I've recently been given a more active role in the ownership of our VLE, Blackboard. And while at heart I am an open source fanatic, I do also believe that in the end the tools aren't necessarily that important, it is how you use them. With that in mind I was planning to take a positive approach to my new-found challenge.
My initial exposure was quite positive. I attended the Blackboard Europe conference 2008 in Manchester in spring, and was positively surprised to hear Blackboard talk about openness, open standards and connectivity to, or even integration with, Moodle and Sakai. I was also very impressed by some of the community work being done, in particular the work around the Assignment submission building block at Sheffield Hallam University. Unfortunately this exuberance was not going to last.
My first frustrations started when trying to get more information in the assignment handler. I was very keen for us to have a look at it, and would have been more then happy to make a case for buying it. However, Blackboard was strangely evasive. The building block wasn't exactly ready, and they didn't really know what they were going to do with it. In our most recent discussion this changed to 'We don't really want to sell it to you, you can hire us to redevelop it'...
What? So you have a great bit of functionality, but in stead of selling it, or helping us integrate it, you want us to actually fork out the full development cost again?
I'm not quite sure how this fit's in with Blackboards new found spirit of openness, but if this is the way in which they see their relation with the community then I think I'll consider myself thouroughly disillusioned. In stead of supporting and empowering their community to build more value around their product, they seem to choose to stiffle innovation and collaboration. Similarly in our own efforts to start upskilling our team to create new functionality through building blocks I have not found a great deal of support either. Blackboard seem to not offer much in terms of training or support here, but in stead offer to build a buildingblock for us and let us watch and learn while they do it, and then leave us to it.
It's a shame that some vendors behave in this way, as it creates such an antagonistic atmosphere. You would think we both have similar goals and interests here, yet we are treating eachother like potential enemies and rivals. For example, I still don't know officially what Blackboard are going to release in version 9, as they feel they need to avoid anything that might be mistaken as a guarantee or legal commitment to deliver. But where does that leave us with our roadmap planning?
And I guess that's why I prefer Open Source software. Not because everything needs to be free, but because I want a mature constructive,collaborative relationship with the partners that we work with. And unfortunately many commercial vendors seem to have great difficulty doing that.