Blackboard + Sprint ≠ True Love

Image by Dominic Williamson

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.

  1. September 3, 2011 at 9:47 am

    david,
    good points. bb needs to realize these are product enhancements that clients expect for free.
    -bill

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    • September 3, 2011 at 6:11 pm

      Thanks Bill. Yes, we expect some enhancements to be included with updates covered by our annual fees. And I think we can all agree that Blackboard still has the right to create or buy new products to sell separately. I don’t have any problem with having to pay extra for their content management system or Mobile Central.

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  2. September 3, 2011 at 4:42 pm

    Thing to remember is Blackboard Learn is not very profitable. All the other services and companies Blackboard has bought to make products to integrate with the LMS (Wimba, elluminate, Terriblyclever) is where Bb makes money. At $2 per month per student is $24 a year. For the LMS, we are paying something more like $3 per year per student.

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    • September 3, 2011 at 6:31 pm

      While it may be true that Blackboard’s core product isn’t as profitable as their other products, they still need to find ways to advance Bb Learn using our annual fees. Otherwise, institutions will move to open source tools and Blackboard won’t have an opportunity to sell us products with larger margins.

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  3. Jerry Lewis
    September 4, 2011 at 3:28 pm

    If I remember correctly, the cost of using the paid version of Bb Mobile with the state-wide community & technical college Angel installation would have doubled the cost. Maybe for a Bb customer paying $20 per FTE it wouldn’t look that expensive, but to us, it would be.

    Although Bb does make money selling extra stuff, see this article for some comments on the purchase of Wimba and Elluminate, which look more like money losers. It’s down below the part about Bb’s dealings with the federal government.

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