Friday, July 14, 2006


I am now back from the WebCT Users conference, one day before it has concluded. I’ve got some meetings on campus today that I can’t miss so I left the conference early. I don’t want to do business with the Blackboard company in my blog; that doesn’t seem appropriate. But because I wrote the earlier post about current thinking on the LMS and because there are a variety of readers of my posts, I thought I’d give some snapshots of impressions I got from the conference.

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Something novel that Blackboard is trying, which seems interesting and potentially quite useful is the work Peter Segall is doing interviewing college presidents and provosts about their views of institutional pressure points on educating students today. This is preliminary work before doing any sort of connect the dots exercise that shows the LMS can address these issues and, indeed, perhaps the LMS in its current structure can’t do this well. But it might paint the environment well enough to offer a way to frame the strategic direction the LMS developers need to follow. The other big point is that it might help to create an environment where the presidents and provosts want to talk with the CIOs (and perhaps also the Learning Technology Directors like me) about matching what we are doing with technology to support learning with the environment in which our students live and operate.

I don’t want to go over the deep end on this sort of thing, because I think there is a chasm between the CIOs and these other campus leaders and I don’t believe it will be so easy to close that, at least on big campuses such as mine, and while we inside the learning technology area clearly view the LMS as strategic in support of the campus mission, I’m skeptical on whether that is perceived to be the case by the Presidents or Provosts, unless online learning is a key part of the institutional mission. I’ve repeatedly expressed this view in an Educause group that I’ve worked on dealing with the next generation of IT leaders. However, it is interesting to see efforts to narrow this gap and it is sensible to me that this happen in a systemic way outside the situation of any particular campus.

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Here’s a little bit about communications between Blackboard and us and how that went and where it needs to go. First, I’d encourage those at the company who are so inclined to read my post Killing The Puppy. It has absolutely nothing to do with the LMS. It is about teaching very bright students and how to communicate with them when they are learning. Without too much modification, I think it translates well into how I would like to see the communications between us and the company. We did have some frank talk the last couple of days. But there also was a lot of patting the puppy. I understand there needs to be some of this, especially in a corporate setting where there is a need to promote and market the product and what they are doing next. But that can’t be the extent of it.

My sense of good communications it that there develops a strong yet implicit understanding of what the other wants and needs to know. Absent that, information is transmitted that is potentially interesting and important, but whether it is received well and understood and digested properly is an entirely other matter. Here is an example.

In talking about the merger back at Educause last October the point was made that the merged entity would benefit from pooling the respective strengths of the two companies. Over the last couple of days I heard at least twice about how Vista customers would benefit from Blackboard’s significant investment in testing and engineering and how in the migration of Blackboard 6 to Blackboard 7 they were able to get that migration down from a matter of days to a matter of hours. That clearly was an object of pride for Blackboard and it does sound like an impressive accomplishment. But is it relevant for the Vista customers who are migrating from version 3 to version 4, sometime in the next year or so? I wasn’t sure. I chatted with some other Vista customers about this and their impression was clearly that their own migration, perhaps a year from now, would be a matter of days.

Michael Chasen, CEO of Blackboard, made the point repeatedly that once we’re all in the Vista 4 environment, there won’t be further migrations for quite a while with their application pack and service pack strategy the alternative – smaller updates a la installs of updates in the Microsoft OS that are individually more gradual and less disruptive. That is all well and good but it still leaves me asking about when and where the benefit from the Blackboard testing and engineering environment will be received. To conclude on this point, I believe I heard what was said on this matter but I did not completely understand why I should care about it. The communication on this score was earnest, but it still could be improved beyond that.

I think this cuts both ways and that I (and quite possibly my peers at other institutions) need to learn as well how to send messages that we think are important to the company, so these messages are not just received but fully digested as well. Let me be clear about this, because I’m confident that I write and talk in an understandable way. The issue for me is how planned the communication must be and how repeatedly the same points must be made. It’s July now. Say we have some conference calls before Educause in late September. How much of what we talked about the past couple of days must be replayed intact in September? I don’t have a sense of that. In the customer is always right world the vendor may be reluctant to critique the customer’s message, but with a mutually agreed upon belief that there needs to be continual dialog, some of this is necessary. After all, we’re puppies too.

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Speaking about a planned approach versus being more spontaneous in support of learning, I had an interesting conversation with a colleague at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands, who has a parallel position to mine. We covered a variety of topics during a cocktail party Wednesday night. The one I want to focus on here is the issue of whether the back end support for learning management systems such as WebCT Vista should reside in a unit that focuses exclusively on systems in support of learning or if it should be supported along with other big IT applications, for example, email. Of course, there are arguments on both sides of this, but since recently we’ve gone the other way it was interesting for me to hear him talk about the value of having this support in a unit that focuses on learning. The key issue is how priorities are set and how the tradeoff between enhancing purely back end functionality – redundancy and self-insurance, monitoring and sizing of the cluster, policies for change management, etc. – versus expanding the scope of offerings that promote learning, for example through Powerlinks partners or homegrown enhancements or additional tools that Blackboard has to offer. This is not a static, one time question but an on going concern that determines what will be done next and the pace at which this will occur. It was very useful for me to hear the other point of view on this.

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