Saturday, March 5, 2011

A Step in the Right Direction, Ray, but…

This morning, I created my account on Blackboard COURSEsites. According to Ray Henderson, the President of Blackboard Learn, COURSEsites is “a free version of our (Blackboard’s) latest learning management system for individual instructors.” As you may know, Pepperdine University discontinued its use of Blackboard Learn last month and adopted Sakai in its place, upon the recommendation of Pepperdine faculty and students.

My point in writing is not to beat a well-beaten horse further regarding Blackboard products or service quality (try typing ‘Blackboard gripes’ into Google), nor is it to provide a ringing endorsement of Blackboard Learn as an LMS. However, I do think that the introduction and availability of COURSEsites is a very positive development for Blackboard. If we take Ray Henderson at his word, which I do, that COURSEsites represents Blackboard taking “inspiration from the open source model…to its logical extreme,” then this is a step in the right direction for a company whose motivations are often viewed as suspect.

Nevertheless, as my colleagues on the EDUCAUSE CIO listserv have pointed out, when you dig a bit deeper beyond the marketing hype, the COURSEsites terms of use (TOU) raise several questions.

Is COURSEsites available for regular, recurring adoption by faculty members or is it limited to introductory, investigative use only?

The COURSEsites TOU states that it “gives clients an opportunity to utilize Blackboard technology on an introductory basis.” Ray acknowledges that COURSEsites is considered as a marketing tool for encouraging grass roots faculty support for purchasing an enterprise license for Blackboard Learn. Because “introductory basis” is not defined in the TOU, it is unclear how long Blackboard will allow a faculty member to use COURSEsites on a recurring basis. What is clear is that regular, recurring use by individual faculty member should not be assumed.

Will faculty members be expected to pay a fee for regular, recurring use of COURSEsites beyond the “introductory, investigative period?

The COURSEsites TOU states that faculty “must pay all applicable fees associated with your use of the Service. Any renewals of the Service shall be at Blackboard’s then-current rates.” One can easily infer that after a faculty member completes their “introductory period,” they may be expected to pay a subscription fee to Blackboard for their continued use of COURSEsites.

Can COURSEsites be used for active courses offered by a college or university for which students are charged tuition and fees?

The COURSEsites TOU states that faculty members agree not to “reproduce, duplicate, sell, trade, resell or exploit for any commercial purposes any portion of the Service, use of the Service, or access to the service.” If I am teaching a course at Pepperdine, because Pepperdine charges students tuition and fees for the course, am I in violation of the TOU?

These are just three of the most egregious sections of the TOU. There are parts that are equally problematic, such as inability to opt out of Blackboard marketing communications, a lack of clarity regarding backups and disaster recovery provisions, and Blackboard’s ability to copy and use all content stored in COURSEsites for their own marketing and promotional purposes. Because of all of these issues, I could not recommend to any of my faculty colleagues that they adopt COURSEsites for any of their courses.

This raises the question: What exactly is Blackboard up to? There appears to be a very real gap in terms of the marketing hype surrounding COURSEsites (i.e., that it is a free Blackboard offering for use by individual faculty members) and the nitty gritty detail expressed in the COURSEsites TOU (i.e., that it is a marketing tool intended for evaluation only). It is precisely this type of gap that is typical of Blackboard marketing and leads many to hold Blackboard suspect.

Let me state again, for the record: Ray, you are to be commended for a step in the right direction. Now, I encourage you to “stick the landing” and update the COURSEsites TOU so that it is a free service for adoption by individual faculty members on a regular, recurring basis. Doing so will help you to increase the impact of Blackboard on higher education, while also helping you to sell more Blackboard Learn licenses. Not doing so will limit the potential impact of this initiative.

Note: the COURSEsites TOU described in this document was downloaded from this location on Wednesday, March 2, 2011.

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