Sunday, July 11, 2010

Blackboard, Elluminate, and Wimba (Oh My!)

On July 7, 2010, Blackboard announced that it is buying Elluminate and Wimba, two Web conferencing systems very familiar to users of CCC Confer. The intent is to create Blackboard Collaborate, which will focus on synchronous learning technologies. Since the announcement, many have called and written me with concerns about the future of Confer and the general prospects for Web conferencing software in education.

This Looks Familiar
Way back in 1989, I wrote a book about utility software for personal computers. The dominant operating system at the time - MS-DOS - needed a lot of help to get things to work well, and I used 256 pages to describe disk defragmenting programs, backup utilities, DOS shells, screen capture software, and the like. Within a few years, nearly everything my book described was unnecessary because Microsoft had incorporated these utilities into its operating system, either by developing them or by buying the companies or software that already accomplished the task.

Ten years later, I was at a college of education trying to support an online tutoring project for middle schoolers. We settled on software from Tutornet because it allowed us to connect graduate students at our college with students in remote classrooms for live, interactive chat and whiteboard activities. Within a year, Blackboard acquired the Tutornet software and incorporated it into a new product the company called Virtual Classroom.

I came to CCC Confer in 2003. We were working at that time with a company called HorizonLive, a supplier of Web conferencing software that made real-time interaction and content delivery possible. HorizonLive later became HorizonWimba when Wimba - at the time a developer of voice tools - joined their team, and still later the company shortened its name to Wimba. Many longtime Confer users will remember that we made a switch from Wimba to Elluminate at about this time - not because of the name change but because of a detailed analysis of both software packages and the needs of our users.

What's the Point?
My point is that good companies look for ways to bolster their product lines, and this is nothing new. Microsoft acquired many of the utility software companies I wrote about and incorporated them into their own system. Blackboard acquired Tutornet, and HorizonLive acquired (or was acquired by) Wimba to make its Web conferencing software more competitive.

So now, apparently, Blackboard has taken a bigger interest in synchronous online learning. Great! We've known about and worked with this kind of powerful collaboration for years, so it's certainly time that major "Learning Management Systems" (I admit I have trouble with the phrase) recognize the importance of real-time online learning experiences. We've even known who had the best options available, so it's heartening to know that Blackboard expanded its synchronous software portfolio by choosing the two companies that had the best products, as indicated by our own experience.

Now What?
According to Ray Henderson, President of Blackboard Learn, "we intend to sustain the product integrations and business partnerships Elluminate and Wimba enjoyed with our competitors. Both had projects underway to integrate with major open source products, and both had business partnerships and integrations with the major commercial platforms. Our message to the industry is that we intend to sustain this work and the partnerships." Maurice Heiblum, the new President of Blackboard Collaborate, assured me of the same thing earlier this week. The posted FAQs say, "We’ll honor all existing contracts for Elluminate and Wimba clients. We’ll also honor all renewal agreement terms that have been extended." So nothing has changed - yet.

I'm glad my friends at both companies will be able to work together at what they know and love, and I hope Maurice, Carol and Ray will forge bonds quickly that bring out the best of both Elluminate and Wimba worlds. On the CCC front, Confer continues to serve a very large user base with the same small and talented team, so there will be no effect on our communications or services to our end users. And our mission remains the same, regardless of which partnerships we forge (or undo) to fulfill it.

Write me if you have any questions or concerns. I'm interested!
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