WebCT bought by e-learning competitor Blackboard

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Blackboard Inc. plans to acquire WebCT, Brown’s course-management software provider, in a $180 million transaction that will create an e-learning powerhouse serving more than 3,700 clients. The announcement was made Oct. 12.

According to the firm’s Web site, the company, which will use Blackboard’s name, eventually plans to provide one “new, standards-based product set that incorporates the best features of each company’s product line.” This combined platform will be accessible to both current Blackboard and WebCT clients through future upgrades.

A company press release said the merger would be beneficial because it will “break down barriers and enable collaboration across institutions by developers and end-users at a critical time in the evolution of e-learning technologies.”

For the time being, the two companies are still operating separately, and the merger is planned to take place within six months, said Eileen Palenchar, Brown’s associate director of teaching and learning services for Computing and Information Services.

“From my perspective, the merger should be no cause for alarm for either faculty or students,” Palenchar said. Faculty members who have invested a large amount of time and effort in their current course Web pages will not have to completely redesign them.

Palenchar attended a conference earlier this month soon after the merger was announced at which the CEOs of both Blackboard and WebCT spoke about satisfying the consumers of both existing products. Palenchar said she got the impression that making the “transition smooth for both product lines” was a priority for the CEOs.

“Some encouraging news to me was that the staff from WebCT who develop the code will be going to the new company,” Palenchar said.

In fact, the University originally considered Blackboard as a potential provider of education software. However, Palenchar said that Blackboard seemed “less customizable” than WebCT. “The faculty like the ability to customize, even if Blackboard is a little easier to use,” Palenchar said.

The effects of the merger on the product itself will become evident as the companies “blend the best features of (each product) over time,” Palenchar said. WebCT and Blackboard have cited a time frame of four to five years for this “slow, gradual process,” she said.

“Customers (of WebCT and Blackboard) shall stand to benefit from these (better tools),” Palenchar said. “I think both faculty and students will enjoy (the new capabilities).”

Despite the merger of Blackboard and WebCT, the University plans on following through with an upgrade to a newer version of WebCT. According to the company’s Web site, the merger will not interfere with upgrade transitions.

The University currently uses WebCT Campus Edition Version 4.1, but will pilot WebCT Campus Edition Version 6 in the spring and implement the improved version fully in Fall 2006, according to Palenchar.

Palenchar said the upgrade will bring “enhanced capabilities” and will include changes to the interface, improved discussion tools and the ability to upload a larger variety of files, among other new offerings. “I think the faculty are going to like the new features,” she said.

Of the 1,134 scheduled courses offered in the Fall 2005 semester, 415 use WebCT. Brown has used the software since Fall 2002, when it was initially piloted with 59 courses.

Original plans for the pilot only counted on supporting 20 courses, but there was an immediate attraction to the educational capabilities of course-management software such as WebCT.

Since then, every semester has seen an increase in the number of courses using the program. Palenchar said the popularity of WebCT lies in the fact that it “provides one-stop-shopping for course materials” and the ability to bundle course information, presentations and audio in one central location.