Amid Blackboard’s purchase of Moodlerooms, fear and loathing set in

Blackboard said Moodlerooms would not raise its prices.

The decision had been made, student information had been transferred, and faculty had been trained to use the Moodle learning management system (LMS) hosted by Moodlerooms. Loyola University-Maryland had finally broken away from Blackboard, the LMS goliath. Until March 26, that is.

That’s when many campus technology leaders who had for years railed against Blackboard and advocated for open-source LMS options heard the news that, had it been announced April 1, would have made for an excellent April Fool’s joke.

“I was shocked, I was in disbelief, and I could not believe what I was reading,” Louise Finn, Loyola’s chief information officer (CIO), said of Blackboard’s acquisition of Moodlerooms, a longtime favorite of campus technologists that helps colleges establish and maintain an LMS based on the open-source Moodle platform. “We spent a considerable amount of time and effort getting away from Blackboard, as have many schools. You get to a place where you think they can’t touch you, and lo and behold, you’re right back in their camp.”

Finn continued: “Faculty came to me and said, ‘What in the world just happened?’ as if we could ever predict something like this.”

Blackboard also purchased an Australia-based supporter of Moodle called NetSpot, and announced the creation of an Open Source Services Group that will include Charles Severance, a leading advocate for the open-source movement in higher education and a founding member of the Sakai Foundation, an organization that pushes for open-source educational software adoption.

Finn said she wouldn’t ditch Moodlerooms and find another open-source LMS company, because Loyola IT staffers only finished training faculty members on the ins and outs of Moodle two years ago.

“I can do nothing but take a wait-and-see approach,” she said. “I can’t cut and run from Moodlerooms and throw off the equilibrium of our faculty here.”

Calvin Burgamy, an instructional technologist at Georgia’s Agnes Scott College—a campus of less than 1,000 students—told a similar story: The college, after paying upwards of $15,000 a year for Blackboard’s LMS service, moved to Moodle and had Moodlerooms manage the open-source LMS setup.

And even though Burgamy has attended several Blackboard conferences, where Blackboard employees “were all very nice people,” he dreaded what would become of Moodlerooms after it merges with a much larger and profitable competitor.

“My first reaction was, ‘Oh, the evil overlords are coming in,’” he said. “[Blackboard] is like a shark learning management system eating smaller sharks so it can survive and thrive. … Open source has been this wild territory that goes up against the big guys, but now the big guys have their hands in the mix.”

Blackboard has seen campuses slowly migrate away from proprietary LMS software that was dominant in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and toward LMS platforms that use open source code to customize course websites. About half of nonprofit universities now use Blackboard, down from 71 percent in 2006, according to the Campus Computing Project.

Blackboard and Moodlerooms officials said in the hours after the acquisition was made public that the deal should be greeted as a boon for the open-source education movement, which now has the built-in customer base and financial support of a successful corporation.

Lou Pugliese, CEO of Moodlerooms, and Brett Frazier, senior vice president of Blackboard Learn, emphasized that Moodlerooms customers would not see prices rise, and they soon would have more support from the Open Support Services Group.

Burgamy remained skeptical.

“Blackboard is a corporation. They’re beholden to their shareholders to make money and turn a profit,” he said. “They wouldn’t do something out of some sense of altruism. In our society, it is natural for them to try to buy up all their competition.”

Blackboard’s claim that the purchase of Moodlerooms was good news for open-source champions, Finn said, is considered plausible in some corners of higher education.

“That’s my most hopeful outcome, that the open-source community can flourish with the financial backing of a company like Blackboard,” she said. “I think all boats can rise if they stick to what they say.”

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