So much for being committed to the open exchange of ideas, collaboration, and innovation. In a letter on their Website on Friday, Desire2Learn (D2L) President and CEO John Baker, conveyed the news that Blackboard had been awarded $3 million from the jury in their Kafkaesque patent case against D2L. The US Patent and Trademark Office will be reviewing the patent, but the decision in favor of Blackboard is sure to reverberate across the educational landscape and send other commercial course management system vendors scurrying.

At issue is D2L’s apparent infringement of Blackboard’s “invention” of network file access control, wherein users can have varying levels of access to different network file directories based on system-defined roles (e.g., teacher versus student). According to their Opening Claims Construction Brief, the world before Blackboard was a chaotic and confusing place, where people had to access different files on different servers using different network credentials. The Blackboard course management system presumably ended all that by “inventing” what everyone knows existed before Blackboard.

It’s very difficult for me to remain dispassionate about this. Winona State was one of the first universities to switch to Blackboard 6 and we paid a heavy price. The system was down for weeks as we waited for hotfix after hotfix. It was immediately clear that Blackboard had shipped Version 6 too early and that WSU faculty and students had become beta testers. Of course, Blackboard didn’t pay us for our wasted time and we didn’t sue them. As bad as it was, there was a sense that we were somehow in it together and that we all wanted what was best for the students. We knew that Blackboard was just learning how to be a good software company. We were willing to wait for them and suffer through their growing pains because we believed in what they were trying to build, we trusted them, and we thought they were listening to us. Now we all realize that Blackboard is still just a spoiled adolescent; after over ten years they still haven’t grown up.  With this lawsuit, they damaged their own brand and public image to the tune of well over $3 million and I am not confident that they will ever recover. I am certainly not going to wait for it.

What would we do if this puts D2L out of business? We are working on an instance of eduCommons OCW and Moodle and we have Windows SharePoint Services 3.0 and Adobe Acrobat Connect Professional already being used to support course delivery. If D2L went belly up tomorrow, I have no doubt that our IT and eLearning team could have a solution in place involving just those four tools in less than a month that would duplicate 75% of the functionality available in D2L or Blackboard. In a few months, we could probably approach 100% functionality and throw in a decent open source blog and wiki tool to boot. There are good alternatives out there.

By the way Blackboard, we are already supporting academic courses using Microsoft SharePoint 2007 team sites and Adobe Connect. In SharePoint, there are multiple user roles (e.g., Read, Contribute, Design, Full Control). These roles can be set for the same user within the course site and across course sites. Students and faculty can be readers on one area of a course site and contributors in another. They can have full control over one course site and contribute access to another. SharePoint is built to allow this flexible level of access control. In Connect, there are multiple user roles (e.g., Participant, Presenter, Host). Instructors can be hosts of one course session and presenters in others. Students can be assigned any of these three roles across and within course sessions, which controls their access to course information and activities. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Should Microsoft and Adobe lawyer-up? How much money do you have left in your war chest?