Blackboard pledges open standard support.

Ray Henderson, President of Blackboard’s Teaching and Learning division, formerly of Angel learning, made a very public commitment to supporting standards yesterday.

Although even Ray admits that the final proof will be in the software if and when it arrives, the public statement alone is something that I genuinely thought would never happen. From its inception, Blackboard, and most of the rest of the closed source educational technology community, have followed a predictable US technology market path: to be the last competitor standing was the goal, and everyone would betray every stakeholder they had before they’d be betrayed by them. As with other applications of Game theory in the wild, though, there seems to be at least a suggestion that people are willing to cooperate, and break the logic of naked self-interest.

What’s on offer from Ray is, first and foremost, implementation of IMS’ Common Cartridge, followed by other IMS specifications such as Learning Tool Interoperability (LTI) and Learner Information Services (LIS). SCORM and the Schools Interoperability Framework (SIF) also get a mention.

On the CC front, the most interesting aspect by far is a pledge to support not just import of cartridges, but also export. In a letter to customers, Ray explicitly mentions content authored by faculty on the system, which suggests that it wouldn’t just mean re-export of canned content. You’d almost think that this could be the end of the content “Blackhole”


The one immediate catch is this:

creators of learning content and tools will of course still need to have formal partnerships (for example in our case participating in the Blackboard Building Blocks program or the Blackboard Content Provider network) with platform providers like us in order to connect their standards-compliant tool or content to eLearning platforms through supported interfaces.

This doesn’t strike me as at all obvious, and the given reasons – to ensure stability and accountability – not entirely convincing. That customers are on their own if they wish to connect a random tool that claims to exercise most of IMS LTI 2.0, I can understand. But I don’t quite understand why a formal relationship is required to upload some content, nor how that would work for content authors who don’t normally enter into such formal relations with vendors. It’s also not easy to see how such a business requirement would be enforced without breaking the standard.

The other potential catch is that Blackboard’s political heft, combined with its platform’s technical heft, means that the standards that it wants to lead on end up with high barriers to entry. That is, interfaces that are easy to add to Blackboard, may not be so easy to add to anything else. And given Blackboard’s market position, it’s their preferences that might well trump others.

Still, the very public commitment is to the open standards, and the promise is that the code will vindicate that commitment. Even a partial return on that promise will make a big difference to interoperability in the classic VLE area.

How users can get a grip on technological innovation

Control of a technology may seem a vendor business: Microsoft and Windows, IBM and mainframes. But by understanding how technology moves from prototype to ubiquity, the people who foot the bill can get to play too.

Though each successful technological innovation follows its own route to becoming an established part of the infrastructure, there are couple of regularities. Simplified somewhat, the process can be conceived as looking like this:
The general technology commodification process

The interventions (open specifications, custom integration et al) are not mutually exclusive, nor do they necessarily come in a fixed chronological order. Nonetheless, people do often try to establish a specification before the technology is entirely ‘baked’, in order to forestall expensive dead-ends (the GSM mobile phone standard, for example). Likewise, a fully fledged open source alternative can take some time to emerge (e.g. mozilla / firefox in the web browser space).

The interventions themselves can be done by any stakeholder; be they vendors, buyers, sector representatives such as JISC or anyone else. Who benefits from which intervention is a highly complex and contextualised issue, however. Take, for example, the case of VLEs:

The technology commodification process as applied to VLEs

When VLEs were heading from innovation projects to the mainstream, stakeholders of all kinds got together to agree open standards in the IMS consortium. No-one controlled the whole space, and no-one wanted to develop an expensive system that didn’t work with third party tools. Predictably, implementations of the agreed standards varied, and didn’t interoperate straight off, which created a niche for tools such as Reload and course genie which allowed people to do some custom integration; a glossing over the peculiarities of different content standard implementations. Good for them, but not optimal for buyers or the big vle vendors.

In the mean time, some VLE vendors smelled an opportunity to control the technology, and get rich off the (license) rent. Plenty of individual buyers as well as buyer consortia took a conscious and informed decision to go along with such a near monopoly. Predictability and stability (i.e. fast commodification) were weighed against the danger of vendor lock-in in the future, and stability won.

When the inevitable vendor lock-in started to bite, another intervention became interesting for smaller tool vendors and individual buyers: reverse engineering. This intervention is clearer in other technologies such Windows file and print server protocols (the Samba project) and the PC hardware platform (the early ‘IBM clones’). Nonetheless, a tool vendor such as HarvestRoad made a business of freeing content that was caught in proprietary formats in closed VLEs. Good for them, not optimal for big platform vendors.

Lastly, when the control of a technology by a platform becomes too oppressive, the obvious answer these days is to construct an open source competitor. Like Linux in operating systems, Firefox in browsers or Apache in webservers, Moodle (and Sakai, atutor, .LRN and a host of others) have achieved a more even balance of interests in the VLE market.

The same broad pattern can be seen in many other technologies, but often with very particular differences. In blogging software, for example, open source packages have been pretty dominant from the start, and one package even went effectively proprietary later on (Movable Type).

Likewise, the shifting interests of stakeholders can be very interesting in technologies that have not been fully commodified yet. Yahoo for example, has not been an especially strong proponent of open specifications and APIs in the web search domain until it found itself the underdog to Google’s dominance. Google clearly doesn’t feel the need to espouse open specifications there, since it owns the search space.

But it doesn’t own mobile phone operating systems or social networking, so it is busy throwing its weight behind open specification initiatives there. Just as they are busy reverse engineering some of Microsoft’s technologies in domains that have already commodified such as office file formats.

From the perspective of technology users and sector representatives, it pays to consider each technology in a particular context before choosing the means to commodify it as advantageously but above all as quickly as possible. In the end, why spend time fighting over technology that is predictable, boring and ubiquitous when you can build brand new cool stuff on top of it?

Patent front dispatch

If you thought the Blackboard VLE patent was fun, there’s plenty more where that came from: 40.000 US software patents *per year* On the positive side, major IT companies are now clamouring for reform in the US and are signing ever more non-assertion declarations,  which rather exposes Blackboard. Meanwhile, some people in the EU Commission think that software patents might be a good idea after all.

One of the complaints about the Blackboard VLE patent case is that a thorough prior art search on either the history of the VLE (no education patents) or access control or a combination of the two could have seen the patent application thrown out or patent’s scope severely reduced.

If software patents are being awarded at a rate of 839 per day -which happened last month- the chances of a thorough process seem a little remote, though. It also means that the probability of a developer infringing any number of patents when writing any modest piece of code is fairly high. Particularly because these patents are written to be as vague and all-inclusive as possible.

This is commonly held to affect open source and small developers disproportionally (realgeek), since what matters is not whether you infringe a patent (because you will), but whether you’re likely to avoid a lawsuit about that infringement.

That, in turn,  depends on the size of your own war chest (i.e. patent portfolio) and the size of your legal budget, combined with the threat that you pose to someone who is bigger than you now. The Blackboard case illustrates the playground bully tactics of the process nicely.

That train of thought, however, doesn’t explain why the biggest hoarders of software patents are lobbying hard to check the madness and pledging not to assert patent rights over fairly important chunks of their intellectual property (IP).

IBM isn’t exactly a benevolent society, but it still pledged 500 software patents to the open source community and announced that it would provide royalty free access to thousands of patents that covered open interoperability standards in education and healthcare (IBM).

Now they’re making all of their patent applications available for public scrutiny well before they’re even granted (ars technica). Even IP rights champion extraordinaire Microsoft has pledged not to assert a bevy of its patents that are necessarily infringed by implementing a number of webservice specifications (Microsoft).

All of which makes Blackboard’s refusal to do the same with regard to educational interoperability standards on the grounds that it “could invalidate the claim” seem a little … quaint. To be sure, Blackboard have nowhere near as many patents to be generous with as the IBMs of this world, but there is something else going on.

Part of it may be a concern for the preservation of innovation and balance in the market. Another part could well have been prompted by the recent advances of the patent trolls: people with few assets and a couple of software patents. Not scared by threats of a countersuit, one such troll very nearly brought RIM’s BlackBerry to a standstill recently, and another extracted large sums of money from Microsoft.

In the US, this appears to be leading to more momentum behind patent reform (the register). In the EU, by contrast, you may be able to file for and receive software patents, but they are still formally disallowed. Long years of lobbying very nearly legalised them last year, but that was blocked by the European Parliament. Now another measure that’ll be voted on this month could both legalise them, and shift responsibility for them on the judiciary, rather than political institutions (ZDnet).