Today marks the official release of a new program we call CourseSites. Put simply, it’s a free version of our latest learning management system for individual instructors. And I mean fully free – no software license, no hosting fee, and no charge for support. And if our beta program is an indicator of interest in this new program, it’s gonna be a barn-burner. We’ve already seen participation from thousands of individual instructors.
As I’ve shared news of this offering in recent months reaction has been very positive, and some have expressed surprise about our approach. Why would we – a commercial provider – create such a compelling offer and make it free? There are three reasons.
First, there are still important emerging markets for us where the standard enterprise adoption model is an obstacle for our business. Good examples of this are the K12 and pockets within the international Higher Ed market. Both are areas with significant growth potential for LMS product adoption. And in both, individual faculty advocates often play a leading role in bringing this technology into their institutions. The open source model has historically had fewer hurdles to sampling activity for these markets. And naturally, the first products used often become the first products adopted. So we’ve taken inspiration from the open source model where an LMS can be downloaded and installed with no barrier of purchase, and taken it to its logical extreme. Just sign up online at www.coursesites.com, and with no installation, nor concern about support, you can begin production use of our latest and greatest product.
Now, there are very real costs to us to support this activity. But if we execute well on the idea it will be an expedient and efficient investment in marketing our product. Those with need will find us. And we can be sure that their experience is highly professional – with no barriers of learning technology or systems administration to achieve a very good result for teaching. So rather than just spending on advertising and marketing, we’re also spending on the experience of education. For an organization like ours that’s confident in our ability to execute, this variation on the “freemium” model (though CourseSites itself is totally free) can be a more productive allocation of capital than some traditional marketing models. This hews to our mission to improve access to education, reflect the values of educators we serve, while also creating an enduring business.
Secondly, in the mature markets we face a challenge of competing with our own legacy versions. While approximately 40% of our clients have adopted our NG release – the most rapid version uptake in our history – there are still 60% on older versions. While we’ve invested heavily in supporting experimentation with our latest versions, we still face the basic hurdle that our clients need to install and learn how to administer our new product before it can be used successfully. These barriers too often lead to a situation where clients undergoing re-evaluation are considering new open source products with a legacy Blackboard version as their frame of reference. CourseSites changes this. Client institutions have this new option in their arsenal for change management. It’s an allocation of investment around direct experience, and I’m confident our clients will appreciate the added flexibility it gives them in involving faculty and instructional designers in evaluating our latest software.
Third, this arrangement allows us to provide a series of additional products and features that may not be available to sample otherwise. Beyond our latest LMS version we’ve included additional platform and partner technologies including Blackboard Collaborate instant messaging, live conferencing and voice tools, Respondus assessment and locked browser tools and content authoring from SoftChalk. This mix gives users a chance to try out learning technologies we’re investing in as a company but to which they might not otherwise obtain access. And there’s more to come. We’ve also created new course templates and themes. These course templates (called “structures”) help instructors more quickly develop courses that align with their preferred teaching method and pedagogic goals. The course themes are fun, with a myriad of new ways to personalize the look and feel of the platform at the course level, with 50 new prebuilt themes.
I’m optimistic about the impact CourseSites can have in reducing barriers to inspection for our existing clients and prospects in the emerging markets for learning technology. So whether you’re a Blackboard client or not, I encourage you to have a look and share your thoughts with us. And of course I’ll encourage you to share this news with others who are considering their LMS alternatives. As always, your input is welcome—please feel free to reach out to me with questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
p.s. And if you’re interested, please do check out our man John Fontaine’s blog on the topic here: www.johnfontaine.com.