Saturday, August 19, 2006

If Blackboard Kills the LMS, What Next? Patent Applications for Internet Apps Have Become Equivalent of Domain-Squatting

Podcast / downloadable mp3 file.

If Blackboard prevails in their case against the Canadian learning management system developer, Desire 2 Learn (D2L), they may have killed courseware and learning management systems as we know it. To recap the story, Blackboard was awarded a patent on the general concept of the learning management system. In other words, Blackboard management seems to claim that they invented online learning (

Yeah, and Al Gore invented the Internet.

Of course, most people I talk to think that the fact that the U.S. Patent Office awarded Blackboard a patent in the first place is a travesty of the process. Stephen Downes and Michael Feldstein have weighed in ( Downes has an excellent compendium of events, responses, and sensible and insightful comment.

What Blackboard did was not much different than what had been done for years in computer-based learning labs where workstations are connected by a local area network. Databases interact and information flows to an administrator account, which monitors and manages the others.

If things go Blackboard's way, they will win. They will also kill online learning as we know it. Is that as bad as it sounds? In many ways, this could lead to liberation from what is, at the heart, a very flawed model that does not really deliver on any of its promises. Sure, it's scalable, but only if you have a couple hundred terabytes to spare, if you are a medium to large-sized user.

Is locking away the course content really necessary? Is it necessary to have everything under one roof? One of the big selling points of the learning management system is that it (in theory) works smoothly with the college's student information system, which is often an Oracle database, or a legacy database product, such as Banner. The belief has been that it is absolutely vital to have a learning management system that can seamlessly integrate with admissions, course registration, records, and the bursar's office. What about tests? What about the gradebook? Is it really necessary to use the gradebook as it is currently used? Conventional wisdom has held that it is important to have all these under the same umbrella. Is that really necessary, though? eCollege has patented the online gradebook. What is next? Patenting the spreadsheet?

I am starting to think that the U.S. Patent office is running the risk of becoming meaningless when it comes to online innovation. Instead of protecting intellectual property, the U.S. Patent Office is becoming the tool of opportunists. Patent applications should not become the equivalent of domain-squatting.

My personal feeling is that it is not necessary to mix content and grades, financial records, or transcripts. Why not take the approach of yahoo, lycos, google, and others, and simply provide a separate place and separate log-in for secure transactions? For me, it would be ideal to have a different level of security for grades, financial information, and other sensitive information, than simply accessing course content and the discussion board / interactive areas. By logging in separately to one's financial and other records, it might be easier to maintain optimal database size as well.

Well, let's assume the worst (or the best, perhaps). Blackboard kills the LMS. (Fanfare: The Buggles' "Video Killed the Radio Star"). What do we have next? In many ways, the products are already out that that would allow professors and institutions to provide online courses. The content would be more flexible. The design and approach would be more dynamic. Here are a few ideas.

Service Provider My-Page Course: Pick and Choose Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts, Website, RSS Feeds a la

Example: Lycos. In theory, a professor could develop an entire course with components available through Lycos. Content can be published on a website hosted by Lycos . Conversations and comments can occur via blogs and podcasts, also hosted by Lycos . Content can be incorporated via a feed aggregator for syndicated blog/podcast/vodcast content, as well. Finally, students can showcase their work (art, video, audio) in a MySpace kind of site, called in this case, Lycos Planet ( ). Including tags and tag clouds can speed up interactivity and help make the learning space flexible and responsive.

Vygotsky Vindicated: The Extreme Discussion Course

For Digication, less is more. Their "simple by design" approach is an elegant concept which suggests that a discussion board or a threaded blog approach will allow professors to start teaching effectively with nothing more than the training they already have.
The concept is that they will easily translate their face-to-face pedagogy to online. The average instructional designer and person steeped in the theories behind instructional technology and design may be pretty alarmed at the notion. However, it is, in many ways, a chance to take Vygotskian theories online in a very pure form. Although there are likely to be skeptics who insist that what Digication is doing goes too far, there are others who may find it works and real learning takes place in ways it never did when using a clunky LMS.

Bandura and Emulatory Behavior: The Social Networking Course

A course completely on MySpace, LiveJournal, Xanga (webrings), or Planet Lycos? You never know. This may turn out to be the very best way to teach an online writing course. It encourages collaboration, cooperation, as well as drafting, revising, and more revising.

Mobile Courses

For years, this is what I've wanted to say to designers and purveyors of learning management systems: Incorporate real behaviors into your learning space. Use the technology people have. Keep it simple.

For years, each new release of Blackboard or WebCT came with an even more cumbersome set of activities and designs, and it required larger computers, faster chips, high-speed modems. They created a second-generation digital divide and essentially blocked access to those who did not have a new computer with a high-speed connection.

It is a relief to see colleges and universities start to deliver content on equipment that people already have and enjoy using. It is also good to see them focus on how the content can be used effectively in the real world -- for example, on a smartphone in a McDonalds, on a laptop in a Starbucks, on a pda on a Coast Guard cutter, on an iPod while walking the dog.

I'm certainly not any kind of soothsayer, nor do I have the preternatural ability to predict the future. I am glad, however, to see the lively discussion that the Blackboard patent and lawsuit debacle has brought to the e-learning community. I believe that we will see a quantum leap in terms of innovation and change as a result.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Memes of E-Learning and the Internet: Source-Memes, Contagion, and the Next Big Cultural Meme

Audio file / podcast.

When Richard Dawkins and David Dennett first proposed that Darwin's theory of evolution could be applied to culture, there was no way to easily explain how and why certain robust ideas appear seemingly simultaneously throughout a culture, and then begin to influence the culture and evolve with it, ultimately affecting its survival.

Memes are convenient ways to explain the emergence, influence, replication, and persistence of ideas, even if one does not completely accept the evolutionary theory mechanisms that support the concept.

A meme is an idea, but a remarkably robust one with sufficient complexity to be able to adapt itself to many cultural settings and situations. The elements within the idea have the capacity to produce copies of themselves, and can show up in different forms as they are modified by their environment (Holdcroft & Lewis, 2000).

Now, more than thirty years after the publication of Richard Dawkin's The Selfish Gene, the concept has entered popular culture. Perfectly illustrated by the movie, The Matrix (dir. Andy and Larry Wachowski, 1999), one could think of the Smiths as one meme -- the physical manifestation of or a metaphor for the ways in which society enforces conformity and punishes those who seek the truth behind what lies beyond a glittery false consciousness comprised of consumer products, etc.

The self-replicating idea of the meme was conceivable before the Internet. For example, one could envision the replication of an idea or an image into diverse cultural contexts, and the introduction of the idea into completely foreign territories, if one pictured turning on a television, or tuning into a radio show simultaneously in a government office, a small home, a luxurious estate, a car, a remote village, and a fishing village. However, there were limits to the dissemination methods because they were not interactive. Mass media before the popularization of the Internet was limited.

Now, with interactivity, and with RSS and instant postings via feeds, the cultural meme propagation process that Dawkins and Dennett proposed is a reality. The cultural meme emerges in its new form, which has been modified by the environment. It gets its "15 minutes of fame" and then it submerges again for the next adaptive speciation event. The only thing that changes is the time between iterations, speciation, even extinction. It may not be 15 minutes. It could be the meme's 15 seconds of fame. Either way, the mechanism is working.

Dennett gave examples of "distinct memorable units" (Dennett, 1995, p. 344) in Darwin's Dangerous Idea (1995). Some of the ideas he listed were general, some more specific. Each involved a complex cognitive process as well as associated action or physical or artistic expression. The ideas included: arch, wheel, calendar, alphabet, vendetta, impressionism, perspective drawing (Holdcroft & Lewis, 2000, p. 164).

It would be interesting to look at the memes of e-learning and the Internet and to see how they influence each other.

Internet memes:

social networking
tag clouds
peer networks
search engine
customizable start pages

Obviously, there would be more, but those are a few that come to mind. To apply the same approach to e-learning, it is interesting to list possible e-learning memes that come to mind.

Current e-Learning memes:

e-learning (a meme unto itself)
learning management systems
instructional design
content on-demand
posting on discussion board
learning styles and preferences
learning style assessments

It is hard to say if the ideas listed above are bona fide memes. For the purposes of this analysis, it's useful to say that they are. So, with that in mind, the next step is to consider how memes propagate. Cultural ideas travel from one cultural context to another, and appear or are generated within a cultural context. If they are valuable to the survival of the culture, they will modify themselves in a special way.

For example, the idea of evolution by natural selection emerged not only in natural science, but also showed up in Herbert Spencer's work. He used it to explain how and why individuals prevail and others do not. The "survival of the fittest" catchphrase persists even to this day, more than a century later, continuing still to be a useful idea in our culture.

Meme Contagion

So, if the e-learning list is exposed to the contagion of the recent Internet meme list, one can safely assume that aspects of the Internet list will show up. The e-learning memes will modify -- adaptively speciate -- to accommodate the insistence of the cultural idea, which will encode itself into the idea it is affecting.

Simply stated, we can predict that the rigid structures we currently see with e-learning content and delivery will adapt. It will metamorphose quickly and will result in a shedding away of some of the manifestations we now see in e-learning. One can safely predict certain behaviors among the memes.

Future e-learning memes (results of contagion between current Internet memes and e-learning memes):

MySpace learning space
peer-to-peer content on demand
folksonomies for content providers (schools, colleges, universities)
discussion tags
learning preference search engine
vodcast assessment on-demand

It will be interesting to see if memes become self-replicating in the world of the Internet. Perhaps they already are via Google and other search engines. It will also be interesting to see the new developments in access, connectivity, and software. When hyper-optimization, compression, and zipping of files can occur, who know what the new frontiers will be. Perhaps we will be able to store sound files via nano-particles in our forearms, or better, in our ears.


Dawkins, R. (1976). The Selfish Gene. London: Oxford UP.

Dennett, D. (1995). Darwin's Dangerous Idea. London: Penguin.

Holdcroft, D. and H. Lewis. (2000). Memes, minds, and evolution. Philosophy (75): p. 161-182.

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