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Blackboard Buys 2 Leading Supporters of Open-Source Competitor Moodle

For years, colleges looking for course-management software considered a choice between Blackboard’s dominant commercial product or an open-source alternative such as Moodle or Sakai. Now Blackboard essentially owns the open-source alternatives as well.

On Monday, Blackboard officials announced that the company has purchased two leading supporters of Moodle, Moodlerooms and NetSpot. Both deals are complete, though officials would not disclose the sale prices. The company also hired one of the founders of the Sakai project to lead its efforts to support colleges using that open-source software. The moves are part of the company’s newly announced Blackboard Education Open Source Services group.

In the past Blackboard has purchased competitors and then either disbanded them, as it did with Prometheus, or merged the competing product with its own, as it did with WebCT. This time Blackboard said it is leaving the companies alone, allowing them to run under their current brand names with their existing staffs. No layoffs are anticipated, said Ray Henderson, president of academic platforms at Blackboard.

In an unexpected move, Blackboard also announced that it will continue to sell and maintain the Angel course-management system, which it bought three years ago, indefinitely. It had previously announced that Angel would be discontinued in 2014.

Blackboard has purchased so many commercial competitors over the years that college officials have long joked that it would next buy open source, too. The funny part was that such a move would be impossible, because open-source projects are built under a license that prevents any one entity from owning the code. Of course, Blackboard hasn’t bought Moodle or Sakai, but it is doing the next best thing in purchasing leading companies that support those programs and bringing in people who helped build the alternatives.

That might not amuse college officials who chose Moodle or Sakai specifically to avoid Blackboard’s orbit, said Trace A. Urdan, an analyst at Signal Hill. “People looking to open source as an alternative to Blackboard are going to be put off by it,” he said. “This is going to turn some of the Moodlerooms customers off.”

Lou Pugliese, chief executive of Moodlerooms, said in an interview late Monday that he is not worried about defectors, and instead stressed that the move will help colleges that use other Blackboard products and want to link them to Moodle.

Bradley C. Wheeler, chief information officer at Indiana University at Bloomington who has been active in the development of Sakai, said it remains to be seen whether Blackboard’s news is good or bad for the open-source software movement in academe. “Does it cause software to mature faster” because of Blackboard’s deep pockets, he asked, “or at some point and time does a value conflict arise?”

Officials from Moodlerooms, NetSpot, and Blackboard recently traveled to Australia to tell the inventor of Moodle, Martin Dougiamas, of their plans, and in a way, to ask for his blessing. He is quoted in a press release by Blackboard as saying that he will continue to consider Moodlerooms and NetSpot official Moodle partners. “The decision of Moodlerooms and NetSpot to work under Blackboard may sound very strange at first to anyone in this industry,” said Mr. Dougiamas in a statement issued by Blackboard. “But it’s my understanding that these three companies have some good plans and synergies.”

Mr. Henderson of Blackboard wrote on his blog that the meeting was “a bit surreal for all present.”

Leaders of Blackboard, Moodlerooms, and NetSpot issued a public “statement of principles” swearing commitment to supporting open-source software development.

In an interview, Mr. Henderson highlighted Blackboard’s growing diversity of products and services beyond just providing course-management software. “We are definitely keen to grow our services businesses,” he said.

It is unclear what Blackboard’s announcements today mean to new upstart providers of learning-management systems, some of which have enjoyed support of venture capitalists excited about education-technology companies.

Josh Coates, chief executive of Instructure, argued that colleges will now see the choice as between software that began development nearly a decade ago and platforms built more recently. “Moodle’s a crappy product, so people don’t want to use it,” he said in an interview Monday. “Moodle and Blackboard came from the same decade, which was a long time ago.”

Mr. Henderson, of Blackboard, said that colleges mainly look to mature products that have proven their durability and staying power. “We like our chances there,” he said.

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