Sakai, Blackboard, and the Bridge to Nowhere

If you want to understand why the word-that-must-not-be-named spread like wildfire, you need only read the Inside Higher Ed article on Blackboard “partnering with Syracuse University to develop a way to integrate Blackboard with Sakai.”

Jim has a nice post on Blackboard’s co-option of “openness” in their statements on this project. As for me, I continue to find it amusing that quotes from Blackboard leadership almost always follow the term “learning” with the term “login”. In the quote in the current press release, “login” appears almost eight words after “learning”, making for a couple tense moments:

“Students should not have to worry about whether different technology is powering their online learning environments for different classes,” said Michael L. Chasen, Blackboard’s president and CEO, in a prepared statement. “With a single login users should have access to all of their courses and course material. There should be one place they can go to get all of their course information.”

Did you catch that?

learning (0) environments (1) for (2) different (3) classes (4), With (5) a (6) single (7) login

Blackboard as an access control company anyone?

God save the single login. No matter what it costs!

But I think I differ with Jim in what I feel the most interesting part of this whole deal is. I don’t feel that there is any real danger of Blackboard co-opting the term “open”. In fact, in the current press release the line:

With Project NG, Blackboard is working to create a more open, flexible platform that allows educators to better personalize, customize and integrate their educational ecosystem.

reads to me more like white noise than anything else. It’s a bit of exquisite corpse poetry, apparently composed in the interstices of an edtech conference.

And the rest of the release? I just can’t work up a steam about it, because the whole thing is too darn amusing. I mean, how open is your system if the two owners of the systems have to “partner” to get the systems integrated?

And the line:

“Students should not have to worry about whether different technology is powering their online learning environments for different classes…”

Hilarious. The point is not whether “Students shouldn’t have to worry about whether different technology is powering their online learning environments.” The point is I shouldn’t have to care what Blackboard thinks is a “legitimate” worry to get stuff out of their system. What I decide to worry about is really none of their business.

It’s the difference between engagement and openness. Engagement is admirable, but it is essentially interacting with the world on terms that you define.

Openness is letting the world interact with you on terms the world defines.

That difference is crucial, and should not be forgotten. As engagement with the broader community, this effort is not a bad thing. But it has absolutely nothing to do with openness.

5 thoughts on “Sakai, Blackboard, and the Bridge to Nowhere

  1. Mike,

    As always, I wait for your words of wisdom and clarity to make sense of the tantrums 🙂 I really like you distinction between engagement and openness as a matter of terms that are defined internally or externally –it is quite useful.

    That said, I think I oscillate between being amused and outright scared. I want to believe with you and others that BlackBoard is just running its course to its own demise, but I have a problem, as you know, with the grafting of such a evolutionary/free market logic on a corporate juggernaut like BlackBoard. The fact that are “partnering” on “open development” with Sakai gives them a solid position in the conversations surrounding “openness.”

    Let’s face it, it is a keyword that has some value in the market currently, and just like with the BB 9 Web 2.0 tools, this allows the opening to make a specific, amusing, and seemingly insignificant project to take on the resonances and patina of openness. A move towards openness. The incremental and “natural” evolution of Bb to reflect the web, as an access control company.

    Awesome stuff, I love the conversation, and I am actually going to start taking some of your offlining advice and read a real text like Capital and stop attacking the CMS strawmen 🙂

  2. Frankly I’m the same way, oscillating between bemusement and rage. Making pitstops for fear.

    I suppose the reason i find the “openness” more amusing than the “learning 2.0” stuff is that the question of “openness” is more likely to be evaluated by a tech guy than by administration — and no tech guy worth anything is going to be able to call Blackboard open with a straight face.

    The Learning 2.0 (or 3.0 as I learned this week at AACU/Educause) is a different matter. That’s something that is being requested lately from the top, and evaluated by people just coming into this conversation.

    More likely I’m just in a good mood today, and from the view of today Blackboard looks like post-Vista Microsoft, just dying a long slow death under a mountain of jargon.

    But your point is well taken — I loved your post. This *is* such a ridiculous joke, that Blackboard would talk about “partnering” to make things more open.

  3. Well…
    don’t get too bemused. Of course I was present at the whole debacle of a “user” conference, addict I am afraid, but partering is a nice word for co-opt. BB is smart enough to know people are considering options like moodle and sakai and is looking to “head ’em off at the pass”.
    Certainly you weren’t there to look on bemusedly as the previewed a apple-clone commercial in which metaphorically blackboard took moodle and sakai in arm just like one big happy family.
    So yes be afraid, be very afraid. BB knows its copyright/patent shenanigans will not hold and will keep working to suck up whatever it can.
    It stems from people like me stuck in institutions and systems where people are too afraid to move to an “outside” system. Not that I am afraid per se, but that faculty in general barely have a grasp of the meglo system, much less moodle and the buzzword technology.
    On the other hand it is too hard to have much rage, BB is just another corporation doing what all the corporations do and that we have let them,
    gobble up the market share with abandon and at any cost.
    And so I would really rather get past the talk of technology and look to the teaching/learning.


  4. My only point of disagreement is with the rhetorical question, “how open is your system if the two owners of the systems have to ‘partner’ to get the systems integrated?”

    It’s an issue of standards, and I don’t see any shining examples of this in commercial or open source software. While I’m not exactly clear on what Bb is providing to the students (it actually sounds as simple as an OpenID-like concept), even truly OSS systems don’t easily, let alone automatically, integrate or even share nicely with each other. Examples: Drupal and WordPress, Moodle and Sakai, etc.

  5. @Jared: Your point is well taken about the difficulties of integrating even open source systems. But I see it as the difference between partnering and mutual hacking. Partnering to me sounds like both sides have secret knowledge which they bring to the table — the idea that Blackboard has to be involved in Blackboard integration is the piece that seems wrong to me. When was the last time you saw WordPress “partnering” with an institution — they don’t have to do that, because third parties, commercial or no fill that role.

    @Marc: A number of people have told me since posting this that I should be more frightened of this, and I think from the perspective of those at the user conference this must have seemed more apocolyptic. I’ve been blessed at my current job with a very perceptive administration who get openness pretty well, I may underestimate how this could play out in other places.

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