Las Vegas — Blackboard, a company that makes software that many colleges use to run their classroom and online courses, announced on Wednesday that it was expanding its support for MOOCs, though it is relatively late to the much-talked-about trend of massive open online courses.
“We watched really carefully, and we thought about doing something” sooner, said Ray Henderson, president of Blackboard’s teaching and learning division, in an interview this week. “This is one of those times when we said this is a watch and develop, not jump on it.”
The company announced at its annual conference here that it would create a new MOOC platform that colleges could use free if they were existing Blackboard customers. The company has already hosted a couple of dozen MOOCs on a service called CourseSites, but the new platform will be enhanced with features to help colleges run courses for large numbers of students—and it will let colleges make some connections between their on-campus courses and their free open courses, if they choose to.
CourseSites will remain in operation, but in the future it will be reserved for its original purpose—not to offer MOOCs, but to let professors experiment with Blackboard’s software for their traditional courses.
Many colleges looking to experiment with MOOCs have signed up for Coursera or edX, two popular platforms that are growing fast. And one of Blackboard’s competitors in the course-management software business, Instructure, already offers a MOOC platform for its customers, called Canvas Network.
Colleges “want this,” said Mr. Henderson, referring to support for free online courses. “If they don’t get it from us, they could get it from someone else, which initiates a new relationship that is potentially a risk to us.”
Blackboard also announced that 15 additional institutions, including Temple University’s business school and Syracuse University, plan to offer MOOCs using Blackboard’s software starting this fall. Darin Kapanjie, managing director for online and digital learning at the Temple business school, said it had decided to use Blackboard for MOOCs because the school already uses the company’s software for its online courses. “Why not put students in the same environment they’re going to be in if they enroll?” he said.
Katie Blot, Blackboard’s president of global education services, said that she and other officials at the company had been hearing three main reasons from colleges to try MOOCs: to open access to education, to experiment with new teaching methods, and, as a form of marketing, to give nonstudents a taste of what the institution is like.
Mr. Kapanjie said marketing was the main reason his institution was trying a MOOC. “It’s marketing and brand awareness,” he said. “Our biggest issue is nobody knows about us,” he added, noting that the business school has offered online courses for several years.
The service will be free to existing Blackboard customers, though there might be a fee if colleges want to customize or upgrade features on their MOOC offerings. Company officials said they expected that, in the future, colleges that offer MOOCs with the service might expand their purchase of other software and services from Blackboard.
“MOOCs,” said Mr. Henderson, “are a first step to really building out online programs.”