Technology Research

A Tale of Two Conferences

In July, Eduventures was invited to two major industry conferences: D2L FUSION 2016 and Blackboard BbWORLD 2016. Given that both vendors are best-known for their learning management system (LMS) platforms, you might think their conferences would be similar. You would be wrong. Instead, each of these events painted a picture of two companies with missions, goals, product portfolios, and clients that could not be more different. From the CEO keynotes to the product launches and customer town hall meetings, each of these companies made a distinctive case for why it is the market leading educational company to watch. Our interactions with the customers and executive teams from D2L and Blackboard also revealed two companies solving different problems with unique strategies that cater to their strengths and hedge against their weaknesses. We have included some highlights from these events here. If you are an institution considering solutions from these two vendors, keep in mind each company’s mission alignment to your institutional goals as much as the features available in their learning platforms today.

Blackboard: Proving They Listened

It is no secret that Blackboard has been hemorrhaging LMS clients in recent years, due in part to an inability to meet client expectations for product deadlines and quality deliverables. Eduventures’ research into client satisfaction levels of student success and retention vendors confirms Blackboard’s challenges, but also shows that satisfaction levels are dipping for some other vendors just as badly. Satisfaction Levels by Solution Provider Source: Eduventures Retention Technology Spending Survey, 2016 Some analysts believed that Blackboard replaced its CEO at the start of 2016 because it could not find a new owner. On the contrary, Eduventures believes Blackboard did this to inject some much-needed rigor into its product management processes and to link accountability with customer satisfaction levels.  To appropriate a quote from comic-book literature, Bill Ballhaus is both the CEO that Blackboard deserves, as well as the one it needs right now. Ballhaus brings to Blackboard a pragmatic, engineer’s skill set, forged in an environment of zero tolerance for failures of mission critical systems where human lives are on the line. In his keynote, Ballhaus emphasized this theme. When Blackboard’s clients demanded more clarity, performance, and stability with respect to the company’s support for managed and cloud-hosted solutions, he reminded the audience that he was quick to pursue a partnership with IBM to manage all of Blackboard’s infrastructure operations. Other presentations also focused on proving that the company is now listening to client needs and delivering long-awaited (and neglected) features in upcoming releases. For example, the crowd erupted in applause at the mention of a new attendance-tracking tool for Blackboard Learn, a capability promised for nearly two years and a commodity feature in nearly every other LMS in the market. Likewise, Captain Mark Kelley’s story of his successes at NASA in the face of personal adversity seemed to underscore Blackboard’s renewed commitment and focus on quality, product delivery, and customer expectations during a time of intense competition within multiple market segments.

D2L: Anticipating the Next Big Thing

Conversely, D2L has enjoyed a wave of high client satisfaction, and near-perfect customer retention rates. D2L’s CEO and founder since 1999, John Baker, used part of his keynote to recognize the company’s growth and recent successes. Far from resting on his laurels, he imparted a desire to continue moving the goal posts further out. His conference’s theme focused on big picture, global issues like gender equality in education and the ubiquitous adoption of competency-based education. D2L is taking its high marks for customer satisfaction as wholesale endorsement of its product roadmap and strategy. The company was early to market with novel product enhancements like gamification, role-based mobile applications, predictive analytics, and degree planning—all of which have been well-received leading into this year’s conference. D2L’s CEO empowers the organization to innovate in anticipation of market demands, leading to out-of-the-box experiments like the virtual classroom initiative it established in partnership with YouSeeU. Using a hockey analogy, which is somewhat appropriate for a Canadian company, D2L appears to be skating where the puck is headed, not where it currently is.

Narrowing Focus, Yet Expanding Scope

This is not to say that Blackboard is failing to innovate in new product areas. Quite the contrary. Blackboard announced several major initiatives at BbWorld, including entirely new products focused on student success and retention. Blackboard Predict is an early warning and dashboard solution using LMS engagement data. Also launched was a pair of applications for academic and career advising: Bb Planner mobile app for student planning, and the Blackboard Advise web-based platform for academic and career advisors. Here are just a few of the other product announcements that highlight the breadth of capabilities that Blackboard is bringing to market: This flurry of product launches leads us to wonder if Blackboard is giving the higher education market mixed signals. The entire company is clearly focused on making amends with clients and creating a culture of quality and transparency around new releases of its flagship Blackboard Learn platform. Yet it very clearly wants to be known as anything but an “LMS company.” Blackboard is taking great measures to expand horizontally across the student lifecycle with products that are typically supported by niche players in student success and retention. In other words, Blackboard wants to (and probably should) be described as a student success company. As part of our research into current spending on retention technology solutions, Blackboard was the most established brand (at 38%) across the institutions we surveyed, six points ahead of Ellucian (at 33%). Technology Vendors Currently Used Source: Eduventures Retention Technology Spending Survey, 2016 (N=118) D2L is also getting traction with institutions for its retention products such as Brightspace Insights and Degree Compass. In contrast to Blackboard, however, D2L is content to be known in the industry as a cutting edge learning company. Time will tell if Blackboard’s course corrections to address customer concerns will stem client migrations to D2L, Canvas, and other competitors. As part of our continuing coverage of the LMS market—or should we say, the learning and student success market—we will be digging into whether these innovations from D2L and Blackboard are welcomed by customers. In order to be successful, these new products will need to have the right mix of capabilities and data sources in an already crowded market of planning and advising solutions.   [Editor’s note: A statistical error in figure 2 has been updated.]  

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