Blackboard pave road ahead with Building Blocks
Scott Wilson, CETIS staff
November 01, 2001

image:Blackboard pave road ahead with Building Blocks

In a recent interview, Blackboard chairman Matthew Pittinsky outlined his vision of Blackboard becoming the "operating system" of education, providing infrastructure and core functionality, while plug-in services interacted with the user, eventually becoming almost invisible to the end user.

This vision has been at least partially realised with the Building Blocks (B2) program, which provides the means for developers to produce plug-in modules for the Blackboard 5 platform.

B2 is one of the key features of the new Blackboard 5 e-Education Enterprise Suite announced on October 30th, 2001. According to a Blackboard press release, "Building Blocks enables any client, vendor, or partner to integrate external applications, tools, content, and services into [the] Blackboard e-Education platform."

For educational institutions, Blackboard state that the B2 software development kit (SDK) "provides faculty and students the ability to build innovative customised applications (e.g. assessment engines, collaboration tools, simulations, and other technologies) that integrate into the Blackboard platform, as I they were part of Blackboard natively".

Already, Blackboard are lining up partners to develop the first set of B2 applications, from instant messaging to streaming media. This is a very attractive proposition for Blackboard - providing all manner of extra functionality to leverage its products, without the expense of developing them itself.

According to David Carter-Tod, author of the website Serious Instructional Technology, "It [B2] looks quite nicely designed and conceptualised. You have to write them in Java, but (the kicker) you also need a Level 2 or Level 3 license. I can't discover how much these cost right now, because the Blackboard.com site continues to suck in unimaginable ways. However, I know that they're considerably more than the $5,000 we pay each year (i.e. many multiples) for level one."

Perhaps the key challenge for B2 comes from the Open Knowledge Initiative of MIT. Both approaches use Java and an extensible, modular platform. The key differentiator is that OKI will be offered as a free, open source toolkit, whereas B2 is a commercial system complete with licensing fees.

One unanswered question remains: if open standards become widely used, and all learning applications become interoperable, then why would you want to use "Blackboard OS" at all?

Its certainly good timing for Blackboard - with OKI still on the drawing board, and standards now just starting to gather real momentum, there is a real opportunity right now for Blackboard to grab a considerable slice of the action. Perhaps this move marks Blackboard's bid to become the "gorilla" of the eLearning sector.

Of course, whether this is eventually a good thing for the sector is an entirely different matter.

For more information on B2, visit the new Building Blocks website.