February 6, 2007

Suit Threatens Blackboard Inc.

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Only time will tell how Blackboard Inc., Cornell’s course management software provider, will fare on campus and throughout the country.

Amid a national legal debate over the scope of Blackboard’s “Internet-based education support system and methods” patent, Cornell technology staff members are moving forward with a preliminary assessment of whether Blackboard is the most appropriate software for Cornell professors and students.

Stressing that the “legal issues aren’t having an impact on our commitment to Blackboard in the short run,” Jim Lombardi of CIT admitted that the controversy, “probably accelerated our plans to take a look at what the options are to Blackboard.”

On Jan. 25, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office moved to reexamine Blackboard’s contentious patent.

Last Thursday, Blackboard came out with a “Patent Pledge” in order to reassure universities and open-source educational software providers of its commitment to technological collaboration and innovation.

The “Patent Pledge” tried to assuage concerns ignited by Blackboard’s July 27 patent infringement lawsuit against educational software maker Desire2Learn. The lawsuit generated a strong negative reaction from the e-learning community through the fall of last year.

In a legally-binding pledge, Blackboard agreed not to assert its issued or pending course management system software patents against open source software or home-grown course management systems to the extent that such software and systems “are not bundled with proprietary software.”

This slightly eased the fears of open-source software providers who feared they would be Blackboard’s next legal target. “Open source” software allows for public collaboration and the free exchange of content.

Cornell may choose one of these types of course management systems as Blackboard’s successor. The assessment process will gather momentum this spring with tests of several major alternatives, including: Sakai, Angel, Moodle, Desire2Learn and software created by Cornell’s computer science department.

“When Blackboard announced their patent it did cause us to begin an assessment of whether we wanted to move away from Blackboard … It did cause us to rethink whether we wanted to use their product,” said Polley McClure, Cornell’s vice president of Information Technologies.

Lombardi and others described the assessment process as “due diligence” or “insurance.”

“Whenever a company starts getting that many people annoyed at it, you sense some risk — that’s what it comes down to,” said Lombardi.

Cornell officials were careful to emphasize that Blackboard is the right fit for Cornell at this time. They said that the assessment would have occurred this year even without the upset and anxiety elicited by Blackboard’s legal actions.

Several engineering students found much at fault in the Blackboard software itself.

“I used it freshman year of high school, … [and] it still has the same errors,” complained Salvatore Cremona ’09.

Sascha Adler ’07 said, “I’m a [Computer Science] major, and I’ve never used Blackboard. … I’ve never heard a CS major say that they like Blackboard.”

Instead, Adler — along with about 2,000 other students in computer science, engineering and economics — use Course Management System. CMS was first designed five years ago in the computer science department.

David Gries, associate dean of engineering and one of CMS’s designers, explained that CMS and Blackboard “serve a slightly different purpose.” While CMS is meant to ease the administration of courses and help students see their grades, Blackboard handles different course websites.

Part of Blackboard’s history originated at Cornell. Daniel Cane ’98 founded CourseInfo in 1997 and counted Cornell as one of his first clients.

CourseInfo LLC and Blackboard LLC merged in 1998 to form Blackboard Inc., which creates and sells the e-learning software many students use today.