As the giant among learning management systems (LMS) for higher education, Blackboard is an easy target. And as its market share has dropped and newer, more innovative companies have entered the field over the past few years, Blackboard bashing has become a regular industry pastime.
But the company’s critics might have less to knock if the company’s new CEO succeeds in putting Blackboard on a new path.
The big news this week out of Blackboard’s annual conference, BbWorld, was the announcement of its new platform for massive open online courses (MOOCs) meant to rival startups like Coursera and Udacity. But, reports suggest that the company also made a big effort to show off its new CEO Jay Bhatt (who took the helm seven months ago) and his new strategy.
With mounting competition from LMS providers like Instructure, Moodle and Desire2Learn, as well as MOOC platforms and other ed tech startups bringing new learning software to education, Blackboard is under more pressure than ever before. But here are four ways Bhatt seems to believe he can move the company ahead.
A new emphasis on innovation
Blackboard is embracing the shiny new object in education: MOOCs. But in an interview with The Chronicle of Higher Education, Bhatt suggested that its new MOOC platform marks just the beginning of how Blackboard plans to help institutions transition to online learning. “We need to take the handcuffs off the innovation,” he said. “Yes, it’s about supporting massive open online courses. But it’s also about supporting programs online, or complete institutions as they move online, or distance education on a global scale.”
(Incidentally, in announcing its own MOOC platform this week, the company couldn’t resist getting in a little gibe against its rivals. Executives reportedly called their revenue-sharing agreements with universities “onerous” and “aggressive.” And on the topic of MOOC startups (like Coursera and Udacity) Bhatt said to Inside Higher Ed, “I don’t think they know where they’re going to be — they just have a lot of venture capital money.”)
Making bigger investments in core products
When it comes to product development, it looks as if the company is putting its money where its mouth is. According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, Bhatt may double or triple investment in software, with a specific focus on the company’s Blackboard Learn product (the main service that enables teachers and students to communicate, submit papers, access content, grade assignments, etc.).
Changing the approach to acquisitions
The company will continue to be a big buyer of other ed tech companies but, under Bhatt, what Blackboard does once it gobbles up a startup will differ. Historically, the company’s acquisition strategy targeted rivals that had reached a certain scale in an effort to limit competition, Bhatt said. But, he told The Chronicle, “That’s not my acquisitions philosophy.” From the sounds of it, it seems that his approach will be to bring in slightly smaller companies with the goal of scaling and integrating new technology in-house.
Centralizing product lines
Partly because of its many acquisitions, Blackboard’s products sometimes seem stitched together like a patchwork quilt, with customers complaining that it can feel like they’re working with entirely different companies, not just different product lines. But Bhatt has said, and repeated this week, that they’re working on better integration and a consistent user experience across the company.