Blackboard courseware opens up for open classes, CC-licensed materials

Blackboard, the ubiquitous, hedge-fund-backed classroom software found on campuses around the world, has just changed its billing structure to make it possible for schools to share their courseware without having to pay fees for members of the public who audit the course or download its materials.

This is a pretty substantial shift. As EFF co-founder Mitch Kapor said, "Architecture is politics," and when your campus runs on a service that is architecturally incapable of hosting an open course, by default it becomes a place where courses must be closed.

The last time I taught a course on a Blackboard campus, I found the product so cumbersome and walled off that I threw it out in favor of a mailing list, a wiki, and a Blogspot blog that the students all belonged to. It was slightly more work to set up (mostly because I had to manually add all the students to each of those services), but it gave me the flexibility I needed to teach the course I'd been asked to deliver.

Mr. Henderson said that in the past 18 to 24 months he has heard increasing requests from colleges officials to allow sharing. He said that he wanted to make the change sooner, but that it is easier for him to win the argument now that the company, which was publicly held, has been sold to a private-equity firm, Providence Equity Partners.

“This is something that is easier to do as a private company more easily than as a public company because the risk of being misunderstood by investors is less,” says Mr. Henderson. “The investor community was skeptical about that and worried” about an open policy, he says, adding that in the new ownership model, “we had to tell three people about that at Providence, who immediately got it.”

One key to Blackboard’s new “Share” feature is a partnership with Creative Commons, which offers licenses for free content. When professors choose to make their courses free, they will be presented with options to easily attach a Creative Commons license, something they otherwise would have to do manually.

In Victory for Open-Education Movement, Blackboard Embraces Sharing (Thanks, Dad!)


  1. I used blackboard all through high school and into college.  my junior year of college I participated in the transfer of the school off of blackboard and onto an open-source platform I’ve forgotten the name of (we called it WISE) named Sakai.  Sakai wasn’t perfect, but blackboard by that point had become so ludicrously complex and arbitrarily difficult to use that even the most conservative of the professors were overjoyed to see it gone.

  2. One of Blackboards’ main competitors, Instructure, already did this like forever ago:

    Disclosure: I don’t work for instructure and have never used their product, but I’ve met the founders a few times.

  3. From an administrative perspective, I’m filled with questions.  Like how to you protect student FERPA info if instructors can allow “anyone” into the course site?  How do you stop rebel instructors from making their course public for the express purpose of circumventing the registration process? (The registrar would take a dim view of that, I imagine.)

    1. FERPA needs challenged. Right now, instructors (like Cory above and like me) can do all of these things–and often actually have a workable system–by circumventing Blackboard all together. And I certainly hope that they will make their courses open to non-paying students. I (again, like many others) already do this. The registrar doesn’t seem to mind. Tuition -> credits. Simple enough (for now!).

      1. Yes, tuition -> credits.  But when young Britney finishes her basket weaving course and gets no credit for it because she didn’t actually register for the course through the student information system, she could be surprised.  I run into profs all the time who want people added to their course sites as TAs.  When I ask if they are in the SIS as TAs, I get blank stares.  I literally have to ask if these people are getting paid, getting credit, getting whatever it is they’re supposed to be getting before I get a flicker of recognition for why we have these processes.  I’m all for more openness in educational materials and technology. But I’ve also seen the other side, what happens when your online learning system has wild west rules.  And it’s students who end up paying the price for it.

    2. I don’t know about the second question, but wouldn’t the free students just be in like regular students? My students can’t see one another’s grades now. I’m not sure that would change with the addition of the free students.

  4. Blackboard has several competitors nipping at its heels, and many many users who are clamoring to jump ship, if only it wasn’t for institutional contracts preventing it.

  5. Blackboard is a pain in the ass.  I once did what Cory did, used a bunch of free, web based products that more or less duplicated Blackboards functionality.  Blogspot for the course blog, Classmarker for administering quizes, and a couple of others which I forget.

    Technically not as powerful, but a zillion times easier to use.

    Blackboard sucks.

  6. Moodle ( is a fully open source Virtual learning Environment, free and with a very active community and many many installs. The newest version, Moodle 2, embraces many creative commons aspects – such as the ability to search and embed CC licensed images from Flickr. It also has the Moodle Hub which creates a federated resource where colleges can share Moodle courses and information. 

    Sounds to me like Blackboard are just catching up with the competition.

  7. I can’t recall ever using a software suite that sucked so hard as Blackboard. The suckage seemed so purposeful, too. Like they really *tried* to make it as bad as possible. And that was from the instructor side.

  8. I have to second that recommendation for Canvas by Instructure. I teach courses with at my college and it is a great system. We recently moved from BlackBoard to Canvas and I couldn’t be happier. The system is quick and has great integration with social media, SMS and Google Docs. For instructors it’s an easy setup, however, for students, it can be a little jarring since it is different from what they have traditionally been using.

  9. Sorry for the double post; edit’s not working.

    See also for an explanation of how blackboard, from their darth vader headquarters in DC, have come to rule LMS with crap software through a combination of bullying, stealing, and patent trolling.

  10. Second dan attwood. I used Moodle for years at one uni, then moved to a uni that had Blackboard. I gave it a go for one semester. This term I set up Moodle for my own classes. Students cheered when I told them the first day of class that we weren’t going to use BB. Then they groaned when I told them I had something else. Blackboard had really poisoned the well. But, after a quick orientation (or for one particularly sharp class, just an email with link and login info) we were off. No complaints everyone left the classes happy. Pretty good participation online so far–much more so than on Blackboard.

  11. Too little too late, Blackboard. My institution of higher learning (Monash University in Melbourne, Australia) is moving wholesale to Moodle next year, and quite frankly I couldn’t be happier.

    The fact that Blackboard seemed to want me to revert to Internet Explorer 6 to get the “most” out of it was simply ludicrous.

  12. Blackboard is horrible. I use Blogger now, may use Moodle in the future. Students are happy to leave the gated community of BB behind. It teaches no skill set except how to use BB; when they use BB, students learn nothing useful, practical or wonderful about the internet…

  13. We install and customize ILIAS ( based learning management systems for our clients. It is open source and so no user licensing costs. Unlike Moodle, it is SCORM 2004 3rd (soon to be 4th) edition certified and compliant and far easier to customize. As for Blackboard, it’s now really outdated as a learning management system.

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