Monday, September 07, 2009

Microsoft and Blackboard

Joshua Kim has an article up at Inside Higher Ed called "5 Reasons Microsoft Will Buy Blackboard." Below are Kim's points, with thoughts (some real, some irreverent).

"1. The education market will continue to grow and is an important sector for a technology and platform company to have a presence." Kim is right: if it has to do with computers and making money through subscriptions, Microsoft wants a piece of it. Also, education is one of the sectors where Apple is still a significant presence, and the Lords of Redmond may want to chip away at that.

"2. Buying Blackboard will instantly address the problem of Microsoft loosing relevance in higher education." Kim mentions the threat posed by Google, but it's going to be hard to fight Google's "free" service with Microsoft subscription fees, even if Word can put squiggly red lines under errors like "loosing."

"3. The CMS market will evolve towards the cloud." But how would we know we were using Blackboard, if the endearingly glacial pace at which it works is gone? When are we going to go and get cups of tea, if not when we click on a page in BB, wander away to put the kettle on while it loads, and then come back once it's finally there? Seriously, the cloud concept could speed things up, and that's a good thing.

"4. Microsoft could improve the Blackboard experience by bundling in cloud based services such as personal storage, robust presence awareness and collaboration, and integrated calendaring, messaging and e-mail." Yes, these would be improvements, but I'm thinking Microsoft isn't going to give these away for free. If students have to pay for some flavor of Microsoft AND fees for using Blackboard, I can see instructors turning away from this model because it'll be just too expensive for students. Or if Microsoft bundles in its features to create a new Blackboard on steroids (Microboard? Blacksoft?), does anyone want to place a bet that the extra cost won't be bundled in along with the features? Kim mentions that this would improve Blackboard's terrible search feature (one can only hope), but this would probably occur at the cost of having more things sewn up in back of subscription walls and away from what students can actually see. That's frustrating.

"5. Education is an important core value for the Microsoft culture." It's true, and Kim goes on to say this: "Think of the depth of educational content that Microsoft could capture, share, and distribute in conjunction with a cloud based Blackboard sitting on a universal database of learning materials." This would work well for Microsoft certification programs, but applying it to the liberal arts? We're back in Edupunk-land again. Also, "capture, share, and distribute"? Does this mean "steal currently freely available or public domain content, tie it up behind a subscription wall, and charge for it?" I think we've seen this happen before.

I also wonder if this hypothetical alliance is coming about 5-10 years too late. A lot of faculty have migrated either to really good work-arounds for online class work (Google docs, wikis, blogs, etc.) that are preferable because they're customizable or solutions like Moodle.

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