This is a big step for Blackboard, one of the first companies to combine teaching and learning with the Internet. Since its 1997 founding, Blackboard has expanded to offer clients mobile apps and a variety of learning management platforms.
Schools that are currently licensing Blackboard’s learning management system, Blackboard Learn, will have access to the MOOC platform at no additional cost. Now Blackboard partners can use CourseSites to run free unlimited MOOCs as well. CourseSites is hosted on Blackboard Learn 9.1. Non-partnering schools and instructors can use CourseSites to create and manage MOOCs. However, individual instructors cannot offer more than five MOOCs to students at once.
The company altered its software licensing to accommodate open education after noticing the rising popularity of MOOCs. "We found that [institutions] were offering MOOCs for one of three reasons," said Katie Blot, president of education services at Blackboard. Schools wanted to make educational content accessible to global students, test programs in a safe environment, and market their services by giving students a firsthand look at how classes were run, she said.
[ What does the future hold for online courses? Read: MOOC Leader EdX Turns One: What's Next?.]
The new schools bring the total number of institutions partnering with Blackboard to offer MOOCs to 24.
Although many schools wanted to try them, most MOOC platforms did not suit their needs. "When you give a taste of your institution, you really want to make it look like a course," said Blot. "MOOCs at the beginning weren't like that."
Because partnering institutions are familiar with Blackboard services, it's easier for them to stick with a familiar system, she said. "We will be the only people who can give [that familiarity] to our clients."
Of the company's decision to make MOOC services free to partners, Blot said, "If they couldn't profit, then we shouldn't profit either." However, participating schools will retain control over revenue for paid or for-credit courses.
Peggy M. Brown, the director of instructional design at the School of Information Studies (iSchool) at Syracuse University, described the school's success in using CourseSites for MOOCs. The school ran its first MOOC, "Data Science with R," in February. Its second MOOC, "New Librarianship, the Master Class," launched a few weeks ago. Participants range from graduate-level students to those simply curious about librarianship.
iSchool considered platforms such as Coursera and Udacity before selecting Blackboard. It already used Blackboard services, which proved helpful in running the MOOC. "It's wonderful having MOOCs in a similar platform as the classes you teach," said Brown in an interview. "It's an easier transition for faculty and students."
Brown praised the convenience of the customer service at CourseSite. Quick response time, automatic updates and ease of use all contributed to the school's decision to choose Blackboard, she said.
The School of Information Studies is so far the first at Syracuse to offer MOOCs, but Brown anticipates the trend will spread. "I foresee Syracuse launching MOOCs in the near future in different departments and different colleges," she predicted.
Institutions soon will be able to launch open education on a specialized, more flexible Blackboard MOOC platform. Blackboard recently announced that it plans to release an updated version of Blackboard Learn, its flagship learning management system, which will include social learning capabilities as well as course management and student engagement functions.
Benefits will also include rule-based learner identification, last name searches to filter through large numbers of students, and automatic group creation, which will help large classes feel smaller to participants.
"Institutions need more flexible options for experimenting with MOOCs and running online courses that meet their individual needs," said Blot in a statement. The new platform will enable institutions to connect their regular learning management software with an MOOC platform. Regularly enrolled students can interact and share content with MOOC students, which will facilitate social networking and give MOOC users a taste of the institution.