Thursday, September 28, 2006

D2L Trial and Clients

I've been talking with Stephan Meyer (left) from D2L today at the Beyond Boundaries conference in Grand Forks, ND. This conference has a modest vendor area and D2L has a modest booth there.

Stephan gave me a couple of tidbits to chew on today. First, D2L will be announcing a new client very soon, although the contract is not signed yet (knock on wood). This is a major statewide consortium and will be another very visible victory for D2L over their competitors (think Blackboard, BlackCT, or whatever else you want to call them). Probably the most important thing is that this client obviously was not put off by the black cloud of litigation that many people have opined would keep D2L from signing new clients. Apparently there are enough safeguards (indemnity, etc.) built into the contracts to help mitigate the perceived risk on the part of potential clients.

Second, Stephan told me that a court date with a jury trial has been set and will be announced very soon. I'm already making my flight reservations for Texas in the spring in order to become totally immersed in the litigation experience. JK, but I sure would like to.
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Wednesday, September 27, 2006


I received an email and subsequent phone call today from a securities analyst working for the investment arm of a major U.S. bank. Blackboard is one of the stocks that she covers for the bank and she had been reading my blog post (directly below, or go here) about the number of higher ed institutions that have selected D2L over Blackboard during the past few years. She wanted to chat a bit about Blackboard's prospects for the coming years from a securities perspective. She clearly realized that she was speaking to someone with more than the usual dose of anti-Blackboard sentiment, but she was interested in what I had to say all the same.

As she was analyzing their stock prospects, she seemed to be concentrating on the following factors:

  1. How difficult (costly) is it to change vendors?
  2. How long do most contracts run (how soon could schools consider making a switch)?
  3. What affect will the ongoing patent lawsuit have on D2L's ability to sign new clients?
  4. How does the higher ed market in general feel toward Blackboard as a company?
Her knowledge about Desire2Learn was limited but she had been looking for sources that would help her decide how significant a threat they are to BlackCT as we go forward and other general info about how the patent litigation would affect the stock price of the Evil Empire. Although I was probably more long-winded than this, the points below would be the gist of my remarks on the four questions above:
  1. In some respects, it is becoming easier all the time to change vendors especially to a company such as D2L that has developed a fairly decent course conversion utility. In other respects, it gets harder all the time as the sheer mass of online courses and content continues to grow somewhat like a mushroom cloud. Answering this question probably depends mostly on how big a player the school/system is in the e-learning market.
  2. In Minnesota, it was very important for us to be able to lock in licensing fees for a 5-10 year period to guard against the type of major price increases that many of us experienced with Blackboard and WebCT before switching to Desire2Learn. We have a five year contract with five one-year options to renew, effectively giving us a ten-year contract if we Desire2Stay. There are price increases built in, but they are reasonable and known in advance.
  3. This one is pretty hard to say at this time. After the patent suit was filed, D2L did sign at least one new major client (WHRO, Sept. 14) so they obviously were not put off by the risk involved in the patent litigation. My opinion is as follows: worst case scenario is that D2L loses and has to pay royalties to Blackboard in which case D2L probably has to raise their licensing fees. In that case, I would rather lock into a long-term contract before the suit is finished rather than after which would provide several years of buffer against price increases. NOTE: some will probably say that the worst case scenario is for D2L to lose the lawsuit and be forced out of business ... I'm not considering that because Blackboard has assured us that they are not seeking that outcome and I have decided to believe everything that this honorable company has to say.
  4. Regarding the perception of BBBB in the higher ed market, I really don't think that I have an accurate take on this. Clearly the vast majority of the vocal opinion mongers are outraged and disgusted by Blackboard's antics. However, the silent majority has not been heard from .... which is why they're called silent. The most important piece of information is how the top-level decision makers in higher ed are viewing this. Faculty and staff can scream all they want but if the people who hold the contract licensing purse strings are not put off by Blackboard, then you can expect this to be only a ripple in the wave pool that is BlackCT. I do believe that there will be several major BB clients who will choose not to renew when the time comes as they look at other vendors and open source as serious alternatives to the BB monopoly. I really believe (or at least I really WANT to believe) that higher ed takes a dim view of getting caught in the middle of corporate shenanigans by greedy suits. Of course I could be wrong.
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Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Black Market

There has been a fair amount of speculation lately about why Blackboard has taken a strategy that has clearly been ill-received by the education community that it so dearly depends upon. Some have indicated that it is the mark of desperation ... but most don't buy that argument since they have somewhere between 70-80% of the CMS market currently locked up. Why would the dominant player in the market be concerned, especially when it is widely thought to be such a tough thing to change from one CMS to another?

Others have asked why they chose to attack D2L as opposed to eCollege, or Angel, or any of the others. It was amusing to read some posts where the authors didn't even consider D2L to be a contender in the market, some even admitting that they had never heard of D2L. Below is a partial list of the reasons why I think BlackCT is suing Desire2Learn (not necessarily in chronological order):

There is little doubt in my mind that every one of those items listed above just added to BlackCT's disgust with being passed over or discarded in favor of Desire2Learn. Some of those losses are with huge, major, high-profile clients and that translates into multi-millions of dollars in lost licensing fees.

Some of my favorite quotes from the links above:
  • "those who tested D2L said it was easier to go from Blackboard 5 to D2L than to Blackboard 6." (from OU)
  • "our Information Technology (IT) people had phoned D2L with a problem at 3:00 a.m., and it was resolved in 15 minutes." (from OU)
  • "The group strongly believes that the benefits of Desire2Learn are more than worth the discomfort of learning a new system." (MnSCU)
  • "Desire2Learn is the first enterprise CMS vendor to solve the Chuck Paradox and provides the most flexible solution to support collegiate and departmental innovation." (Iowa)
  • "Accumulated knowledge about WebCT is transferable to D2L. The change from one to the other is analogous to the change from a rotary phone to a push-button phone." (Arizona)
  • "Overall, it is clear that the core team finds neither Blackboard nor Angel acceptable CMS solutions for Ohio State, as they do not have the basic functionality required by Ohio State."
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Age Differences

In the previous post I suggested that we needed to compare the demographics of the LSC PSOL students with the students in the peer group to see if there were any significant differences which might make the results not perfectly comparable. My conclusion was that there are several demographic factors where the groups differ, but in total they appear to just about even out without a huge bias either in favor of or fighting against one group or the other. One of the factors of possible differences has to do with the larger percentage of younger online learners (46.2% vs. 34.2%) that we have at LSC. At the Noel-Levitz conference this summer I learned that their research has shown that the younger students generally show significantly lower satisfaction rates than the older students. It finally occurred to me that I do have the data to study for evidence of this phenomenon, at least for the LSC students.

The LSC data does show a huge difference between the two groups of learners. Those 24 years and younger are less satisfied than those 25 years and older on all but one of the 36 items ranked for both importance and satisfaction. The only item where younger students are more satisfied is item #5: "My program advisor helps me work toward career goals." Even then the difference was relatively small (5.21 vs. 5.10 on a 7-point scale) and this was the item where we had the overall lowest level of student satisfaction.

It was also interesting to note that they were not only universally less satisfied, but that they also ranked 35 of the 36 items as being less important than the older students did. Many of the differences in importance are rather large, such as shown in the embedded worksheet below. These 12 items had the largest difference in Importance score from the two student groupings. Scroll the spreadsheet to the right to see the rest of the embedded data.

Again, this really begs the question about how do we alter our services provided on the basis of this information? You let me know if you have any ideas and I'll let you know if I ever come up with one of my own.

Friday, September 15, 2006

PSOL Demographics

I posted recently about our 13-school peer comparison group for the PSOL and how this would be our best group for benchmarking since they are all two year schools. It is also necessary to look a little deeper to make sure that the respondents are similar so I compared the demographics of the two groups.

  • Ours were 81.6% female, theirs were 78.7% female. Females generally give more favorable satisfaction ratings on such surveys (unless they are being surveyed about their husbands).
  • Ours were 46.2% age 24 and under, theirs were 34.2% in that age range. Younger students tend to give lower satisfaction ratings than the older age groups.
  • 58.2% of ours indicated that they were primarily online students, compared to 59.7% of theirs. It has been my experience that those who identify themselves as mainly online tend to look more favorably upon their experience learning online than those who consider themselves to be primarily on-campus learners just taking an online course or two.
  • 61.2% of our students indicated that they are taking full-time class loads, compared to 47.1% of the peer group students. Part-time students tend to rate their satisfaction more highly than full-time students.
  • It was almost a draw for the percentage indicating that their educational goal was to complete an online degree program: 21.9% for us and 22.7% for them.
  • Even more of a draw for the percentage indicating that their educational goal was to complete an on-campus degree program: 34.7% for us and 35.0% for them.
  • For our students, 62.1% indicated that they had taken 0-3 previous online courses, while 75% of the peer group had that same level of previous experience. From a pure logic perspective (or maybe it is common sense), those with more experience with online courses tend to have higher satisfaction ratings, with the best measure of their satisfaction being their continued enrollment in more online courses.
Therefore, the question to be answered is whether our student group would tend to be more favorable than the peer student group. Here is my opinion:
  • Gender: slight bias in favor of high LSC satisfaction ratings, but not much.
  • Age: significant bias against high LSC satisfaction ratings.
  • Primarily online: no significant difference.
  • Part-time class loads: significant bias against high LSC satisfaction ratings.
  • Educational goal: no significant difference.
  • Previous online experience: significant bias in favor of high LSC satisfaction ratings.
The net result? I'd call it a draw, although really I think that there is a slight demographic bias against favorable satisfaction ratings for LSC compared to the peer group.

The fact is that the LSC student satisfaction ratings were significantly higher than the peer group ratings. I'm arguing here that those are real differences, not caused by survey respondent biases.
The first chart below shows how the LSC online students answered the questions about current plans/reasons for taking one or more online courses. The second chart is for the peer group of students.

Current Plans - LSC Students -

Current Plans - Peer Group -


Desire2Learn has filed a response to the Blackboard patent lawsuit. Full pdf here. It's pretty safe to say that D2L disagrees with all the important stuff in the lawsuit. Many of the paragraphs in the suit are answered as follows - "ANSWER: Desire2Learn denies the allegations in this paragraph."

As far of the affirmative part of their defense (meaning their attack mode), they say the following (selected pieces from a much longer list):

  • 1. Blackboard’s claims are barred, in full or in part, because the claims of the ’138 patent are invalid under 35 U.S.C. §§ 101, 102, 103, and/or 112.
  • 2. The ’138 patent is unenforceable because Blackboard failed to disclose all non-cumulative, material prior art of which Blackboard was aware to the Patent Office during the prosecution of the ’138 patent.
  • 5. Upon information and belief, Blackboard, including every individual having a duty of disclosure, disclosed no prior art to the Patent Office during the prosecution of ’138 patent.
  • 12. On information and belief, Blackboard’s failure to disclose the Undisclosed e-Learning Products to the Patent Office was intentional and done with deceptive intent.
  • 30. Blackboard was aware of the IMS Specification during the prosecution of the ’138 patent; the ’138 patent did not issue until January 17, 2006.
  • 31. On information and belief, Blackboard’s failure to disclose the IMS Specification to the Patent Office was intentional and done with deceptive intent.
  • 32. Blackboard thus violated the duty to disclose all information material to patentability required by 37 C.F.R. § 1.56 and the ’138 Patent is unenforceable.
D2L's Request for Relief (let's call that their Desire4Relief) includes:
  • A. Denying Blackboard any relief whatsoever on its claims and dismissing Blackboard’s Complaint with prejudice.
  • B. Declaring that the ’138 patent is invalid under 35 U.S.C. §§ 101, 102, 103, and/or 112.
  • C. Declaring that the ’138 patent is unenforceable due to inequitable conduct.
  • D. Awarding Desire2Learn its attorneys’ fees and costs of suit; and
  • E. Awarding Desire2Learn such other and further relief as the Court may deem just and proper.
I like the fact that they don't answer in a wimpy way. Basically they're saying that this suit is a load of crap and that Blackboard can stick it back from whence it came.
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Wednesday, September 13, 2006

New PSOL Results

Today I received some new data from Noel-Levitz regarding the PSOL (Priorities Survey for Online Learners) that we gave for the third year in a row during spring semester 2006. The data have always been useful but the report received today is the most useful for benchmarking that we have ever received.

Coming from a two-year public institution, our comparisons with the national results were interesting but not terribly useful for benchmarking purposes. Many of the schools included in the national results are very dissimilar from LSC. It includes graduate schools, for-profit schools, schools that are completely online (not blended as we are with both F2F and online), and overall just a hodge-podge of different schools that have used the survey during the past several years.

This spring we received better data because 16 of our sister institutions in MnOnline also gave the same survey at the same time. This was definitely better because it gave us comparison data with a group of schools from our own system. However, that still compares us with the state universities as well as some two-year schools who aren't as experienced as we are at providing online learning and services. Also, no one really wants to talk about the consortium data because the aggregated student satisfaction levels are really quite low.

So, today I received a report from Noel-Levitz (that we paid for) that compares the LSC results with a peer group of 13 two-year institutions from throughout the country. Approximately 3,900 student responses comprise the peer group and they come from a mixture of traditional community colleges as well as technical colleges, much like how LSC is a combined community and technical college.

On the 26 standard items on the PSOL, LSC students were more satisfied on 19 of the items and less satisfied on 7. Even more importantly, there were six of the 26 items where the difference in satisfaction levels were statistically significant. On all six of those items, the LSC score was much higher than the peer group score.

I will be crunching the numbers quite a bit more in the next couple of weeks while I prepare for a presentation at the League CIT in Charlotte, NC in October. I'll also post more info here as I continue to work on it. For now, I'll post a couple of charts that show some of the data comparing the LSC "Primarily Online" students with the similar group from the peer group institutions. The first chart shows the three most significant differences (.001 level) from that data set.

FY06 PSOL: LSC vs. Peer Group -

The second chart shows the two items that were significant at the .01 level, again coming from the "Primarily Online" segment of the data pool.

FY06 Noel-Levitz PSOL: LSC vs. Peer Group -

The third and final chart shows the four items that were significant at the .05 level. This data set of primarily online students had nine total differences that were significant, and all nine were positive differences for LSC.

FY06 Noel-Levitz PSOL: LSC vs. Peer Group -

Charts made with ZohoSheet.

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Sunday, September 10, 2006

Open Source Integration

Very interesting project started about a month ago over at in an effort to integrate four useful open source tools into an environment that would have lots of features for e-learning. The tools they are working with are Elgg, Drupal, Moodle, and Mediawiki. This integration should result in the following features being offered:

  • a public facing web presence
  • departmental intranets
  • club/extracurricular sites
  • online class sites
  • a personal workspace for all members of the school community; this workspace includes web-accessible file storage, social bookmarking, a blog, a podcasting platform, and a presentation/portfolio creator
  • a single user base -- no duplicate data entry, no need to synchronize users between multiple databases
Additionally, these technologies/approaches are supported:
  1. Podcasting
  2. Safe social networking
  3. Tagging
  4. Informal learning
  5. Learner centric
  6. ePortfolios
  7. Personal Learning Environments
  8. Blogging
  9. Wikis
They are still looking for development help in the form of developers, designers, educators and funding bodies. Check them out. This is an ambitious undertaking. This is pretty close to what I've been thinking needs to be done by the academic community to not be held hostage by the Blackboard patent goons and large corporate interests.
A tip of the hat to D'Arcy Norman from whom I first heard about this.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Missed Opportunity

At the time that MnSCU adopted Desire2Learn (D2L) as our IMS there was some conversation about developing a unique system-wide branding for the tool. This conversation never really went anywhere and soon everyone was busy with installation, conversion, training, and so on. I think that was a tremendous opportunity that we missed to build some brand identity for Minnesota Online and MnSCU.

Ohio State uses D2L but calls it Carmen. Excerpt from syllabus article: "To create identification with the new learning environment, TELR branded D2L at Ohio State “Carmen,” a reference to the OSU alma mater song, “Carmen, Ohio.” The TELR visual design team came up with an appealing graphic identity, revising it in response to feedback from students, faculty and staff. The Carmen icon is now instantly identifiable across campus, and anchors not just the CMS interface, but also our campus communications and advertising campaign. We believe this attention to brand has been a key component of fostering acceptance of the new system."

Similarly, the University of Wisconsin chose a brand of Learn@UW. This branding is used only at the Madison campus, not throughout the UW system. River Falls, Stout and Superior campuses have basically created their own versions of the "Learn@UW" name, but many UW campuses seem to not be embracing the branding opportunity at all.

My attempt at building some name recognition for our campus use of D2L has had mild success, but not what I had hoped. I wanted to co-brand our IMS as LSC Online and Minnesota Online. You can see the full banner image here that we use in D2L. My goal was to have people refer to the system as LSC Online and to also realize that we are part of the larger system of MnOnline. The problem is that so many faculty and staff began referring to the system as "D2L" rather than LSC Online that we never had a good chance at developing our own name recognition instead of that of the vendor. Clearly, this represents confusion for some people. Now we have a new logo at LSC that we need to find a way to integrate into our online offerings and LSC Online branding. Maybe this is another opportunity to develop some unique name awareness, but maybe it's just too late for that. It drives me nuts when we miss opportunities like this.

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Thursday, September 07, 2006

Educause on Blackboard Patent

A message from Brian Hawkins, President of EDUCAUSE
See full text pdf

"Like all of you, EDUCAUSE is concerned about the vitality of the supplier marketplace for tools and solutions that are essential to higher education. And, like you, EDUCAUSE is deeply concerned that laws and regulations recognize both the rights of intellectual property (IP) holders (our universities are significant producers of IP) and the incentives to invest in innovation. Our positions on advanced networking, CALEA, and Net Neutrality are just three examples where we have worked hard and well to promote and protect innovation in information technology."

"With respect to the issues of course management systems, we have been actively engaged in conducting necessary due diligence; that is, we are trying to understand the situation so that we can educate our members and, if appropriate, establish an advocacy position. We at EDUCAUSE have consciously avoided any public statement about a position per se, as we do not yet have the information base and legal research to make any statement. However, because of the strong interest in the community, we feel it is important to let you know what EDUCAUSE has been doing in this arena."

So what have they done? (read the pdf for details)

  • Discussed at their Board of Directors.
  • Retained legal counsel for advice about the patent.
  • Gathered viewpoints from the educational community.
  • Will provide a discussion panel at EDUCAUSE 2006 in Dallas.
  • Instructed policy staff to stay current with the proposed patent reform legislation.
  • Started developing an EDUCAUSE statement on educational patents. "This subject is, of course, very complex for all of us in higher education, as we are both patent holders and consumers of patented products. At the same time, we are creatures of the colleges and universities within which we work, whose very essence is about the creation and dissemination of intellectual property and respect for the creators of such property when clear evidence of their original innovation is present.
So what's the bottom line? Don't know yet. It will be interesting to see what they say directly about the Blackboard case since BB is definitely a major vendor/sponsor for Educause events. My guess is that they don't take a hard line against this type of activity and instead invoke some B.S. about free market economy and the competitive marketplace. What they should do is take this opportunity to become an advocate for higher education to start breaking their ties with commercial vendors and to utilize the internal expertise in a more collaborative manner for the good of all of academia. Maybe in my next lifetime.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

D2L Hit Hard

On Tuesday, September 5, MnSCU set a new single day record with 13,114,524 hits on our D2L installation. There were a total of 70,095 unique visits from 43,173 unique IP addresses. We knew that this fall would be record setting, but we still weren't sure what to expect when all 32 institutions (actually only 31 active user sites) hit the ground full steam for fall term. As Deputy CIO Al Essa proclaimed, "Let's keep our fingers crossed."

Actually, I think it is necessary to note that the MnSCU staff have done much more than crossing fingers/toes and reciting voodoo chants. A major effort has been conducted over the past several months to upgrade and expand hardware and to begin addressing staffing needs at the Office of the Chancellor. This will probably be the kiss of death....but so far this is the best fall term we have had in terms of system performance, speed, and reliability. Now I'll start holding my breath and wait for the other shoe to drop.

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