Thursday, August 03, 2006

Skinning a cat

I’ve been feeling a bit odd the last couple of days, since the news of the Blackboard Patent and the lawsuit against D2L has come out. On the one hand, since I view it necessary when dealing with a vendor for an application as big and important as a Learning Management System to treat it as a partnership and an ongoing relationship, I’ve tried earnestly to show Blackboard that we are an important and valuable customer so they will reciprocate in kind. On the other hand, I have good friends and colleagues, particularly within the CIC, at campuses that use Desire2Learn and at campuses that use Angel. Particularly the folks at the D2L campuses are feeling stress right now. I can see some bad resulting for that and I don’t see any offsetting upside.

Then, on the third hand, and I realize that’s one too many but I’m not done yet, I’m really struggling on the idea of patenting software. If you recall your Internet history, the first graphical Web browser, Mosaic, was invented here at Illinois. The university claimed ownership of the software and licensed it to a company called SpyGlass. However, the University did not patent Mosaic. (Imagine how the world would have evolved since if there had been such a patent.) So Jim Clark, the Netscape Founder, hired away many of the folks who worked on Mosaic, and they wrote new code from scratch, which became the Netscape browser. This didn’t violate copyright at all, because they didn’t copy any of the Mosaic code, but it clearly borrowed ideas from the Mosaic development. Although my campus likely would have gotten wealthier with a Mosaic patent, I can’t imagine that such a patent would have been anything but socially deleterious. So I’ll be scratching my head for a while on this one.

And finally, on the fourth hand, as a teacher I used online learning tools that temporally pre-date the CourseInfo product and that collectively had equivalent or more functionality in my estimation and as an administrator I was involved with encouraging the development of two systems, CyberProf and Mallard, that also each predate CourseInfo. I am certainly not an expert on patent law (I found this wikipedia page on patentability helpful as an entry point into patent basics). So I leave it to others to determine whether Blackboard really has a patentable invention that in particular satisfies the requirement of being “novel,” but at least from an end user/instructor’s point of view, I came to believe early on that with a sound knowledge of the functionality of the software, it can be adapted for the instructor’s purpose and indeed effective teaching with technology requires exactly that.

This is a brief chronology of my own teaching in this vein.

Spring 1995 – used a now defunct Mac based tool called Pacer Forum to coach students as they worked on homework problems. This was purely optional and only a couple of students really bought into this. But one clearly benefited from the coaching and on that basis I got hooked that there was something too this stuff.

Summer 1995 – used FirstClass in a similar way but now encouraged students more. Lecture notes were put up in FirstClass for the students to download. This was not done for pedagogy but rather as a lure to get them online. The lecture notes were put up in different file formats – Word for Mac, Word for PC, Wordperfect, etc. It was a pain. Pedagogically, used undergraduates as online TAs to help the students.

Fall 1995 – Didn’t teach undergrad course. Was preparing for the Spring.

Spring 1996 – Used FirstClass as in Summer 1995 but now had lecture notes as Web pages, so as not to mess with the various file formats. Learned the hard way that Web pages with white font and dark background print out as blank, so when to black font to handle the printing problem.

Summer 1996 – Amplified the offering in two ways that really made it look like how we want to use an LMS today. First, I used Mallard for quizzing to get students to self-teach on the basics. Second, I used FirstClass for teams of students to submit homework problems that after they were graded and returned online could be resubmitted by another member of the team so they could get a higher grade.

Fall 1996 – taught grad courses only.

Spring 1997 (this is around the time CourseInfo appeared) – Mallard now had random numbers that could be used in graphical questions --- nice. It had a grade book that I didn’t use but it allowed display of a CSV file used as a grade book where each student could see his row of scores only as well as the average scores of the class as a whole. It allowed questions within a question so that if a student got something wrong they got a hint in the form of an additional question that was for their own learning but not for the grade. Also, this semester I taught at scale (150 students plus) with this method. We continued to use FirstClass as before but now started to take advantage of the chat function there so some students got help in chat instead of via the discussion area.

I’ll stop there with my teaching history, but let me note the following. FirstClass at the time had a dedicated client. I believe the Web client came later. The organization I ran called SCALE understood the importance of the Web and in the 1996-97 academic year experimented with a Web conferencing system called WebNotes from, you guessed it, SpyGlass. It was a clunky environment and soon thereafter went under. At the time the site was experimenting with a different tool called Allaire Forums. We opted to replace WebNotes with yet a different environment called WebBoard, then from OReilly. If you follow the link, it appears WebBoard 1.0 came out in 1996. We started with WebBoard 2.0 in late spring 1997. I taught with it in Spring 1998. I liked the folder structure of FirstClass better, as did many of our instructors who relied on Macs, but it was definitely easier to support WebBoard and more or less it had the same functionality.

Also, our campus had a couple of tools that I didn’t use but each predated CourseInfo. One was the Campus Gradebook, an outgrowth of the Plato system. The other was a tool called the Virtual Classroom Interface, which was for sharing documents and hotlinks with students.

Our campus didn’t go to a CMS until 1999 and then did both CourseInfo and WebCT SE. These environments, in my estimation, had the benefit of combining the collective functionality of the above tools that I’ve mention into one place – that is certainly a benefit to the students so they only have to know one url, but otherwise in terms of functionality I don’t believe there was much added, and in terms of the replicated functionality many of our instructors would say the individual component tools did the function better. I’m still hearing that type of comment even today.

So the Blackboard patent seems weird to me. But, then, I’m not a lawyer.


Michael Feldstein said...

I think some of your chronology is off. For example, shouldn't "Spring 2005" be "Spring 1995"?

Lanny Arvan said...

Thank you. This is the type of typo I make all the time and can't proofread for myself. All those dates are 10 years off. I'll change them now.

murray turoff said...

copied from teh sloan email list (murray turoff

I do note they describe in great detail their "virtual classroom" a
term that njit took a trademark on in the early days. i also note
that the whole concept of "roles" in Computer Mediated Communications
was something we published on in the old days about general CMC
systems as well as virtual classroom.

The following papers are linked to my homepage
and they cover features of the virtual classroom and CMC systems in
general that overlap with the patent. If some one wants to review and
list any of these in the wiki please feel free to do so. There are
also other papers not listed on the website and certainly ones by many
others who did early work that would be relevant as well.

Turoff, Murray (1995)
Software Design and the Future of the Virtual Classroom, Journal
of Information Technology for Teacher Education, Vol 4, No. 2, 1995
(explicit for the virtual classroom)

Turoff, Murray (1995)
Designing a Virtual Classroom, Proceedings of the International
Conference on Computer Assisted Instruction (ICCAI'95), National Chiao
Tung University, Hsinchu, Taiwan, March 7-10. (explicit on virtual

Murray Turoff, Starr Roxanne Hiltz, Michael Bieber, Ajaz Rana (1998)
Collaborative Discourse Structures in Computer Mediated Group
Communications, 1998
(this appeared later in the HICSS 99) (covers communication
structures for education also)

Turoff, Murray (1991)
Computer-Mediated Communication Requirements for Group Support (.pdf)
Originally published in Journal of Organizational Computing, 1,
85-113 (1991).
(talks about roles and other such things and systems that were implemented)

Lanny Arvan said...

Murray - thanks for the comment.

There is now a letter on the Blackboard site from CEO Michael Chasen, where he does recognize prior art and says the scope of their patent is smaller - regarding enabling the prior art to function as an enterprise application.

I, for one, can't tell what is reasonably correct interpretation and what is spin - the language I read, specifically Michael Feldstein's plain English version of the claims, makes the scope seem broader. I'd want third party legal advice, such as from law faculty here, to help talk through the interpretation, though I haven't asked any of my colleagues in the law school about that yet. But in any event, I'm certainly not the right one to generate a repository of prior art.

My sense of things is that we did have most of the functionality from an instructor's view, but we didn't have the enterprise capability.


Anonymous said...

Sounds like a job for the U of I's Intellectual Property Committee.

Gary said...


If I were in a position to do so, I would tell the Blackboard folks that if they continue with this nonsense and jeapordize software such as Moodle, I would consider pulling the campus plug on WebCT altogether.

And if lots of campuses that use Blackboard/WebCT along with other LMS software were to get together on this, the Blackboard folks might be motivated to rethink their strategy.

--Gary Cziko

Lanny Arvan said...

Gary - Thanks for the comment. It may take a while to play out so let's see how things develop in the interim. I do believe that Blackboard didn't anticipate the community reaction and so there is a possibility that what you suggest may come to bear.