This post is part of our ongoing Blackboard Week.

Can’t we all just play nice? Image from flickr user dkaz

My mother always told me to play nicely with others on the playground. My first internship out of high school was coding in C for a company called Automatic Duck. They’ve made an entire business out of translating project files of Avid or Final Cut Pro to Adobe After Effects project files. If you don’t know video editing programs, think of them as a program that would allow you to import Microsoft Word files into Apple Pages or OpenOffice (if they didn’t already do so). Software like Automatic Duck plays nicely with others. Although I didn’t finish it, I was working on a simple open format to express video projects while working there.

Playing nicely with others is a good way to make sure your company stays on top: if users can easily bring data into and out of your system, the more likely they are to use it. Without the possibility of being trapped in a system forever, everything deserves a chance. This post will talk about the gains Blackboard could see if they iron out their integration into other systems.

Blackboard’s current integration situation

Included in Blackboard 9′s release came the promise of Sakai and Moodle integration. This allows the Blackboard platform to communicate with Moodle and Sakai through its Building Block API technology. This is great, but it’s not far enough. The Building Blocks technology allows third parties to develop and sell modules (like an Apple App Store) to cover for “missing functionality.” (I use quotes because I doubt these add-on functions are needed in most cases.)

Because this specific functionality is dependent upon Blackboard’s API, it is dependent upon a few factors. If Blackboard changes the way a module accesses its API, Moodle and Sakai have to change code on their side. While this is one commonly accepted way of transacting for other applications, the problem could benefit from an open format (see below).

While we don’t have access to the Blackboard Sync and Learn APIs, my best estimates is that its not very functional. Users of Sakai complain that “Blackboard is not known today for its leadership in open standards.” After attempting to use the iPhone app and Facebook application, I was unable to get either to work. According to what I can gather, this is a problem more with my own university’s configuration not the Blackboard software itself. Again, we’re caught in the blame game. This problem might be solved if Blackboard used a more cloudish approach to their software.

Companies out there providing integration

Moodle has provided their users with a method of importing old Blackboard data. They’ve got a pretty detailed page on their Wiki about it. It’s in the underdogs best interests to provide whatever method they can to get a competitor’s data into their system. One new importer could double your business overnight.

But complaints frequently arise regarding Blackboard’s convoluted data model. That’s no real surprise if a system has not been massively overhauled after nine revisions. Now is the time to define an open college data format and work on transitioning the current data model to this format.

There’s probably room in the market out there for an Automatic Duck of class-related information. And I can guarantee you it will be simpler than what Automatic Duck does today. (I spent two summers dealing with and deducing different formats of representing numerical information dealing with transparency, position and size of video layers and everyone just has to do it differently. In C.)

Comment about multiple systems from David Giesberg

Long-time HackCollege reader David Giesberg offered a poignant comment in yesterday’s post.

The other part of the equation is that apps like Blackboard have to be installed locally at every school because Blackboard is just one piece of the IT puzzle for many schools. For example, UT has a monstrous old mainframe at its core that tracks nearly every piece of data about students – from enrollment and financial aid, to grades and payroll. The integration process involved with linking a system like that to an outside system (like a cloud-based Blackboard system) that UT didn’t have control over would be a nightmare (worse than it is right now). And to be honest, even long after Blackboard dies/goes away/gets replaced by something better/sexier/cheaper, that mainframe will still be there.

When deciding on which system to go with, the exportability of the data is usually not a primary concern in the decision-making process. It doesn’t help that that decision was probably made some 30-odd years ago. Every day UT doesn’t think of transitioning to a more maintainable system is another mile down the road of irreversible decisions. Given current economic conditions, the idea of transitioning to a new system is not within the budget. It is something that needs to be addressed in the future.

But if this mainframe works just fine, why fix it?

An Open Format

The solution to a majorities of the issues so far is to create an open format for courses and university data in general. A small subset of this format (in XML) could look like the following:

<student>
<firstName>Kelly</firstName>
<lastName>Sutton</lastName>
<studentId>123123123</studentId>
</student>

If Blackboard created an open format, they would have the upper hand on their competitors in a few ways. First off, they would be first-to-market with an already widely adopted format. They would be able to ensure that any third-party system could easily communicate with their own system. (Security of the transactions would need to be separately defined.)

Also, this encourages other authorized third parties to start doing cool stuff with the data. As seen by the acquisition of ANGEL Learning, Blackboard is definitely interested in mashups of its universities’ data. Creating an open format encourages entry into the field and the experimentation of new ideas.

Integrating means victory

If Blackboard were to publish an open format, it would be easier to parallelize efforts toward complete and bug-free system integration. Maintainers of old mainframes like UT’s–those that know the system best–would be able to write data exporters for the open, intermediate format. Blackboard would give schools currently not using the software a risk-free trial. Blackboard sales men could show up to meetings with the school’s data already imported into the system, “Here’s what your school would look like on Blackboard and are ready to go online with us today. How about that? Sign here.”

Developing new ways of interacting with the Blackboard Learn system’s information would be fun and the results would be expected. Blackboard would indirectly create a community of developers out-developing themselves. Blackboard could take its pick when it came to companies to acquire to make the core product better. They could get people excited in the admittedly dull space of organizing the student information organization space.

Do you think further system integration could help Blackboard and actively developing an open format? Are there any sysadmins out there with experience with this topic?