When software companies talk about being open, what do they really mean?

On one level it can mean they subscribe to an open source philosophy where all their code is open and shared for anyone to use freely. Moodle and Linux are classic examples. These organizations don’t “sell” their software, but rather make it available for anyone to use under an open source license. And they make it possible for anyone to add to and extend their core functionality. These types of organizations fund their operations through co-marketing or other fees. And many who extend a truly open source product with their own code often give it back to the community to freely use as well.

On another level, there are commercial-oriented organizations that start with a basis of open source code and build a new product or solution on top of it. Some license what they have created for a fee, others provide a service that leverages this software and its improvements. For strategic reasons, they can hold back part of their intellectual property. Our Moodlerooms product is an example of this trend. While we do not distribute all of the Moodlerooms source code, we are active contributors to the open source community. We regularly release some code back to the Moodle community that is integrated with and extends Moodle core; we are the largest single contributor of funds to Moodle.org (the organization that oversees the ongoing development of Moodle); and we fund events for the Moodle community on almost every continent.

Then there are organizations who operate under a fully proprietary license model, but who embrace openness. They license their software for a fee, but they embrace and comply with open standards and provide the ability for other organizations to integrate with and extend their core functionality. With the exception of Moodlerooms, this is how Blackboard operates.

Blackboard’s Openness

As I outlined in my blog post Our ongoing support of the developer community a few months ago, Blackboard has a history of supporting development of integrations and customizations that dates back to 2001. Blackboard is also committed to interoperability standards and openness, and we provide leadership in their specification and development. We do all this because Blackboard products are designed to be part of an educational ecosystem which allows our customers choice in the way they implement their solutions, and provides choice in tools, content, data retrieval, and teaching strategies. Consider the following facets of Blackboard’s openness:

  • We support a number of integration frameworks that allow customers and partners to integrate with and extend Blackboard Learn. They include Java-based “Building Block” APIs, SOAP web services, and our Partner Cloud service that provides access to educational resources from our publishing and educational partners. Our latest addition is support of REST APIs, publicly documented and available at http://developer.blackboard.com.
  • We embrace and support IMS Global Learning Consortium standards, including Learning Tool Interoperability (LTI), Learning Information Services (LIS), Common Cartridge, and Caliper. We have also taken an active leadership role in our support of the IMS organization.
  • We support a number of standards for authentication and single sign-on, allowing identity providers to provision and authenticate users simply and easily. Some of the standards we support include SAML 2.0, LDAP, CAS, and Shibboleth.
  • For integrating with Student Information Systems (SIS), we support a number of interfaces and transports including standards-based methods from IMS Global.
  • With the Blackboard Open Content (formerly xpLor), we support the Creative Common standard for tagging and sharing content appropriately within and across organizations, adhering to the appropriate intellectual property indicators associated with the learning resource.
  • Blackboard Learn supports SCORM and IMS Common Cartridge for distributing, sharing, and using common learning resources.
  • Blackboard Learn supports the sharing of verified learner achievement through its adoption of the Open Badges standards. We also participate in standards organizations and are actively working to shape the definition and adoption of these standards.
  • Blackboard Learn allows you to add custom reports to the system through the Business Intelligence and Report Tools (BIRT) standard using our fully documented and open database schema (OpenDB).
  • Blackboard Learn Telemetry (activity) data can be streamed to additional systems using the Caliper standard, allowing organizations choice in the technologies they use to analyze teaching and learning activity data. Telemetry data can also be queried directly using the OpenDB schema.

Supporting the Community 

Blackboard supports all of the above through our Blackboard Community site, an open forum where anyone can interact with Blackboard and other members of the Blackboard community. One of our most recent additions to this forum is the support of Ideas where users can post product suggestions and provide feedback on our product roadmaps. The beauty of this forum is that everyone can see the ideas and interaction across the community.

We also hold an annual developers conference in conjunction with BbWorld. This past year DevCon attracted over 350 attendees, our largest attendance to date.

The Impact

So what is the result of all of this openness? For one, we have a very active and robust development community that numbers over 2,500 registered developers. This community has developed over 2,700 Building Block integrations and our analysis shows that the vast majority of our clients use at least one integration or extension. That is an astounding figure and provides strong evidence that Blackboard products are used as part of a larger educational eco-system.

Another result is the reach of Blackboard Open Content. Blackboard Open Content now has over 137,000 learning objects that are available to over 10 million learners and educators worldwide. To date, we have seen over 52,000 active users across 1,000 institutions. Users in 73 different countries have accessed Blackboard Open Content.

In Closing…

As I stated earlier, Blackboard products are designed to be part of an educational ecosystem. While we provide a full range of solutions, we also recognize that institutions use a wide variety of products to fulfill their educational missions. By adopting an open philosophy and supporting a full range of integration frameworks and standards, Blackboard provides our customers with flexibility and choice in what products they choose to enable. That’s our definition of openness.

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