University of Calgary student newspaper, the Gauntlet, has a decent story setting out the basic facts. That suit is still ongoing, and each company has material on its website to let you follow the litigationBlackboard has a small amount of information; but Desire2Learn has detailed info and the documents themselves. — a bonus for law school courses involving patent litigation, I would think.

On Friday, EDUCAUSE“EDUCAUSE is a nonprofit association whose mission is to advance higher education by promoting the intelligent use of information technology.” According to the letter it has 2000 college and university members and 200 corporate members. weighed in with a strong letter to Blackboard urging them to give up their patent. The letter is available on InsideHigherEd.com. A paragraph or two will give you the sense:

One of our concerns is that you may not fully appreciate the depth of the consternation this action has caused for key members of our community. Among those who have been most directly involved in the development and evolution of course management systems—customers whom Blackboard has relied upon for ideas and advice—these concerns are most pronounced. Their anger over the law suit is so intense that many are simply not communicating with Blackboard. We have seen this intensity of anger only a few times before. In those cases, the corporations involved were unaware of what was happening outside their official channels. Please do not underestimate this consternation which we believe will impact Blackboard in both the short- and the long-term.

There are two core tenets behind the community concern. One deals with co-creation and ownership; the other deals with innovation. Course management systems were developed by the higher education community, which includes academics, organizations, and corporations. Ideas were freely exchanged, prototypes developed, and refinements continue to be made… Our community has participated in the creation of course management systems. A claim that implies this community creation can be patented by one organization is anathema to our culture.

The other core tenet is to promote innovation. The free exchange of ideas fosters innovation. The open sharing of ideas does not preclude commercialization or profiting from ideas. Innovation is critical to the higher education community and it is critical to corporations. Blackboard has espoused the importance of listening to customers as its source of innovation. This law suit will certainly have a chilling effect on the open sharing of ideas in our community….

Blackboard has thus far refused to do what EDUCAUSE has asked.

Blackboard recently acquired another courseware company, WebCTThe WebCT site says: “Better together. As part of the merger of WebCT and Blackboard, we have combined our websites. All content is now on Blackboard.com.”, also Canadian, as it happens, giving Blackboard a near monopoly in the market.

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Comments

  1. The irony is that WEBCT was developed at UBC and was originally free to other academic institutions – it was spun off into a commercial product by the UBC technology transfer office.