Saturday, July 10, 2010

Reflections on the Blackboard Acquisition of Elluminate

A presentation I often give at conferences or events is titled "School 2.0."  The ideas in this presentation come, in large part, from the excellent conversations I've had with really smart people for my interview series, and I get the benefit of seeing how different people, with high and noble commitment levels, have different but equally thoughtful views of where teaching and learning will or need to go in our new Internet world.

The acquisition of Elluminate (my employer) and Wimba by Blackboard came as a complete and total surprise to me, but maybe it shouldn't have.  In the versions of the "School 2.0" presentation I've been giving this past year, I've boldly declared (are you imagining the swagger of a prognosticating keynote speaker?) that a new platform, "Educational Networking," would be born of three current technologies and will become the framework structure of the educational experience.  And here's the slide I show to demonstrate how this new platform will evolve:

I guess I can take some comfort in having accurately predicted the future, but I just didn't expect it to happen so suddenly. I certainly didn't expect it to happen in such a dramatic fashion this week!  Stepping back, I'm intellectually aware that we're seeing something truly historic, it's just that my emotions haven't caught up yet.

Here's the historic part:

Blackboard, a company deeply rooted in providing their Learning Management System to educational organizations worldwide, adds not only the synchronous Web platforms of Elluminate and Wimba as core offerings, but also inherits the LearnCentral social networking platform--which has been a large part of my interest and focus at Elluminate, and the reason I came to work for them a year a a half ago.  

I'm a true believer.  I really think that the technology we call "social networking" (the combining of Web 2.0 tools into a single, easy-to-use environment) will continue to have a profound and growing impact on the ability for educators and students to connect and share in significant ways.  I also am convinced that the synchronous, live, Web-meeting capabilities of tools like Elluminate and Wimba are dramatically reshaping professional development as well as teaching and learning.  I was an Elluminate user for some time before Rajeev Arora called and asked me if I'd consider working for the company.  It was my confidence in their product and in the good that I was seeing it do in education that convinced me to attend their annual meeting in Florida to meet the (amazing) Elluminate staff and management and consider the proposal.

Blackboard has significant reach in the educational market, has indicated their own confidence in the synchronous, "live," platform though these acquisitions, and is poised to dramatically extend the availability of these tools worldwide.  Whatever we believe about the appropriate role of commercial companies in the education market, or how individual companies may or may not act, the commitment by Blackboard to extend the availability of the synchronous collaboration tool-set to educators and students worldwide is a huge turning point for good.

Now the emotion part:

Next week it's another annual meeting in Florida, this time at Blackboard World to meet the Blackboard team.  What a weird parallel.

My role in the educational technology world for the last several years has been unique, and I thank the community as a whole for the opportunity you've given me to be a part of this incredible period of time, where technological advances are facilitating opportunities to think profoundly about teaching and learning.  Three years ago, when I started Classroom 2.0 on Ning, I'd already done an extensive interview series on Open Source Software in education, and that had prepared me for thinking more collaboratively and creatively about how to get things done.  So when the choice came down to either 1) trying to "monetize" the rapidly growing network and thereby needing to keep people there and not somewhere else, or 2) finding some other way to make a living so as to be able to encourage people to use Classroom 2.0 as an example and to start other educational Ning networks on their own educational topics, I looked for the creative solution.  That turned out to be calling Gina Bianchini from Ning and telling her that I thought she should hire me as a consultant to evangelize the use of Ning in education, which she did, and for which I'll always be grateful.  Yesterday Classroom 2.0 reached 45,000 members.  I actually don't think that would have happened if the network hadn't been non-commercial and non-exclusive.

At that time I was also working as the Director of the Open Technologies Initiative for the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), a well-known national nonprofit, and the combination of the two jobs put me in the interesting position of not appearing to be (or being) just a hired gun for a commercial company.  I was able to represent Ning to the educational community, but to also represent the educational community to Ning--by starting a network for educational network creators, helping create the ad-free program for educational Nings (shout out to Vicki Davis for leadership there), and holding events in Elluminate (!) publicized to Classroom 2.0 and other networks designed to help beginners start participating in the incredible conversations taking place about education.  I'd also helped ISTE by bringing a Linux computer lab at NECC 2005 in Philadelphia, and that grew into a formal speaker series, an "Open Source Pavilion," EduBloggerCon (anyone remember the magic of that first one in Atlanta?!), the Blogger's Cafe, and now ISTE Unplugged.  Because these were community efforts for which I wasn't compensated, I personally felt like my career was a mini-reflection of the kind of trust relationship that Google had with its audience:  I was making a living, but I was trying to also be authentic and helpful and hopefully that would means that good things could happen. (I know that's something of a "gloss" on Google, but I do believe that the Open Source roots have had an influence on models of how Web 2.0 companies work within their communities.)

When Ning closed their contract with me (in retrospect, I can see this as part of the internal changes that ultimately have led to the current shifting of their business model), I was truly grateful for the 18 months of work where I felt that both Ning and the community had benefited.  I blogged that thanks, and within a few hours received a call from Rajeev Arora at Elluminate, whom I'd met and talked to before, basically saying, "so now you're available?"  (It makes me smile just to remember this.)  He and I had talked at length about ways to combine the value of the synchronous capabilities of Elluminate with the asynchronous benefits of educational social networking, and I had introduced him to Gailene and Marten Nelson, who were forming a platform for educational networking that would later be brought into Elluminate and become  After spending those three days in Florida with Elluminate, I called my wife and said:  I really like these people.  And this appreciation and respect for the Elluminate team have not just continued, they've grown.  Again, I feel that the educational community has allowed me to play a unique role, and am hopeful that my continued efforts to "do good" through the interview series, the live streaming of events, and the upcoming Global Education Conference have helped to reflect the genuine care that both Elluminate and I have for making a difference in education.

So, what now?  The irony of my position--as possibly the most visible proponent (but certainly not the most knowledgeable or technically competent) of Open Source Software in K-12 soon to be in the employ of Blackboard--is not lost on me or many others.  I am in deep reflection, and not without conflict.  That the President of Elluminate, Maurice Heiblum, a man I deeply admire and respect, is going to lead the new Blackboard division (called Blackboard Collaborate), and that all indications are that my favorite boss ever, Rajeev Arora, has committed to stay on as part of the division, gives me some assurance that the vision and mission that have driven Elluminate will not be lost at Blackboard.  It's going to sound weird to say, but I really love Elluminate--because of that vision, and because of what I think the product does to bring people together.  

But what will Blackboard think of my Open Source activities, and is it even presumptuous to believe that they are interested in keeping me on?  If I were to stay on, do I actually diminish the Open Source cause in some way by the very conflict of my position?  Should I then defer to others?  Is that a trade-off that is worthwhile because of the continued good I believe I could do within the Elluminate/Collaborate endeavor?  Will a larger corporation still find value and appreciate the non-revenue activities that I'm so actively involved in?  I've been asked by Jossey-Bass if I would work on a book, and I have this great idea for a collaboratively-built, continually updated Classroom 2.0 anthology around classroom practice and the future of teaching and learning in the age of the Internet--even if I have permission to do it, will being in a new role put such demands on my time as to have to let some things, like this, go?
No easy answers, that's for sure.  

So here's what I am doing now.  I'm making sure that I do the best job I can at this moment to bring my support what I hope are my skills at being open and collaborative to the current change.  I'm not an expert in corporate acquisitions, or Blackboard as a company, or technical or sales predictions.  But I am good at the "social" (right?), so I've set up a discussion group at LearnCentral for Elluminate customers to ask questions about the transition.  There are still a lot of unknowns, but they need to know that Elluminate/Collaborate is listening, and that the company--the management team and the employees--really care and will work hard to figure it all out.  I'm personally trying to respond to Twitter posts in the same way--not minimizing concerns, but to let folks know someone is listening.  And there are other great folks at Elluminate and Blackboard who are listening and responding as well.  

Elluminate does have a great corporate culture that comes from the outstanding group of people who work there.  While their employer will change, and the suddenness of that change is likely to be disorienting for a moment, these are people I really believe in.  Whatever happens to me or my role, I hope you'll give the Elluminate team the opportunity to prove themselves in this new environment.  Tammy Moore, an Elluminate user who consistently gives of herself to others, posted this yesterday and I think she's accurately captured the vision of the company culture:

One of the things I love about Elluminate is the community-spiritedness and the ease with which you feel that you can connect up with Elluminate staff and other users. I feel like the people that work for Elluminate are my friends. I cannot think of a single company that I have ever felt that way about. In other comapnies, you typically never get to know anyone except maybe a salesman who just wants you to sign the bill of sales othat he can move on to the next sale. Elluminate has cared not only for the things of immediate concern to its own doings but to the needs of educators outside of just offering a product. There is educator support going on here that doesn't have to have a planned path to a profit. The motive is not just making money - it is people. It is education. It is learning to be be better at teaching. Helping each other. Sharing. 

A great vision.  Nobody's going to claim that Elluminate's been a perfect company, but its people do a darn good job and they really care.  And I believe they deserve the chance to continue to do so as a part of Blackboard.  If this change has made you nervous in any way, I hope you'll consider giving them the chance to prove that to you.

Here's what I think I can do in the near future:  help hold some live events where customers can talk to the management team, ask the questions they want to ask, and help get responses.  I think these will be good both for the customers and for Elluminate/Collaborate.  I'm working on this now.

And last, but most important, what I want to do today is to just express thanks.  Thanks to the community and especially to Elluminate for letting me play a role that I have loved.  Here's hoping we can figure out how to have me continue doing so!  Here's to many more years of important work and dialog about education, and to making a difference.

Post a Comment