Last week, Blackboard, the largest commercial provider of learning management systems to the education sector, purchased not one but two web conferencing providers that also have a strong educational heritage – Elluminate and Wimba. Now, although I have used Blackboard for five years or more now to deliver an online certificate for one of my clients, I certainly have no warm feelings for the company; firstly because I actually prefer Moodle, even though it’s essentially free, but even more because of Blackboard’s outrageous behaviour a year or two back in claiming it invented the LMS and going after its main competitors for extravagent royalties. It failed, I’m glad to say, and it will take Blackboard years of being terribly nice to repair its stinking reputation.
I don’t know Wimba, but I have an affinity for Elluminate, which the eLearning Network and ALT uses to run its joint public webinars. It is a capable web conferencing platform, with a number of features which make it especially suited to use as a virtual classroom (Onlignment’s Phil Green is a big fan). It’s possible that both Elluminate and Wimba would find it hard to survive on their own in the long run against the competition faced by the big IT and telecoms operators that are beginning to dominate web conferencing (Cisco, Microsoft, Adobe, AT&T, etc.). Whether Blackboard provides it with much protection is dubious. After all when Saba bought Centra, which was at the time one of the major corporate web conferencing platforms, its profile dropped enormously and now it is a speck in the market compared to WebEx.
In George Siemens’ posting about the takeover, he takes the position that Blackboard is making a sensible move because “synchronous tools represent the fastest growing technology segment in education, and the one with the greatest prospect for future growth.” At Onlignment, we like to think so. But I’m not sure that it really helps to integrate the LMS with web conferencing, particularly in the workplace, where the decisions to purchase these platforms are likely to originate from different places in the organisation: HR look after the LMS, and IT look after business communications, which includes web conferencing. And a good LMS should be able to integrate seamlessly with any web conferencing platform, just like it should do with any authoring tool or HR system.