District-based Blackboard helped launch the education-technology industry in the mid-1990s. By the early 2000s, its software connected students and professors with textbooks, course materials and each other at nearly every college in the country. Its stock peaked in 2007, at $49, more than triple its opening price on the Nasdaq in 2005.
Today, after 20 years of innovation, the once red-hot industry is at a crossroads as growth slows and a handful of companies vie to unseat Blackboard and grab market share.
In 2006, Blackboard held as much as 90 percent of the learning management system market share, according to industry reports. Now Blackboard’s market share has dwindled to 44 percent.
Blackboard, founded by American University graduates and an early darling of the District’s high-tech start-up community, has recently lost some high-profile university clients after students and faculty complained that its interface can be clunky and inconvenient.
Over time, Blackboard piled on new features to its core platform, but they were not always well integrated, which made students bounce around among different online programs to complete simple tasks.
Competitors emerged with more of-the-moment cloud computing features better suited for ease of use and mobile access.
This month, the University of Texas at Austin will move its online content from Blackboard to Canvas, a program made by ed-tech competitor Instructure. Duke switched from Blackboard to Sakai in 2011. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill started a Sakai pilot program in 2008 and jumped ship from Blackboard in 2014.
“I think if we look back 20 years ago, there was still a model of vendors developing products with heavy price tags and heavy implementation costs,” said Jim Helwig, chairman of the Apereo Foundation, a cooperative ed-tech nonprofit that supports Sakai. “We quickly discovered that this really didn’t meet the particular needs we had in higher education.”
The loss of clients comes amid a report that Blackboard, which employs 3,000 people, could be up for sale for the second time in five years. Founders Michael Chasen and Matthew Pittinsky led Blackboard to the Nasdaq in 2004 after a barnstorming run grabbing top-tier clients. By 2011, after the company amassed a $2 billion valuation, they sold the company to private-equity firm Providence Equity Partners. It is hoping for a $3 billion valuation for Blackboard in a possible sale, Reuters reported in July.
Blackboard, which declined to comment on reports that it is seeking a buyer, said it has taken “very real steps” to improve its service.
“We understand that learners, teachers and administrators want a delightful experience, an integrated and logical work flow, mobile access and powerful data capabilities,” said Katie Blot, Blackboard’s senior vice president for corporate strategy and business development. “And we’re now able to provide those things.”
It wasn’t always. Blackboard jumped into the market just as many campuses were beginning to embrace Internet connectivity.
“Blackboard defined the marketplace without a doubt,” said Chuck Severance, the chief architect of Sakai who has worked on developing standards for education technology. “In 2006, no one was fired for buying Blackboard. You had to compete with them on their turf.”
In its early days, Blackboard mastered simple tasks online such as allowing teachers to post homework assignments or reading material or make classroom announcements. As smaller competitors developed tools and customer bases, Blackboard gobbled them up in a series of mergers that solidified its place atop the ed-tech industry.
It bought Canadian-based WebCT in 2006, Angel Learning in 2009, and Moodlerooms and NetSpot in 2012. This month, it bought Nivel Siete, a Latin American open-source code provider.
“Since we were the big one, a lot of the smaller companies made their business, ‘Hey, look what we can do that Blackboard can’t,’ ” Blot said. “So when we acquired those, we could bring people together who are excited about those capabilities.”
But then competitors emerged that were more difficult to ignore. Firms such as Instructure and Sakai attempted to separate themselves from Blackboard by focusing on customizing their software for clients and providing extensive daily maintenance.
As rivals gained traction, Blackboard’s grip on the market began to slip. Some companies relied on open-source software that made them more nimble. Blackboard didn’t adopt it until 2012. Student and faculty complaints about the software also took on new life.
“Blackboard will be the death of me,” wrote one student on Tumblr a year ago.
“Why is everything so counter-intuitive?” said one professor on an online forum at the Chronicle of Higher Education. “Why do you have to click a million times just to do a simple task?”
Still, Blackboard remains a major industry force and has retained many of its biggest clients. The University of Kansas has used the software for its 28,000 students since 2000.
“The truth is, Blackboard from an [ed-tech] perspective has been around for a long time,” said Julie Loats, director of the center for online and distance learning at the University of Kansas.
Loats acknowledges that the company has struggled to find technology that will appeal to all students and professors but says Kansas plans to stick with it.
“Their code base is a blend of a lot of different tools over time,” she said. “What I’ve seen them do over the years is try to blend all these codes together.”
And Blackboard says it has a plan to stay competitive. It is focused on expanding its reach in K-12 institutions to broaden the market, Blot said, and is diving into the world of mobile apps.
Those are both spaces Blackboard hasn’t seen competitors enter with as much fervor, she said, and it hopes to make an early mark as it did during the dot-com boom.
“We haven’t had to chase people, so what pushes us is that people are chasing us,” Blot said. “The competition, more than forcing us to change what we offer, leads us to differentiate our solutions.”