Yesterday, the President of Westminster College e-mailed me a simple question: “What is Sakai?” As many of you know, Sakai is an open source course management system. Course management systems in higher education are used to supplement (and sometimes replace) in-classroom learning and to enable more student interaction outside the classroom. My reply to my President answered his question, and I added also that I doubted that we’d be looking at Sakai anytime soon. Why? The general consensus of the faculty seemed to indicate that our current course management system – Angel – was meeting needs just fine.

I typed the response and hit the Send button.

Then, I clicked on the next message in my inbox. Literally the next message.

The gist of the message: Angel Learning, the creator of the aforementioned course management system, had just announced to their client base that their company had been sold to Blackboard, often referred to by colleges as Blackborg due to their history of buying and assimilating competing products. Unlike the other company often accused of Borgifying the competition, however, Blackboard’s history of success in integrating purchase products isn’t exactly stellar; in fact, to many people who have been on the wrong end of these acquisitions, there is a great deal of bitterness toward Blackboard. Many of these people felt that they had found a safe haven in Angel. But, as they say, money talks and the $95 million paycheck that Angel management received isn’t exactly chump change.

Now, I’ve seen mergers and acquisitions take place before, but never before have I seen such immediate, quick and universal condemnation of a business decision. I’ve spent much of the past 24 hours reading listserv messages, blog postings and story comments. To say that users are angry would be a massive understatement.

To Angel’s credit, they have kept their company-operated user listserv alive and operating and do not appear to be censoring any messages. How do I know? If they were censoring or moderation mail, there is not one message that would have made the cut today. Here is a sample of some of the comments regarding this merger:

  • “Is this a joke?”
  • “I guess money talks and BS walks. I hope Angel realizes that a lot of the reason they got so much money and market share so fast is because people wanted to get the hell away from Blackboard in the first place! Not pleased in the least…”
  • “Just sick to my stomach. The coming year will be spent on developing an escape plan.”
  • “I thought they were different!! I feel betrayed!!!!!”
  • “I know some folks who just switched to Angel because they were sick of Blackboard’s high fees or because WebCT was slowly going away after they were bought out by Blackboard. Uh, go Moodle, I guess.”
  • “9.I cannot believe this is happening. We went to ANGEL over 5 years ago when the company was small. Many other colleges in Florida followed with St. Petersburg College’s lead. Never in my life did I think that ANGEL Learning Execs would sell out to such a crappy company like BB. I really do not believe that BB will combine the great features into its product.”

At Westminster, we had a plan for the summer to upgrade our Angel system to the latest version. We’ll probably still do that, but this uncertainty also provides us with an opportunity that might not have otherwise come along. We can take a hard look at the market without feeling any loyalty to the incumbent provider who, honestly, has been good to work with. Many colleges that use the Angel system are in a worse situation in that they’re under multi-year contracts with Angel and are now running a system with a very uncertain future.

So, we have a conundrum. Replacing a course management system isn’t exactly a trivial affair. So, we’ll continue to watch this develop and will probably deploy the open source Moodle course management system side-by-side with Angel this fall. That will give our faculty and students some time to consider and provide feedback regarding both systems simultaneously. Moreover, in the event that Angel/Blackboard support becomes unusable or license pricing goes through the roof (both happened when Blackboard acquired WebCT a while back), we’ll at least have the option to cut the Angel cord without a huge impact.

This wasn’t on the to-do list, but a course management system is critical infrastructure in a college environment!