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 (http://www.blackboard.com/company/press/release.aspx?id=887622).

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 (http://www.downes.ca/blackboard_patent.htm). 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 deli.cio.us

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 (http://www.planet.lycos.com ). 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.

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