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The WebCT-Blackboard merger: Will it fulfil corporate expectations?

Roger Atkinson

The title for this month's IT in HE column represents a quandary. There are numerous other words that could replace 'corporate', for example, 'academic', 'university', 'educational sector', 'teacher', etc. But finally I settled on 'corporate', because it epitomises a powerful thread in the electronic chatter about the merger. For example, of many news stories about 'BB', this is one that most readily catches my eye. Definitely 'corporate':

Blackboard Begins Selling Stock to the Public; Share Price Jumps (6/21/2004)

Blackboard Inc. began selling shares of stock to the public on Friday, with an initial offering of $14 per share. By the end of the day, the price had risen to $20.01, greatly surpassing expectations for an education-technology stock. [1]

There has been quite a wide range of views expressed about the merger. Blackboard emphasises benefits for everyone:
"This merger makes tremendous sense for our clients, shareholders and employees. It marks an unparalleled opportunity for two successful, mission-driven organizations to unify with a singular focus on being the premier partner and platform for educators on a global basis," said Michael Chasen, Blackboard President and Chief Executive Officer. "Together with our clients, we have one of those rare and special opportunities to truly improve the access, quality and efficiency of education on a global scale." [2]
Aided by blog, newspaper and email list chatter, other commercial providers of LMS (learning management system) software sought attention. A Canadian based LMS provider, Desire2Learn, was quick to announce its elevation from distant third to second in the LMS 'pecking order' (helped by being named by other correspondents):
After the merger of competitors, D2L will be the second largest provider of eLearning technology to educational institutions, as determined by number of clients, and will retain the position as the leading enterprise elearning technology and service provider with well over 3 million learners worldwide - with clients across North America, the UK, Europe, Australia, South America, and other locations around the world. [3]

Up until recently, the merger of the two behemoths could have led to a virtual monopoly in the VLE market, give or take a few smaller rivals such as Desire2Learn and Giunti. As pointed out by Blackboard itself, however, easily as formidable an opposition is provided by the open source Moodle and Sakai products. In some markets, Claroline, .lrn and the UK's Boddington also have a role to play. Recent developments suggest that the rise of Moodle in particular might be able to provide the much needed counterbalance to the new e-learning behemoth. [4]

Critical, speculative commentary about a 'virtual monopoly' surfaced quickly in a range of media, with frequent mentions of Moodle (above and below), among other LMS competitors:
...it will be interesting to see how e-learning practitioners respond to a company that is now in a position to exercise a deal of monopoly power. Will institutions recoil and opt for open source solutions? Or will they be accepting of the market dominance in the same way they are of Microsoft products? [5]

... Others fear the loss of competition will take away the pressure that has led Blackboard to improve its customer support in recent years (and encourage it to jack up prices). [6]

I agree [about Moodle]. Moodle is quite a course management package for "free." We've been using it for about 20 months and have just recently moved all our 300+ courses from eCollege to Moodle and are saving about $250,000 per year going forward. [7]

If, from this very limited set of illustrative examples, you are getting the impression that the corporate 'expectation' of unchallenged market dominance for "BlackCT" [6] is far from assured, you are on the right track! There's a lot of saplings on the floor of the LMS forest, and given a bit more light, they will grab it! So, now for the main point of this column. If as a WebCT user, you are asked for your view on staying with "BlackCT" or migrating to another solution, call for the investigation of, and reporting on, three options: stay with merged Blackboard-WebCT; migrate to a new commercial provider such as D2L; and, migrate to an open source solution such as Moodle. If someone says, "How would you know?", throw a number of URLs at said person [8, 9 and others cited for this column], and say "Are you the IT researcher, or not?". If you are not asked for your view, well, that is a different problem, beyond the scope of this humble column.

To conclude, a wee bit of identification with Moodle (which means that I'm not a fully neutral commentator). It goes back to Moodle's origins with one developer, just five years ago [11], though by now it has about 140 developers, world wide [12]. Note the important phrase, "[use of] free open-source software tools". Known as "don't reinvent the wheel" in other genres. To quote:

2.2.3 Construction of Moodle

The building of the first prototype of Moodle took me approximately one month of full-time work to complete, using free open-source software tools. These included: Linux (www.linux.com), for the operating system; Zope (www.zope.org), as the application server; Python (www.python.org), as a lower-level programming environment; Apache (www.apache.org), as the web server gateway; and a number of Unix shell scripts to control the system.

In order to finish the prototype on time, I had to simplify down to the bare essentials the discussion forum in the prototype used in the research project, removing most of the management interfaces.


  1. Carnevale, D. (2004). Blackboard begins selling stock to the public; Share price jumps. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 21 June. http://chronicle.com/daily/2004/06/2004062109n.htm
  2. Blackboard (2005). Press release, 12 October. [verified 11 Nov 2005] http://www.blackboard.com/company/press/release.aspx?id=767025
  3. Desire2Learn (2005). D2L News. http://www.desire2learn.com/news/newsdetails_16.asp [viewed 17 Oct 2005]
  4. Kraan, W. (2005). Blackboard to acquire WebCT. CETIS, 14 October. http://www.cetis.ac.uk/content2/20051014001848
  5. ASCILITE (2005). Blackboard and WebCT merger announced. ascilite Newsletter, October 2005. http://www.ascilite.org.au/newsletter/5.03/index.html#elsewhere
  6. Inside Higher Ed: News (2005). Blackboard vs.... http://insidehighered.com/news/2005/10/17/blackboard
  7. Instructional Technology Forum (2005). List posting Fri, 21 Oct 2005 20:21:57 +0000. http://it.coe.uga.edu/itforum/
  8. EduTools (undated). Course management systems. http://www.edutools.info/course/compare/byproduct/
  9. LMS Talk (undated). http://lmstalk.com/resources-LMSopensource.html
  10. Moodle home page. http://moodle.org/
  11. Dougiamas, M. (2000). Improving the effectiveness of tools for Internet based education. In A. Herrmann and M.M. Kulski (Eds), Flexible Futures in Tertiary Teaching. Proceedings of the 9th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 2-4 February 2000. Perth: Curtin University of Technology. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2000/dougiamas.html
  12. Moodle (2005). Moodle HQ off and running. http://moodle.org/mod/forum/discuss.php?d=32727

Author: Roger Atkinson retired from Murdoch University's Teaching and Learning Centre in June 2001. His current activities include publishing AJET and honorary work on TL Forum and other academic conference support and publishing activities. Website: http://www.roger-atkinson.id.au/ Contact: rjatkinson@bigpond.com

Please cite as: Atkinson, R. (2005). The WebCT-Blackboard merger: Will it fulfil corporate expectations? HERDSA News, 27(3). http://www.roger-atkinson.id.au/pubs/herdsa-news/27-3.html

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