The patent, awarded to the Washington, D.C.-based company in January but announced last month, has prompted an angry backlash from the academic computing community, which is fighting back in techie fashion — through online petitions and in a sprawling Wikipedia entry that helps make its case.
Critics say the patent claims nothing less than Blackboard’s ownership of the very idea of e-learning. If allowed to stand, they say, it could quash the cooperation between academia and the private sector that has characterized e-learning for years and explains why virtual classrooms are so much better than they used to be.
Why are universities concerned? Many use off-the-shelf systems sold by Blackboard already. But others use rival companies like Desire2Learn, or mix and match to meet their own needs. Because universities are decentralized and have such varied systems, one size rarely fits all, says Feldstein. Many borrow from open-source courseware programs with names like “Moodle” and “the Sakai Project.”
The fear is that universities, afraid of being sued for patent infringement, would stop that mixing, matching and experimenting — and that innovation would suffer. Feldstein notes most LMSs started out as university research projects — including Blackboard itself, at Cornell.
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