Blackboard – a personal boycott

At the risk of being something of a dog with a bone over this, yesterday I surprised myself – I have some research money to spend and was going to attend a conference. I thought of going to online educa in Berlin. I’ve  been before, it’s an excellent conference, and very good for networking with the European e-learning people. But I noticed that Blackboard was one of the sponsors. My personal view is that the Blackboard patent is anti-competitive, stifles innovation and goes against all that higher education holds dear. So I couldn’t, with a clear conscience, go to a conference that was sponsored by them, and by implication endorsed their actions. So, I decided against going, and have sent the conference organisers a message to this effect. In the same way that writers boycotted the Hay Festival when Nestle were sponsors, this seems to me a reasonable response to take.

I had no intention of boycotting the event, and that is what surprised me – when I saw the BB logo on the side, my immediate reaction was one of discomfort. I think it demonstrated to myself the strength of feeling I had about the whole patent thing. Instead I may spend that research money going to the LAMS conference (okay, I confess, being in Sydney is an attraction too).

Is WebCT the best case against Blackboard

I’m not sure I’ve fully thought this through, and it comes with all the usual caveats about legal ignorance, but here goes….

Could, ironically, WebCT be used as a defence against the Blackboard patent? When Blackboard acquired (or merged with) WebCT they gained a lot of WebCT staff. When they were different companies, their products didn’t differ much, and if WebCT was still a separate entity it would be as subject to a law suit as Desire2Learn. So, if I were the Desire2Learn lawyers I would be asking some of the WebCT staff who moved over to Blackboard to testify. For instance, Chris Vento the chief technical officer at WebCT and now Blackboard, is a very smart guy – could he realistically get up and say that when he worked at WebCT they were (knowingly or otherwise) copying Blackboard and not working from more general principles and meeting the demands of their customers? I think this would surely highlight the case for excessive generality in their patent.

Blackboard – a dangerous friend

Continuing on the Blackboard patent front…

I have to say it strikes me as a commercially dumb move. I’ve had dealings with people at Blackboard and WebCT and always found them to be a smart bunch. They have often pitched the idea that they are partners. The patent is such an antagonistic act however, that any such notion of being a strategic partner must seem dubious. If I worked at an institution that ran one of their products and it was coming up for review, the patent would be a major factor in going elsewhere, for a number of reasons:

  1. It might prevent any additions or innovation I wanted to implement on my campus without finding myself either handing these over, or in court, or having to pay BB to use tools I had invented.
  2. It shows a lack of understanding, or at least a lack of concern, with the values of higher education that make partnering difficult to sustain.
  3. It has a whiff of desperation about it that is never reassuring to detect in a strategic and central supplier.

I remember when I was a teenager, this chap hung around with us who was a bit rough, and had been in trouble. He seemed a reformed character though and we liked having him around. However, one Saturday night after a few drinks a situation escalated and he ended up being carted off by the police. The patent kind of reminds me of this – when the going gets tough they revert to the behaviour they know best – aggression.

At a recent IMS discussion Blackboard did stress that they would not go after open source products, and I doubt they would be successful if they did. Indeed the patent is unlikely to be successful in Europe where software patents are generally frowned upon (copyright is considered a good enough protection I understand), and maybe in the US too. The issue of prior exposure would seem on any logical grounds to rule out most of the patent, since these are such general ideas that most of us could find examples of prior exposure. However, I’m not a lawyer and my understanding of patents is not great, although I do know a thing or two about VLEs, and any suggestion that Blackboard invented the concept is ridiculous. The trouble is lawyers and software don’t make a good mix, so anything might happen. My point, regardless of whether it is actually successful or not, its presence is enough to raise mistrust. If you were part of a project on standards or interoperability, you would be very unlikely to have Blackboard as a partner.

Succession and _that_ Blackboard patent

I’ve been watching the Blackboard patent debate with interest. Initially I felt it might be one of those things that people panic about, but doesn’t turn out to be the higher education apocalypse everyone predicted. While this may still turn out to be the case, it is undoubtedly serious. Michael Feldstein has blogged extensively about it and provides a good translation of the patent, which makes it even scarier. Some of these  (e.g. An instructor can create and edit pages in a course space) seem so general as to be ludicrous, like patenting the concept of a wheel (and indeed being excessively general is one area where the patent may fail).

In terms of the succession model I have outlined elsewhere, I have argued that commercial VLEs have been, on the whole, good for e-learning. Because they match current classroom practice closely they have been easily adopted. Their presence has changed the nature of the environment however, and now many people are looking for more flexibility, and institutions feel they have gained sufficient knowledge to implement open source options. In short, they have been victims of their own success. I guess it was predictable then that a commercial organisation wasn’t just going to lie down and accept this. The patent is the equivalent of napalming the burgeoning plant succession and locking down the environment.

The seedy underbelly of ponyworld

My four year old daughter is very keen on horseriding (what is it with girls and horses?), so I have been dutifully taking her along every weekend to our local riding school. Now previously I had thought this was all rather sweet, but a bit dull. The story of doping at a children’s show-jumping event though has given me a renewed interest. Who would have thought that such rich thriller material could be found at a gymkhana? I await the release of the new My Little Pony, Sedata, who falls over repeatedly and listens to Hendrix…

Pretexting and the death of the HP way

Well the HP way has been near death for a long while, but surely the current crisis at HP spells its demise. In 2002 The Palo Alto weekly was forecasting its end. This quote from that article particularly highlights the difference between the initial culture fostered by Hewlett and Packard and the current debacle: "When former employees reminisce about the HP Way, they toss around words like "integrity," "trust," and "team." Hmm, there doesn’t seem to have been an abundance of trust and integrity in this case.

The OU has just received a grant from the Hewlett Foundation (not related to HP, set up by William and Flora Hewlett separately) to make our content open, as did MIT with the open courseware project. One can’t imagine such philanthropy from those currently at the helm in HP, they’d be more likely to spend their money increasing the legal restrictions on content than making it freely available.

The crisis also highlights the dangers of euphemisms. The practice of obtaining phone records from employees without their knowledge is known as ‘pretexting’. Now, if it was called ‘spying’ then it would seem unsavoury, but pretexting sounds scientific, techy and modern. One can imagine the conversation:

Investigator – ‘Well I could get all their phone records and then we’d know who the leak was.’

HP person – ‘Isn’t that spying?’

Investigator – ‘No, no, no, that would be illegal. It’s pretexting.’

HP – ‘Oh, in that case, go ahead.’

Open source models in education

I seem to have inherited an EU project…

The OU is a partner in FLOSScom – the idea of which is to look at open source communities and see how (or if) the principles can be applied in education, ie to what extent they can act as a model of an e-learning community. This is in my area of interest so I’m going to be the project lead for the OU.

Although I think there are lots of interesting things about the open course community which have parallels in education (for instance the exchange of ideas, status established by reputation, etc) what I think is just as interesting is where the model or metaphor does not apply. What is different about education to producing software? Are all subject matters equal? To what extent should education try to be like the FLOSS model?

Anyway, it’s just starting and it looks genuinely interesting which has not always been my experience with EU projects.

D4LD progress

The children are back in school (in their expensive new uniforms in my case), the holidays are over, back to work…

First up was a conference call with the D4LD team at the OUNL and Liverpool Hope. Over the summer we have mainly been concentrating on looking at some of the performance issues of Coppercore and SLeD. It seems the iTunesesque (I know, I know, let it be Martin) response times we were experiencing have been replicated by the OUNL team when they have duplicated our set up. The likely suspect was optimisation of the HSQL database. By fixing this and some minor code tweaks and an improvement to the caching method response times now seem to be down to a couple of seconds. Not ideal but a world away from the minutes we were getting at one stage.

At the OU Juliette White has been concentrating on some interface changes and bug fixes.

What we will find out now is what happens with real users as Liverpool Hope will commence using the system next week.