Monday, August 14, 2006

Patently Daft

I tried, really I did.
I tried to ignore the Blackboard Patent on here, as it's being done to death everywhere else.
But then...
The what? OK, here's a potted version with as many links as I can cram in, I won't try and repeat everything wholesale, just what's pertinent to schools and Local Authorities in the UK.
Blackboard (a US vendor of online learning systems, mainly used by Higher Education Institutions) filed a patent claim earlier this year which, in so many words, attempts to patent the mechanics of distance learning and course creation. This claim (almost spookily) followed Blackboard's acquisition of WebCT (its closest competitor at the time) - who, had it not bought, it would have sued. In the end it did sue someone - it issued a writ (PDF) against Desire2Learn, who produce a competing online learning system. This has caused a number of ripples among the online education community - much of it taking form as antipathy towards Blackboard.
To get a plain-English summary of the patent, visit the site. It's quite informative - essentially Blackboard are claiming that they created all sorts of interactions between instructors (teachers) and students in online environments, and lots more besides. It feels to me a little like Netscape/Microsoft/someone else trying to patent the concept of clicking on hyperlinks to view a web page - some of the claims are quite funny (Claim 33 in plain English: On the course documents page, the list of documents link to the actual documents listed - ooo, that is novel) but Blackboard is just creating trouble for itself by doing this - see some of the comments on the Boycott Blackboard petition (scroll down).
One revealing comment to me today came from someone who was directed to what they described as Blackboard's "bleeding heart" letter - which can be summed up as we're not the bad guys, we're just educators like all of you, we just want to make the money that's rightfully ours, we're not trying to patent e-learning - this person's comment immediately afterwards was, "well, when I actually read went on to read the patent claim it becomes very obvious very fast that that's exactly what they're trying to patent". If you're a glutton for legal punishment then there's a set of images from the patent documents on Flickr, or there's a collection of related sites.
So what does this mean for schools in the UK? Well, not many will use Blackboard (it's waaaay too expensive for most of them and inappropriate for use in primary schools for a start) but it might affect those vendors applying to be part of the Learning Platforms Framework. It looks like Becta have today advised participants in the tendering process to take legal advice - does this mean that any LA, RBC or school going with a commercial provider could find that the provider gets sued by Blackboard? Who knows. As far as Moodle goes, there's an informative discussion on (free registration required if you're not already a member) about this and much of the "prior art" is being documented on the Moodle documentation site and Wikipedia's entry on the History of Online Learning. In the case of a piece of Open Source software - who would BlackBoard issue a writ against? I guess it's another case of the propogation of Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt - if you use [any other system but Blackboard], you might get sued. Be scared!
My last thought on this comes from the wording of the writ issued against Desire2Learn. I'm not well versed in legalese (just a few parking tickets, honest) but page 3 of the writ has what's described as a Prayer for Relief which states that Blackboard prays for judgement and relief. To me that sounds like the prayer of someone who's in hell or on the verge of it - as someone once said, be careful what you pray for.
Update: a readable summary (in case the above isn't!) is on the Education Technology Group blog.

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