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Blackboard releases version 6, announces SCORM compliance, signs nation wide deal in the Netherlands

Blackboard systems, the dominant learning management system (LMS) vendor in higher education, announced new versions of their Learning System and Community Portal System products, and inked a nation wide licence deal with SURFDiensten- an IT services organisation for the Dutch education sector.

A good many of the new features available in the Blackboard Release 6 are modular bits of functionality called 'building blocks'. The idea behind it is that various developers have the ability to create and exchange or sell specialised modules that extend the capabilities of Blackboard's LMS. Easily the most interesting building block that has been added is a free SCORM 1.2 runtime, which makes it possible to run SCORM 1.2 compliant learning content in Blackboard's LMS. There is also the possibility of having test results recorded in a gradebook, but no word on metadata compliance- which is not the most popular function of SCORM at present anyway.

While the debate about the suitability of SCORM for HE, Blackboards's core market, continues, the growing volume of SCORM compliant content and its effectiveness for a specific range of training needs makes SCORM compliance on the LMS side quite compelling.

In a separate development, SURF, a Dutch cooperative association of HE institutions in the area of educational technology (comparable to the UK's JISC), has negotiated a nationwide license deal with Blackboard. The attraction for individual institutions is that it should allow them to license Blackboard products at a lower price- about 7500 per institution for 2003, at 4.- per student with a cap of 57.500. As already noted at the University of Amsterdam (in Dutch), this is not necessarily cheaper for all institutions, compared to current agreements. The advantage for these institutions would be longer term, and lies in the price cap and the fact that the SURF deal runs until 2005, thus forestalling any rises in single license fees.

There is an attraction for Blackboard as well, of course. As Andrew H. Rosen, EVP for the International Markets at Blackboard, put it: "Through our agreement with SURFdiensten Blackboard can become the e-Education standard in Dutch Higher Education" Though no doubt financially beneficial to Blackboard, it also points to the ongoing and implicit stand-off between two approaches to standardisation in elearning: via open standards and specifications like those drawn up by SCORM, IEEE, IMS and CEN/ISSS, or simply by waiting to see which product becomes the de facto "standard". Features like the new SCORM support make it perfectly possible for content creators in Dutch institutions to write learning objects that will work in a range of LMSs, but in practice quite a few will probably only be developed to work in Blackboard. It remains to be seen how that would benefit institutions in the longer term.

Further information on Blackboard 6 is available at the Blackboard Learning and Community Portal SystemsTM (Release 6) - Orientation Center.
SURFDiensten released a press release (in English) about the license agreement.

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