Blackboard plus Sprint does not equal true love. A recent article in the Chronicle about Sprint’s lawsuit against Blackboard reminded me of a conversation I had with my Blackboard rep during the Spring. I told him I was tired of seeing Blackboard promote partner “deals” that aren’t addressing the real challenges of online learning (e.g. collaboration and assessment). To his credit, he listened and put me in touch with the Blackboard Idea Exchange, a stealthy group at Blackboard that focuses on making the core product better. My first impression of the BIE is positive but I still think Blackboard places too much emphasis on marketing partnerships with other companies that add little value to online learning. Let me explain what I mean by this.
Before the Sprint deal, Blackboard promoted an offer with NBC News where customers received free content, but it was only a sample and schools had to pay handsomely if they wanted true Bb-NBC integration. Before that it was “free” lecture capture with Echo360 which was only a free trial and the actual storage and scaling came with a cost. In each case, Bb charged their “partner” to be featured. In return, the partner agreed to give a product or service away, which gave them an opportunity to be introduced to existing Blackboard customers. While there is nothing illegal or immoral about this, Blackboard promoted these relationships as product enhancements instead of the third-party trials. Both could be true but they need to make it very clear that these enhancements won’t benefit all without an additional cost. Take Blackboard Mobile Learn for example. It is promoted as a mobile app that gives faculty and students access to their courses on a variety of mobile devices. However, many schools including my own, failed to fully understand the limitations caused by the Blackboard/Sprint relationship, even after reading the promotional web page. Personally, I thought the app would work for any device on wifi and only Sprint devices over 3G/4G networks.
The Blackboard/Sprint partnership makes little sense for anyone. While Blackboard Mobile Learn is a good first attempt, it is still a half-baked native app with limited features. Faculty and students who use Bb for more than just a document repository find the course website to be more useful than the app, and they don’t have to worry about it being blocked because they are using the “wrong” mobile carrier. Sprint should have known better than to think they would gain an advantage by purchasing rights that prevented their competitors’ devices from working with Mobile Learn. People hate having their mobile services blocked, just ask the BART Authorities. Instead of switching mobile carriers, the educational community is more likely to become frustrated with those responsible for preventing access.
You may be asking yourself, if this is true, why haven’t we heard more complaining from educators and students about limited access to Bb Mobile Learn? Thank Blackboard for insisting that under this deal, Mobile Learn would be allowed to work on iOS devices using WiFi. Sprint should be thankful that this is the case. Otherwise, no one other than Sprint customers would have been able to try Mobile Learn, and those using other phone carriers may have complained about this app being withheld from them. Instead, iOs users have been able to download Bb Mobile Learn, try it, figure out that it is currently lame (see user ratings) and forget about it because it is a free app. No harm, no foul.
Given the amount of money that Sprint is suppose to pay Blackboard, it is clear that Blackboard continues to offer these third-party “enhancements” for financial reasons. However, with the current publicity from the Sprint lawsuit, I don’t think that this practice can continue for much longer. This may be considered bad news for Blackboard’s new owner as it appears that one profitable part of Blackboard is not sustainable. Hopefully under this new ownership, Blackboard will learn a lesson and sharpen its focus on true innovation that enhances teaching and learning such as better ways to collaborate or give students feedback. Maybe they will give higher priority to the work of the Blackboard Idea Exchange. Otherwise, those of us who have been loyal customers may begin looking for a new LMS partner.