Jim Groom, Killer Catfish.

This always seems to come up in edupunk conversations, and seems to be one of the main attacks against edupunk, even from great people who I respect no end — hey, they’ll say, we can’t have a knee-jerk reaction against corporate solutions. They aren’t necessarily evil.

It may surprise you, but I completely agree. In fact, I’ll go one step further, corporations are never evil.

Corporations are the wrong thing to be looking at. They aren’t evil or good — they merely *are*. It’s the environment and the market that needs to be considered.

Markets are healthy or sick. And when they are sick, due to patent silliness, an oversupply of easy credit, or lack of regulation, all corporations will end up doing things against the public good.

Right now the reason the LMS market is sick is that Blackboard has no natural predators, due to a variety of factors, but primarily due to the particular structure of university purchasing systems combined with some early advantages Blackboard possessed (I do not see the patent issue, as awful as it is for the current market, as the main reason for their dominance). Blackboard is not evil, but its current situation is like a snakehead dropped in the Potomac to feed. And sitting around deciding whether it deserves to eat all those other fish is beside the point.

Northern Snakehead
Snakehead 1.0. Image via Wikipedia

You see, I’m willing to admit, from a purchasing standpoint, that this feature or that feature of NG will improve the lives of students. I don’t see much indication that Blackboard has gotten past their core mission as an access control company, but, hey, more amazing transformations have happened. I think they don’t get openess in a really fundamental way, but still, if it became in their interest to do so, they could be quick learners.

All that is interesting, and fodder for future blog posts. But no matter what the value of Blackboard’s individual actions, the fact is the LMS market ecosystem is sick, and will remain sick until Blackboard develops natural predators. I’m not really interested in the feature list of Snakehead 2.0. Compared to the larger context, the feature list is a minor point.

So I thank the gods for people like Jim Groom, the killer catfish who jumps on their every move, and scraps it up against all odds. People will say he isn’t reasonable, but when you are trying to address a balance of power issue, it doesn’t always pay to be reasonable. Sometimes you just gotta pull the rope as long and hard as you can.

Jim does that every day, here’s to him.

Update: Jim challenges me in the comments, and in response I have to reformulate. Blackboard is not a snakehead in a peaceful pond, a fish out of water as it were. Blackboard is what happens when a teaching technology company evolves to conform to the enterprise software pond. It’s attributes that we dislike are results of the enterprise purchasing system, not the causes of the environment, though they may perpetuate it.

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5 Comments on “Jim Groom, Killer Catfish.”

  1. jim Groom says:

    Mike,

    You are way too kind, but I do have to say that I entirely agree with
    you that I am unreasonable. I also agree that most of the issues are
    centered around the question of power and empowerment. And for me the
    legal battles are a key factor in this, as are the misinformation and
    corporate co-opting. I don’t think the market takes care of itself, I
    think it is artificially constructed for advantages and
    disadvantages—and those of us who work towards innovation in teaching
    and technology feel those disadvantages at a core, structural level. A
    systemic issue that is born out of this reality might be erroneously
    naturalized with your examples. This isn’t a natural process, it is
    unnatural. Hence the fact that the explosion of the web and
    information has been rhetorically denatured by institutions who want
    to protect themselves from the chaos of resources and possibilities.
    Bb and their ilk benefit from this culture of fear, because they frame
    the solutions and build the integrated bridges to no where. And while
    the discussion shouldn’t necessarily be as simple as good
    corporation/bad corporation, sometimes the manifestation of power can
    be located there and be manipulated, unnaturally, to keep it there.
    Power is a series of relations, and those relations work best when
    they are invisible, or rather untraceable. What shocks me is how
    transparent a corporation like Bb has been about the abuses of its
    power with little or no push back from the educational community (not
    unlike the state of indentured servitude that most adjuncts find
    themselves in). You are absolutely right: universities, colleges, and
    K-12 are in bed with vendors all over the country and the world, and
    are responsible for a lion’s share for the dearth of creativity and
    innovation within their walls. But, when I speak of these things I
    don’t speak from an administrative purview, but a space that is on the
    level with a single course or professor or student. That view is
    seldom if ever framed in these conversations, and it is there that the
    change will occur. Let the administrations and corporations immolate
    themselves, the survivalists will not only abide in the trying times
    ahead, they will thrive!!! Individual experience creatively narrated
    scales very well, efficiency and a bottom line logic of teaching and
    learning will ultimately fail –and my fear is the latter will triumph
    under poor leadership putting our educational institutions in imminent
    danger.

  2. Mike says:

    You may be right that my example is over-naturalized. Let’s call Blackboard a cheetah in the Magic Kingdom, eh?

    The environment that helped to create this mess was the vendor system and enterprise purchasing process — and the historical events that put the LMS in that side of the house. There was a point, somewhere in 1998/99 where it didn’t have to be that way. Maybe even 2000. There was a good healthy discussion about worldware, and simulations, and educational gaming.

    But I think maybe you miss how it was that environment that Blackboard evolved in which turned it into the fear-mongering demagogue it often becomes. Because once it was decided this was an enterprise purchase, under IT becuase of the technical issues and troster integration, everything else follows. To thrive in that enterprise environment, it did what enterprise software companies do:

    * Create risks to be scared of. Look at server sales, another enterprise IT decison. Remember the “five nines”? God help you if your server didn’t have five nines of uptime when others did. Purchase the wrong one, watch it go down. Career over.

    * Seal the borders. A corrollary of the above. But important.

    * Close the system. As much as we knock Microsoft word, the fact is consumer software supports competitors software — even on export — as a necessary part of survival. That’s because during the growth period it’s crucial that your system survive in a multimode environment. All corporate software is about lock-in, but enterprise software, because it deals with cross-site implementations, takes it to new levels.

    So my initial analysis is actually wrong — Blackboard is not a snakehead. It’s what happens when a learning technology company evolves in an enterprise software pond. It’s fear-mongering, lock-in, and resistance to change are the result of it adapting quite well to an Enterprise environment.

    This, incidentally, is why I believe the break through for Open Ed technologies like WordPress will be when we get a Red Hat style company to market them — but that’s another post.

  3. jim Groom says:

    Mike,

    I like the Magic Kingdom analogy, but as for the pond–I think you know how I feel about the scientific analogies/metaphors in general. They tend to make technology and corporations something they are not. I liken these science metaphors to the argument about capitalism as the highest state of economic evolution which has all too recently shown itself to be such a dangerous logic. For decades the idea of speaking openly about socialims seemed insane, or at least entirely mariginal in this culture–yet it has blown up as of late as we realize that the logic behind capital is often to cannibalize itself in the most savage of ways. The attempt by enlightenment economists to naturalize capital proved to be one of the most problematic intellectual developments of the 18th century for Marx, this attempt by the rationalists to make everything seem as if it follows some natural logic imposed a very specific order on things–one which we ar still locked within. I tend to agree with Marx, I don’t see these companies and institutions as anything like natural ecosystems or evolutionary vehicles—evolution as a social and culture signifier is a very dangerous one for all kinds of reasons–take the historical arguments surrounding the equality amongst races as just one. Hence the Zombie metaphor, which places so much of the fantastic/horrific choices and fear driven narratives of higher ed and IT into sharp focus. Bb is the company that refuses to die a natural death, it’s a prime example of the IT/EdTech undead. It’s an applcation no one has any real teaching and learning use for anymore, yet it continues to mindlessly haunt campuses all over the nation–if not the world–looking to feed on the fleshy wallets of IT administration as well as teachers and students that are too lazy or ill-informed to demand more. This malaise is born out of an institutional logic to continually propel the notion that they need to pay a vendor to frame a usable online teaching and learning environment. Or try and reproduce what is already being done on the open web, locally–to “protect” their “children.” Let’s face it, university communities gain nothing but efficiency and scaling pwoer for cow herding a greater and greater number of students through such systems, which in many ways is another element of this issue—colleges scaling to 10s of thousands of students in order to grow with the logic that someone who wants a job needs to go to college–even if they don’t want to think. Yet, even if this is the case, geographically situated institutions will never scale like the internet can, so they are dead in the water if they follow the extreme of their own logic–in many ways we are all fostering higher education’s demise by promoting it is necessary for every high school student. The real issue for me is that with the tools we have and the possibility of connecting in truly new and unimagined ways, we cannot for a second begin to naturalize the relations of universities, corporations, and the current uninspired state of thinking about innovation online that dominates the corporate world of educational technology (though this is not the case elsewhere–and a virtue of WordPress is that it wasn’t designed for education–but rather publishing more generally). I’ afraid all of this won’t just be another history lesson in enterprise IT decisions, it could be the very moment wherein more and more folks move away from a model like the one we have now, much of which I think is valuable btw. But if the film and music worlds can be so severely threatened by the ability to share culture online freely, why wouldn’t educational institutions–particularly in the US where the cost has so insanely outpaced the value it provides making it seem almost counterproductive to waste four years going into debt to say I had fun being a kid for that much longer. Real school baby, where kicking zombie ass and framing your own learning community may very well be the future. That is why I am watching Barbara Ganley’s work so closely, and why the community focus of someone like Udell is becoming more and more fascinating to me.

  4. Steven Egan says:

    So does that mean we are making parties and seeking to defeat the ancient undead dragon, or do I have video games on the brain? Something about comparing corporations to groups of magic users in a fantasy realm fits this conversation, particularly the idea of them trying to keep their behemoth living that much longer for profit and the greater good, depending on who you ask.

  5. Tom says:

    I might go with another analogy.

    Kudzu. Blackboard is kudzu. Creeping, massive and insidious.

    It is an introduced organism brought in for a specific function (management) without any real thought as to the consequences. Like kudzu it has no natural predators and has proliferated to the detriment of the environment. It kills off all kinds of good things and, while useful in certain ways, does far more damage than it does good.

    In addition it’s hard to stomp out once it gains a foothold and costs a fortune to control.


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