Blackboard, OUNL deal widens Learning Design access
Wilbert Kraan, CETIS staff
April 29, 2004

IMS Learning Design and Educational Modelling Language (EML) pioneers the Open University of the Netherlands (OUNL) and Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) makers Blackboard inc. have inked a strategic alliance that allows the OUNL's Edubox player to be integrated with the Blackboard VLE and portal. The deal will make it easier for institutions with Blackboard installations to take advantage of the pedagogic flexibility and power of EML, or, in the near future, IMS Learning Design.

Back in the early days of web based e-learning, the OUNL was already looking beyond content centric, self-paced pedagogic models. The initial result was EML, a language to describe a variety of educational context and the activities in it. The Edubox player was designed to interpret and run the EML, and has been doing that job for a number of courses at the OUNL for a while now. In the meantime, EML was taken to IMS and developed into IMS Learning Design.

Blackboard has clearly heard the demand for supporting a greater variety of e-learning pedagogies, and is now committed to offer integration of its products with the Edubox player via its open Application Programming Interfaces (APIs). The aim of both partners is to be able to provide institutions with a means to edit, exchange and run IMS Learning Designs in a proven VLE.

We're not quite at that stage, though, since Edubox currently runs EML, but not IMS Learning Design. According to the OUNL's Miranda de Kort, that issue will be tackled shortly. In the mean time, Edubox and the system integration bridge to Blackboard Learning System and Portal will be commercially available in the last quarter of 2004, she said.

Ms de Kort also pointed out that the deal with Blackboard is a strategic alliance, which means that the partners are free to pursue other partnerships, implementations or new development directions. The development of the CopperCore Learning Design engine that was recently released by the OUNL is, therefore, not affected by this deal. Integration of either Edubox or CopperCore with VLEs other than Blackboard's is also possible, because the agreement is non-exclusive, Miranda points out.

Asked why the OUNL chose Blackboard for the alliance, Ms de Kort cites the fact that the VLE maker has a large market share in the Netherlands (Blackboard has a national licensing deal with SuRF, the Dutch counterpart of the UK's JISC), and further afield. Also, the products match each other well in functionality, she said. Edubox has capabilities that Blackboard cannot offer at the moment, and the alliance means Blackboard sales people have an additional set of features to offer to customers who want them. Miranda also claims that Edubox is not meant to compete with Blackboard Learning System or Portal, but complement it.

More generally, the deal could prove significant for the uptake of IMS Learning Design in two ways: it makes it easier for some institutions to add Learning Design capabilities to their installations, and it could help establish a profile of Learning Design for tight interoperability.

With regard to the first, not every institution has the will or expertise to integrate the free, open source CopperCore engine with its existing VLE, and for them, a commercial, off-the-shelf solution may be rather more attractive.

With regard to Learning Design profiles, the out-of-the-box interoperability of the spec in practice depends to a fair extend on the resources that are defined in a given Learning Design. If the design calls for, say, a polling tool that was available in the VLE where it was authored, but not the VLE where it has ended up, a degree of tweaking is called for. If Edubox becomes a widely used player of Learning Designs, its pallette of resources could become a de facto minimal profile that guarantees the easiest interoperability of materials.


The press release in English on Blackboard's site

The press release in Dutch on the OUNL's site