In Victory for Open-Education Movement, Blackboard Embraces Sharing

Professors who use Blackboard’s software have long been forced to lock their course materials in an area effectively marked, “For Registered Students Only,” while using the system. Today the company announced plans to add a “Share” button that will let professors make those learning materials free and open online.

The move may be the biggest sign yet that the idea of “open educational materials” is going mainstream, nearly 10 years after the Massachusetts Institute of Technology first began giving away lecture notes online. Blackboard made the change after college officials complained that the company’s software, which more than half the colleges in the country use for their online-course materials, was holding them back from trying open-education projects.

The president of Blackboard’s learning division, Ray Henderson, plans to send an e-mail to customers today that effectively modifies the company’s contract with colleges. In the old contract, colleges could have been charged extra for every additional person who viewed course materials placed on the Blackboard software platform (because license fees were set based on the number of potential users). Now that has been “liberalized” so that any outsiders who are invited to look in will not bring extra charges to a college, says Mr. Henderson. “If it’s non-revenue for you, we understand it’s going to be non-revenue for us,” he says.

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.

Cable Green, director of global learning for Creative Commons, says that incorporating a sharing option within Blackboard will have a significant impact on the number of professors who make their course materials free.

Mr. Green says he is in discussions with other companies that make course-management systems to persuade them to add similar features to their products. “My goal is to have this kind of option in every commercial learning-management system and also open-source ones,” he says.

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