Instructure is not “the New Blackboard”

Author: Michael Feldstein
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Yesterday, I wrote about my experiences at the recent IMS Learning Impact Leadership Institute. Today, I’m going to write about a sentence that I heard uttered several times while at that summit. One that I’ve been expecting to hear for nearly a year now.

“Instructure is the new Blackboard.”

It’s not the first time I have heard that sentence, but it has reached critical mass. I have known it was coming since last Instructurecon. I wrote a blog post specifically to prepare for this entirely predictable moment. It has finally arrived.

And now it is time to explain why nobody should ever say “X is the new Blackboard” about any company ever again.

Predicting the inevitable

I have often characterized Instructure’s first decade of customer relations as “gravity-defying.” Once or twice, I have had people challenge me on the blog about that characterization. “Why are you rooting for them to fail?” they would ask. But I wasn’t. I was merely observing that gravity exists, and nobody can defy the laws of physics forever. What goes up eventually comes down. And in ed tech, any fall is a fall from grace. As a rule, educators are distrustful of ed tech companies, are really distrustful of large ones, and are bitterly resentful of companies that disappoint them. At some point, Instructure would have to slip from abnormally good and revert to mean. And when that happened, there would be blowback.

It was clear that moment had arrived at Instructurecon 2018 because Instructure was no longer able to pull off the impossible. Josh Coates keynotes should have been impossible. Josh is a smart, interesting, thoughtful guy. He is not a good keynote speaker. He rambles. He careens. He talks about what he cares about, and what he thinks you should care about, but doesn’t give a lot of thought to what you think you need to hear from him. And yet, somehow, his Instructurecon keynotes came off as charming and fascinating. Nobody cared that he said not one damned thing about anything that every other LMS company CEO would have been shredded by their customers for not covering. He was like some funhouse mirror version of Mr. Rogers.

Until 2018, when his keynote was a disaster. It wasn’t just that the quirky charm failed to work this time. Josh offended multiple groups in the audience. What goes up must eventually come down.

Then there was Josh’s fireside chat with Dan Goldsmith, then the newly announced President. It was obvious to Phil and me that Dan was being introduced to the customers because he would be CEO within a year. Gravity-defying Instructure would have somehow magically helped the audience understand that they were being introduced to the line of succession while being reassured that things were steady-as-she-goes. But that would have been a near-impossible feat to pull off, and the Instructure of 2018 walked on the earth like you and me. So the audience reaction was, basically, “Uh, he seems nice, but why do I need to hear about how he was an Uber driver for a while?”

There were also smaller signs, and other facts from which one could draw inferences. There was the small but noticeable reduction in spending on the conference. There was the increasing pressure from the stock market for Instructure to grow their sales of Bridge to corporations. The dominos had already started falling, and the pattern was set for the next ones to fall in a certain order:

  • Josh would leave soon. Other executives and senior managers would likely leave as well. Some would go because they had had a good run and were ready to move on. Others would go because Dan would want to put his own team in place.
  • Instructure was built around Josh, who is an idiosyncratic leader. It was also built to sell to higher education. In order to retool it so that it is something that can run well under Dan’s leadership style and sell into higher education, K12, and the corporate market, many things would have to change internally. People would move around. Some people would leave. Others would arrive. Processes would change.
  • All of this would be distracting to people who are trying to do their jobs. Things inevitably would fall through the cracks. Some of those things would be important to some customers. Those customers would notice.
  • All of this uncertainty would inevitably create some trepidation among the employees, even if the new management handles the situation beautifully. The fact is that when people are no longer sure what their job is or how they can be successful at it, which is inevitable in this kind of environment of change, they tend to keep their heads down until they figure it out. They may not challenge decisions that they think are on the wrong track.
  • Meanwhile, some of the new senior management, crucially including the CEO, were new to education and wouldn’t know where the landmines are. And there are many, many landmines. It wouldn’t matter how smart the new people are. It wouldn’t matter how decent and kind they are. Since they wouldn’t know where the landmines are, and their people would be likely too nervous or distracted to warn them, then sooner or later they would step on one.

In March of this year, Dan Goldsmith said this:

What’s even more interesting and compelling is that we can take that information, correlate it across all sorts of universities, curricula, etc, and we can start making recommendations and suggestions to the student or instructor in how they can be more successful. Watch this video, read this passage, do problems 17-34 in this textbook, spend an extra two hours on this or that. When we drive student success, we impact things like retention, we impact the productivity of the teachers, and it’s a huge opportunity. That’s just one small example.

Our DIG initiative, it is first and foremost a platform for ML and AI, and we will deliver and monetize it by offering different functional domains of predictive algorithms and insights. Maybe things like student success, retention, coaching and advising, career pathing, as well as a number of the other metrics that will help improve the value of an institution or connectivity across institutions. [snip]

We’ve gone through enough cycles thus far to have demonstrable results around improving outcomes with students and improving student success. [snip] I hope to have something at least in beta by the end of this year.

That quote is pulled from Phil’s contemporaneous post on the statement, where he then goes on to reference the “robot tutor in the sky.” But Dan probably wouldn’t have gotten that reference, because he wasn’t in the industry at the time that former Knewton CEO Jose Ferreira made it. As a result, his own statement, which was predictably explosive to Phil and me, probably seemed somewhere between anodyne and exciting to him.

So. You have an ed tech company that has spectacularly over-performed for a decade. Their performance slips, not to horror show levels, but to levels where some customers are noticeably unhappy. The company leadership makes a tone deaf statement or two about unreleased products that we really don’t know that much about.

And that is all it takes to become a fallen angel in higher education ed tech. There is likely no way that employees at Instructure who have only ever worked at that one ed tech company could have known that to be true in advance of having experienced it. There is likely no way that executives coming in from outside of ed tech could have known that to be true without having experienced it either. Because it doesn’t make sense. But it is true. Instructure’s brand was destined to crash hard precisely because it was so good. That’s how it works in ed tech. Cynics are disappointed optimists, and we have a lot of those.

But why, specifically, “the new Blackboard?” It’s not the first time I’ve heard that phrase used about a company. And really, it’s unfair to both Instructure and Blackboard. In fact, when I wrote in my last post about how some companies that used to be barriers to interoperability work now are among its most important champions, I was specifically thinking of Blackboard. The complaints I’ve had about them in recent years have been related to (1) trying to spin their financial challenges and (2) struggling to execute well during an extraordinarily tough transition. In other words, totally normal company stuff. Today’s Blackboard may not be perfect, but it is basically a decent company. In the moral sense.

This sector has a lingering revulsion for a version of a company that ceased to exist in 2012–at the latest—and yet continues to loom as a shadow over the entire vendor space, creating a sense of ever-present subconscious dread. It’s like having a lifelong fear of clowns from something that happened at a circus when you were three years old but that you can no longer remember.

It is time to remember.

The personal as parable

As I described in a recent post, my public debates with Blackboard over their patent assertion are something of an origin story for e-Literate. There is a lot about the story that I’m going to tell now—some of it for the first time on the blog—that is became personal because certain parties at Blackboard chose to make it personal. Throughout that period, and through my writing since, I have tried to keep e-Literate professional and focused only on details that are worth sharing insofar as they advance the public good. I have not always succeeded in that aspiration, but it is important to me to try.

Today I choose to share some actions that were taken against me because I think it is important to understand how truly bad actors behave. These are not the kinds of actions that either Instructure or today’s Blackboard would take. If the sector is going to improve, then we need to get better at distinguishing between bad behavior, which can have a variety of causes and can be corrected through engagement, and truly bad actors, with whom there can be no negotiating. In my experience, truly bad actors are rare.

So I’m going to share some personal experiences later in this blog, but I’m going to try to keep this as minimally personal as I can. When possible, I’m going to avoid naming names, even though some of you will know who I’m talking about. I will share some details but not others. What I ask you to think about as you read my portion of the story is not what happened to me or who did what but how what happened then is qualitatively different from what is happening now.

The old Blackboard

The period of Blackboard’s history that I am talking about is specifically from roughly 1999 to roughly 2012 (or 2009, depending on how you mark the end of the era). During this period, the company carefully developed a carefully crafted and highly successful business strategy. First, they were pioneers in the software rental business. You didn’t own Blackboard software, even if you ran it on your own servers. You paid an annual license fee. I can’t say that Blackboard invented this strategy—I’m not sure who did; it might have been Oracle—but Blackboard certainly drove it deep into the education sector.

This could be a handsomely profitable business model, particularly if they could hold market share and maintain pricing power. Which brings us to the second leg of their strategy. Blackboard sought to dominate ed tech product categories by buying up every vendor in the category as soon as it reached significant market share. Here’s how that looked in the LMS product category:

  • In 2000, they acquired MadDuck Technologies, which made Web Course in a Box
  • In 2002, it was George Washington University’s Prometheus
  • In 2006, WebCT (which had spun out of University of British Columbia but had been independent for a while)
  • In 2009, ANGEL Learning from IUPUI
  • In 2012, after reportedly failing to buy Moodle Pty, the company bought Moodlerooms and NetSpot, the biggest Moodle partners in the US and Australia respectively

The reason that Phil’s famous LMS market share graphic is called the “squid graph” is because Blackboard formed the body by continuously gobbling up competitors as they formed.

In every case except Moodle, Blackboard would kill off the acquired platform after acquisition. They weren’t really looking to acquire technology. To the contrary; they didn’t want the expense of maintaining multiple platforms and showed almost no interest any of the technical innovation until after the ANGEL acquisition, when Ray Henderson started driving some of the product strategy for them. Rather, Blackboard was interested in acquiring customers. They knew that some of those customers would leave—in fact, some of those customers had already left Blackboard previously to the platform that was now being acquired—but that was OK. Because by keeping competition low and competitors under a certain size, Blackboard was really controlling pricing power. LMS license fees were, not coincidentally, significantly more expensive during this period than they are today.

There was one company—Desire2Learn—that represented an increasing threat to Blackboard but would not sell. So Blackboard tried a different tactic, which we’ll come to a little later in this narrative.

Blackboard tried a similar trick of domination through acquisition, somewhat less successfully, in the web conference space by simultaneously buying Wimba and Elluminate, which were two of the largest education-specific web conferencing platforms at the time. If there hadn’t been an explosion of cheap and excellent generic web conferencing solutions soon afterward, it might have worked.

Blackboard did not really consider itself a software development company during this period and was not afraid to say so explicitly to customers. I was told this by a Blackboard representative, and I know of one ePortfolio company that was told the same thing. They started up specifically because Blackboard’s response to them when they asked as university customers if Blackboard would an build ePortfolio was, “We don’t really develop software, but if you know of any good ePortfolio companies, we might consider acquiring one.”

Blackboard did have an internal product development strategy of sorts, albeit an anemic one. Companies understand that it’s easier (and cheaper) to sell a second product to an existing customer than a first product to a new customer. So they often develop a portfolio of products and services to “cross-sell” to those existing clients. In and of itself, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. And like many companies, Blackboard had a formula for how many products they needed to cross-sell in order to hit their financial goals. Again, this is pretty standard stuff. The objectionable part was the way in which that formula drove the product road map.

The quintessential example of this was Blackboard Community. Keep in mind that the LMS originated when universities started taking generic groupware (like Lotus Notes, for example) and adding education specific features like a grade book and a homework drop box. Blackboard’s idea was to strip those education-specific features back out of the product and license it separately to use for clubs, committees, and so on. I’m sure it wasn’t quite that simple from a development perspective, but it wasn’t very far off. Take the product you’ve already sold to the customer, strip out some features, integrate the stripped down version with the original version—badly—and sell it to the customer a second time.

Blackboard also had epically bad customer service. Far worse than any of the LMS vendors today. To be clear, there were individuals at Blackboard who worked their butts off to serve their customers. There are always good people at sufficiently large companies. There were people in Blackboard—on their development teams, in customer service, and in other parts of the company—who tried desperately hard to serve their customers well. But the company’s processes were not optimized for customer service, and it did not invest in customer service. One can only conclude that customer service was not a priority of executive management, whatever the line employees may have felt about it.

The patent suit

As I mentioned earlier, Desire2Learn was becoming a thorn in Blackboard’s side. But Blackboard’s management team was developing a legal strategy that they thought would complement their acquisition strategy, especially in cases where pesky entrepreneurs would not sell. They started filing for patents. Now, software patents are an unfortunate reality in our world. I don’t like them, but since they exist, I understand why some companies feel the need to have them. That said, Blackboard’s intentions were neither for defensive purposes nor for demonstrating durable value to investors. They intended to assert their patents against other companies.

In industries like pharmaceuticals or electronics, where innovation takes considerable investment up front but yields significant, long-term profits afterward, the economics can support patent assertion. There is enough money flowing in the system that there is at least a plausible argument that paying the inventor a licensing fee incentivizes investment in innovation. But education is not that sort of market, and the LMS product category in particular has thin margins. If new LMS vendors had to pay patent royalties, there likely wouldn’t have been new LMS vendors.

Blackboard received a patent for LMS functionality, the precise definition of which I will get to momentarily. They immediately asserted that patent against Desire2Learn. They probably expected the company to fold and agree to either pay the royalty or sell. Companies usually don’t fight patents. If Desire2Learn had folded, that would have given Blackboard’s patent added legal weight. And Blackboard had other patents it had filed. There was every indication that they were attempting to create what is called a “patent thicket,” effectively making it impossible to bring a new product to market without running into one or another of their patents. If they had succeeded, they would have owned the LMS market forever.

They would have killed the LMS market.

And what was Blackboard’s first patent? What was their supposed innovation?

A system where a user could log into one course as an instructor and another as a student.

That’s it.

Really.

When I learned enough about how to read a patent to figure that out, I couldn’t believe it. And this is where Blackboard started fighting with me. But it was all non-denial denials. There is a moment in the legal process of a patent fight where the court determines the scope of the patent. Before that, legally speaking, the patent is undefined. So when Blackboard pushed back against my posts, all they were really saying was that the court hadn’t spoken yet.

When the two companies faced each other in court and argued for their definition of the scope of the patent, what did Blackboard argue was the scope of their patent?

A system where a user could log into one course as an instructor and another as a student.

Blackboard didn’t like me writing stuff like that. They—where “they” means specific executives who I choose not to mention by name, rather than some hive mind of every human working at the company—did not like it when I called them out on it in advance. And they really did not like it when I pointed out afterward that they had been misleading at best in their previous statements about what they believed the scope of the patent to be.

What concerned me was that their repeatedly calling attention to my writing by arguing with me in public was irrational. I was relatively unknown until they started responding to me. This kind of regular unforced error was out of character. It was telling me…something. What was it telling me? The most logical explanation was that I had gotten under their skin. I had cause to suspect that they were the kind of people who did not have a high tolerance for being challenged. That could be dangerous.

As long as I was working at SUNY, I was protected. They may have been irrationally focused on me, but they weren’t stupid. They were not about to attack a university employee. However, once I became an Oracle employee, I was concerned that things would get ugly.

I was right.

What ugly looks like

When I was offered the job at Oracle, I had a conversation with my prospective manager about the Blackboard situation. I told him that I thought the patent assertion was a threat to the health of the sector, that I did not intend to stop writing about it, and that it was possible that Blackboard would come after me once I was no longer working for a university. He replied that he respected my right to continue writing as long as I made clear on the blog that my opinions were my own—which I did, scrupulously—but that if the politics reached above a certain level in the organization, then his ability to protect me would have its limits. We agreed that it would be unfortunate if that were to happen, we each understood and respected the other’s position, and we agreed to give it a go. Nothing ventured and all that.

It didn’t take long. I was at a Blackboard reception at EDUCAUSE when one of the executives approached me and started a conversation about my posts. “You know, I wouldn’t complain to Oracle about it. I would never do that. I respect your independence. But this isn’t good for the relationship between our two companies.”

That’s a nice shiny new job you got there, kid. It would be shame if anything were to, you know. Happen to it.

I kept writing.

Not many months after that, the same executive, in the presence of my manager, sat down next to my colleague and started complaining to her about me. Repeatedly. Incessantly. To the point where my manager had to physically interpose himself between the executive and my colleague in order to protect her from what he perceived to be harassment. At which point, the executive started complaining to my manager about me.

It had the opposite of the intended effect. My manager was very protective of his people.

I kept writing.

Not all of the writing was negative, by the way. For example, when Blackboard’s Chief Legal Counsel showed up at a Sakai conference to debate the Software Freedom Law Center’s Eben Moglen on the merits of the patent, I argued both that Blackboard’s representative had been unfairly treated and that it was important to continue to try to work with the company constructively on the larger patent problem if at all possible.

Nevertheless, Blackboard continued what I can only describe as a widening and escalating campaign convince my employer to either silence me or remove me. They were specifically told that I was unwelcome at Blackboard hosted events. The message was clear: Feldstein is harming Oracle’s relationship with Blackboard. And if that weren’t clear enough, I started being approached by random Oracle employees. The conversation would go like this:

Do you know [Blackboard employee name redacted]?

Yeah, I know him. Why?

Well I don’t, but he just came up to me at BbWorld and started complaining to me about how you’re harming Blackboard’s relationship with Oracle.

That same Blackboard employee accosted me at an IMS meeting, literally yelling at me, telling me that he had almost convinced his bosses to adopt the new version of the LIS standard we were developing—the one that was going to save universities time and money by getting rid of the need to manually monitor the integration between the registrar software and the LMS—but they killed it when they read my latest blog post.

A Blackboard executive all but confirmed this in a later meeting. He looked me in the eye, with my manager present, and asked, “Why should we adopt Oracle’s standard?”

“Oracle’s standard.”

I kept writing.

Next, the Blackboard executive decided to go up a few levels in the food chain. He told my manager’s manager’s manager that he was having Blackboard customers coming into his office in response to my blog posts and asking why Oracle hates Blackboard. This intervention too had the opposite of the intended effect. My manager’s manager’s manager did not believe for one second that people were confusing my personal blog posts with Oracle’s official position on Blackboard.

After all of that, and some more that I’m not going to write about here, Blackboard lost the patent suit. They took a $3.3 million write-down for it. But that’s nothing compared to the actual loss, which the company is still paying today. If people are still using the sentence “X is the new Blackboard,” do you think there is any way that Blackboard itself is not still paying for the damage done by management that left the company seven years ago? Many people in this sector still hate that company with a fiery passion, and some of them don’t even know why anymore.

Now, ask yourself this: Does what I just described bear any relation to the behavior of any company that you know of in ed tech today? Instructure? Blackboard? Anyone? I can think of a few that I would characterize as on the spectrum of bad actors. All of them are in immature product categories, where there is less transparency, more hype, and therefore more room for con artists. Jose Ferreira from Knewton was a bad actor in that he harmed our ability to have a productive discussion about the utility of adaptive learning or machine learning through his unsubstantiated hype (and the fundraising he did off it). But he didn’t do anything I’m aware of that rose to the level of anything like what I’ve described here. The robot tutor hype scam, and the new variation where vendors start claiming that all their competitors are robot tutor scam artists, are the main dangers at the moment. Anything AI-related still has some danger in it, as does the OPM space. But the bad actors I can think of are mostly little league compared to the Hall of Fame bad actors at old Blackboard.

Instructure is the new Instructure

Organizations change. Instructure changes. Blackboard changes. Your university changes. Your department changes. Change happens. Change is hard. Mistakes happen during the stress of transition. And what comes out the other side is not always predictable. But it often can be influenced.

When I wrote my post in the wake of Instructurecon 2018, I knew that it might not make a ton of sense in the moment to either customers or employees of the company. So a lot of it was written in a way that would hopefully be memorable…I don’t know…maybe eleven months later, when the story had played out enough that we could have a real conversation about it.

Here’s the important bit:

Instructure’s unbelievably long age of innocence may finally be coming to an end. That doesn’t mean that it is going to fail or to become the next ed tech company that everybody hates. It does mean that it is beginning to go through some changes, that some of those changes will be awkward and hard, and that the company will eventually grow up to become somewhat different than it has been. Not necessarily better or worse. But necessarily different.

So maybe you don’t like some of the things that they’ve been doing (or not doing) lately. Now what? You could try engaging with them. OK, maybe you tried that and didn’t get the results you wanted. Remember that extended metaphor about the awkward teenage years in my original post? I used to teach eighth graders, and I’ve raised kids of my own. One talk usually doesn’t do it during the challenging periods. Not because they don’t care about you, but because it’s just really hard being a teenager. You’re overloaded. Everything is changing at once, and you’re just trying to get through the day. If a teenager responds badly in the moment, it doesn’t mean that they’re a bad person, or even that they’re not listening. It usually means that they’re dealing with more than just you.

A company isn’t a teenager; it’s a group of adults who you pay to do things for you. Nevertheless, it is also a group of humans who can experience change, individually and collectively, and who can have all the reactions that humans do to change and stress and all that stuff.

These organizational transitions don’t finish up over night. Dan’s been CEO for less than a year now. Next month will be his first Instructurecon as CEO. He’s still in the steep part of his learning curve. Will he be a good CEO? I don’t know. I barely know the guy. You probably barely know the guy too. His employees are starting to get to know the guy by now. They’re figuring it out.

Maybe you feel like you can’t engage with Instructure because other people in your university “own” that relationship, and you’re relatively powerless.

Well, that’s a different sort of problem, isn’t it? I’ve written before about how bad LMS vendor behavior and bad LMS product development are actively driven by bad university LMS procurement processes. These internal conversations are hard ones to have, and sometimes the people who see the problems are not in a position to force the conversation. But ultimately, the vendors have to respond to whatever sorts of interactions the universities invite them to have (or don’t). It’s worth taking some time to understand why the vendors are thinking and acting the way they are so that you can find some productive ways into the conversation.

And by the way, those vendors do read what you write. Heck, we live in an era where we pick the President of the United States on Twitter and Facebook. You think these companies don’t read your posts? They damned well do. They may be constrained in how they respond, but they do pay attention. How do you think I do what I do? I’m just a dude with a blog. How did I get myself into all the trouble you just read about? By being a dude with a blog. Turns out that using your voice can be a powerful thing, particularly if think carefully about who you want to hear you and how you want them to react. Yes, I do beat on vendors in public sometimes. But I always do it with a specific intention to make something happen. It may not be obvious in the moment, but it is always there. You can talk to these vendors and be heard, particularly if you have that intent and if they think that you are also listening.

If you want your vendors to be better, it’s not that different from trying to get your kids to be better, or any humans with which you want to have a genuine relationship to be better. That was really the point of my original blog post. Talk to them, listen to them, engage with them. It doesn’t mean you have to let them walk all over you, but it does mean you shouldn’t assume you understand what they’re thinking or that they are force of nature that cannot be influenced. If you’re reading e-Literate, then you’re probably an educator of some sort. Be an educator. Use that.

Instructure is changing. I don’t know what they’re changing into yet. You don’t know either. I would bet money that Instructure doesn’t know yet. And this isn’t really just about Instructure. They are the case study of the moment. The point is, vendors make their money by responding to the conditions created by the university ecosystem. That’s you and your colleagues. If you want better vendors, then create the conditions under which they can succeed by behaving in the ways in which you would prefer them to behave. That’s hard work, and it may involve some family therapy inside your home institution. But the alternative is living in perpetual fear of clowns. And that, my friends, is no way to live.

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