Over the course of the year, I enjoy a large quantity of anecdotal feedback on how we’re doing – emails, client meetings, Tweets, etc. – but it’s our client satisfaction surveys that give me the best overall view of our progress. These are the numbers I look at to see how well we’re doing. In the spirit of 2011 review, I’ll share news of the direction in those surveys, alongside a couple of key milestones we reached this year in the digital content and open education areas. I’ll also preview some of the news you can expect from us in early 2012.
Improving the Experience
Since I arrived at Blackboard we’ve made the improvement of our product and service quality a tremendous focus. We needed to be much better in these areas, and we committed a great deal to the effort with more staff, resources and new programs. By far, this has been the biggest priority for us as a company during my time at Blackboard.
The latest results from our independent surveys show dramatic progress. Client satisfaction levels have continued an upward trajectory. In nearly all areas we survey it rose sharply in 2011, and now rests at the highest levels we’ve seen since our measures began. These include our responsiveness as a services organization, the transparency of our business dealings, the stability and quality of our products, and the total value we provide to the institutions we serve.
Hearteningly, the sharpest rise was in the number of clients that would recommend us to a colleague. While we’re not yet reaching the absolute goal I’ve set for these marks, this is a welcomed affirmation that our clients are witnessing the benefits of our improved focus on fundamentals and execution in doing what we say we’re going to do. It’s no surprise that the curve showing the percentage of clients renewing their relationships with us is trending positively as well. Both buoy the spirits of our team as we embrace 2012, and ready for market further expressions of what’s been seen in recent years.
Our next step in openness – The “Share Button”
Openness is a tricky term in ed tech these days. Some think it’s over-worked by marketers eager to align with a positive meme. We’re pleased to be judged by the facts about what we’re becoming, and what we’re enabling for our clients and in the industry relative to what’s been done previously by any firm. We’ve shown consistent and energetic support for open education standards, for opening of our platform and the data that resides within it, and for interoperability with other platforms whether commercial or open source.
In the final quarter of the year we unveiled our latest direction under this heading of openness. At EDUCAUSE we made news about openness in two ways. First, we demonstrated native support for Open Educational Resources (OER) in our CourseSites learning platform and laid out a vision for how this would reach to all instances of the Blackboard Learn platform. Second, we retroactively modified licensing terms to ensure our clients greater latitude in using their investment in our platforms to expand their reach into their learning communities, however they define them.
Neither of these moves had immediate financial gain for Blackboard. In fact they will have some negative financial impact on our licensing revenues. But what attracted us to both of these moves was that they could better align us with the mission of the educators we serve. One of my mentors, Tim O’Reilly, left a most lasting impression on me with his advice that building a great company is about “creating more value than you capture.” I hope that these investments in openness and others to come will be viewed as examples of that spirit growing within Blackboard.
Learning Platform & Learning Content: Better together.
In 2010 we made a bold statement about our desire to innovate in the use of learning content within learning management systems. Our initial partnership with McGraw-Hill won lots of attention, and this year we’ve expanded the effort in partnership with all of the major publishers in the education space. In 2011, we also delivered in the form of a real solution, at scale: over 700 institutions have activated a Building Block that lets instructors and students access McGraw-Hill tools and titles inside Blackboard Learn. The effort brings a fundamental change to an area that hasn’t changed in a decade. It’s the most elegant form of integration between platform and content in our industry, and we’ve done it across hundreds of titles and with highly used products like McGraw-Hill’s Connect™.
This month brought our first wave of external feedback in the form of a user survey showing that 95 percent of participants in our field trials found the integration to represent a “significant improvement” in their experience with this product. In a world where consumers expect their tweets to magically appear on their Facebook pages, it’s easy to understand the expectation that their learning content be blended into their learning platform experience. It’s also a mark of achievement for industry partnership around educator needs and collaboration to implement using open standards for content and systems integration.
The Year of Mobile
We’ve had lots going on in the LMS space, but 2011 was also a transitional year from a product standpoint. It’s been a long time since Blackboard could be viewed as just an LMS company. But this year the concept of Blackboard as leading provider of a multitude of products and services across the institution was strengthened through a number of examples. New versions of our Blackboard Connect and Blackboard Collaborate products saw significant adoption. And we introduced major new capabilities with Blackboard Analytics and Blackboard Student Services.
But the most striking example is in the mobile arena. I think our work in mobile is the most innovative and thought provoking that we produced during the year. And it’s a great example of a new product set that was delivered rapidly, but with solid execution in scale, quality and support. It’s not surprising to see the strong adoption as the market for mobile learning and mobile services applications take shape. Or to see the Campus Computing survey confirm some of these strong gains in share as experimentation in the field shifts to real use.
Peeking at 2012: Learning Analytics, and a New Look for Blackboard Learn
Going forward, we won’t let up on our efforts to continually improve our fundamentals. But this year we’ll also open a new focus on innovation in some important areas. We’re working on a number of items in the social/mobile/analytical realms that you’ll see from us in 2012, but I’ll preview here two important items we’ll be rolling out in the first few months of the year:
- A comprehensive new design for Blackboard Learn: We’ve accepted what I think is fair criticism for product design that hasn’t evolved rapidly in recent years. In a market with increasingly sophisticated consumers of user interface, this matters greatly. News of a major modernization effort for our UI has been leaking out of our beta program, and demand is high for the reveal. Our most beautiful new product release ever is about to appear. Nicknamed “The Ocho” by our team, Blackboard 9.1 Service Pack 8 is nigh. Its curves and conventions are all conceived for 2012. But importantly, while the surface will sizzle, the underlying metaphors will remain familiar to the many millions that use our product daily. It’ll be available for all this quarter after some final tuning based on beta feedback.
- A new product for analytics: We’ve just concluded a fantastic year of growth for our analytics product line, and now have over 150 clients using our product in production. The native interest in a pre-packaged application with out-of-the-box integration with SIS frameworks proved to be just as intriguing to our community as we’d hoped. Participation in our beta program for our latest module for the analytics suite, Blackboard Analytics for Learn, has been robust. We’ve confirmed that this product is providing learning leaders an unprecedented view of learning activity, and that it’s making it easier for them to set and measure learning goals at enterprise scale. The general availability of this product will be announced shortly.
Hopefully this note gives you a sense for how we’re doing, and what’s to come in the year ahead. There’s much we’re not ready to mention yet. But suffice it to say that I think it’s gearing up to be our best year of delivering innovations in the products and services that we offer, and sustained development of the openness and transparency that you’ve come to expect from the Blackboard that we are becoming. As always your comments and perspective are welcome—drop me a line at email@example.com.
Statements regarding our product development initiatives, including new products and future product upgrades, updates or enhancements represent our current intentions, but may be modified, delayed or abandoned without prior notice and there is no assurance that such offering, upgrades, updates or functionality will become available unless and until they have been made generally available to our customers.