Blackboard Inc

Matthew Pittinsky – CEO Blackboard Inc. (and founder)


A thoughtful presentation from someone who I assumed I would disagree with from start to finish. Philosophically, Matthew firmly pinned himself to the social constructivist tree espousing a strong belief in a social model of learning. In fact he is currently studying for a Doing a PhD in social relationships in education.

He had a number of propositions about e-Learning and although I will not expand in here I have listed them and I had little real issue with any of them.

– a change from bricks and mortar to a distributed networked learning environment
– currently practice is very ‘conservative’
– education is boundless, NLE are ever evolving
– benefits are many and varied, depends upon where you are sitting
– social relations will govern
– power of technology as an enabler and change maker.

However, the killer view lay beneath the following statistics presented by Matthew:
80% features only wanted by 20%
20% features wanted by 80%

Mathew explained that the 80% features wanted by the 20%, the alternative discourse tools, learning environments that empower learners, etc were in fact not on the planning board anytime soon. He defended this position with an explanation of how Blackboard had a gradual approach to introducing them and taking the lecturers along with them rather than introducing a range of tools that would make the environment overly complex and few would use.

I believe he misses the point. Firstly, the creation of a powerful e-Learning environment with an appropriate philosophical standpoint is not inherently complex. Secondly, I am reminded by a song by the Jam (Going Underground) with a clever switch between two lines ‘the public gets what the public wants’ which changes too ‘the public wants what the public gets’. To assume that either HE lecturers on mass are aware opportunities (pedagogical, student centred approach, etc) that online e-Learning technology has to offer (the public gets…) is naive in the extreme. The reality is that we want what we are given because on mass we know no better and are generally ill informed or supported to understanding issues surrounding e-Learning from a teaching and learning perspective – this is a gross generalisation so apologies to those who do care about teaching and learning in HE.

So I asked the question at the end of the session “To what extent does Blackboard promote the philosophy of learning so eloquently explained today?” Matthew started his reply with a caveat to any Blackboard shareholders or customers say that his views were not necessarily the views of the company. He then stuttered to an affirmation that he believed it did display his philosophical educational beliefs and then tumbled back to the 20% – 80% argument and finished by saying he hoped he didn’t come across too defensive.

In summary, Blackboard is a public company with shareholders – it has to make money. To do this it makes software that lecturers are comfortable with that promotes a delivery model of learning with the opportunity for a social constructivist or conversational model at best tacked on. I see no prospect of significant change, why should there be as the company is successful!

1 thought on “Blackboard Inc

  1. glen

    >I am reminded by a song by the Jam (Going >Underground) with a clever switch between two
    >lines ‘the public gets what the public wants’

    “Well good morning Smithers Jones, how’s the wife at home – did you get the car you’ve been looking for…”

    >Firstly, the creation of a powerful e-Learning
    >environment with an appropriate philosophical
    >standpoint is not inherently complex.

    I agree with this, the problem is not in developing the environments, but in finding a large enough market of tertiary educationalists that want to do something other than dump a pile of course notes online in order to get the return on investment.

    Until tertiary education institutions make a major paradigm shift from the traditional centralised qualification/course/lecturer/student models to more distributed models of learning, then nothing exciting or different is going to come out of the commercial lms market. The only real innovation in the short term is going to happen in the open source arena where shareholders and ROI is not the driving force.


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