January/February 2003 // Commentary
The Evolving Role of Course Management System Providers in the Transformation of Education: An Interview with Blackboard's Matthew Pittinsky
by Jonathan Finkelstein and Matthew Pittinsky
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source (http://ts.mivu.org/) as: Jonathan Finkelstein and Matthew Pittinsky "The Evolving Role of Course Management System Providers in the Transformation of Education: An Interview with Blackboard's Matthew Pittinsky" The Technology Source, January/February 2003. Available online at http://ts.mivu.org/default.asp?show=article&id=1034. The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

Matthew Pittinsky, chairman and co-founder of Blackboard Inc., is a prominent leader in the e-learning industry. More than 2,700 colleges and universities in 140 countries use the Blackboard course management system. Pittinsky (2002) recently edited The Wired Tower, a new book on the impact of the Internet on education. Jonathan Finkelstein interviewed him in his New York office this past August.

Jonathan Finkelstein [JF]: Matthew, one of the themes discussed in The Wired Tower is how e-learning can reinforce the concept of a "living-learning" environment. Could you elaborate on this theme for us?

Matthew Pittinsky [MP]: I am a big believer in the concept of a living-learning environment. A true educational experience is never confined to the classroom—it's found in the library, study hall, coffee shop, faculty offices, and more. Over time, the role for the physical campus to create a place for faculty, students, and others to come together in the pursuit of knowledge has diminished. Increased competition for time and new types of learners who commute or never come to campus have changed the landscape.

What is exciting about e-learning is that it takes the Internet and turns it into a 24-7 education environment that can once again bring faculty, students, and others together in a common space. Freed from the barriers of time and place, participants in the education process can share ideas, access services, collaborate, and more. It's a uniting force that brings people together. Far from a radical concept, e-learning is the latest attempt to get back to one of the oldest approaches in academe—the professor on one side of the log and a student on the other.

JF: In recent speaking engagements, you said that you prefer face-to-face to Web-based distance learning. Does this suggest that you don't believe that completely Web-based learning can—or ever will—provide experiences as meaningful as those that happen between the professor and student on "the log" in bricks-and-mortar environments?

MP: I think that's a misconstrued comment. I believe that some parts of a person's postsecondary education should be live, human experiences. While e-learning can provide a powerful supplement, I would not choose a complete distance learning experience for the totality of my post-high school education if I did not have to. As long as you can access that foundation, however, there are a number of undergraduate, graduate, certificate, and other types of higher education programs that work well online. Moreover, there are students for whom online education is the only option. I certainly would not presume to restrict or dismiss that access just because it does not fit my conception of what education should be. I trust accrediting agencies and others to make that determination. So do I believe that online and face-to-face modes of learning are equal? No. Are they different? Yes. Are all of those differences good (or bad)? No. It's a trade-off, and one that should be carefully considered. Most residential academic programs will consist of hybrid courses that take advantage of the positive attributes of both online and in-class modes.

JF: There are a large number of learning styles and instructional approaches. The convergence of digital media has made the Web a place where the potential number of learning combinations can be exploited in a nearly infinite number of ways. Can course management systems (CMSs) that are essentially template-driven ever have enough flexibility to achieve this promise?

MP: Your question is a truly important one. The use of course management systems has become sufficiently widespread to require a second generation of tools and functions. Whereas the first generation focused on ease of use and generic tools such as gradebooks, quizzing tools, and the like, the second generation is much more specialized. Professors want discipline-specific and pedagogy-specific tools that allow them to create distinctive instructional experiences for their students. This is true for both hybrid and total distance courses. Through open standards and technologies like Blackboard's Building Block architecture, course management systems can evolve from templates into "operating systems" (OSs) that, in addition to providing a set of generic tools, allow faculty members to incorporate commercial or homegrown applications that meet their specific needs.

JF: Matthew, can you elaborate on how the Building Blocks architecture relates to greater usefulness or effectiveness for faculty members in their instruction?

MP: An approach like Building Blocks offers faculty members the potential of an entirely new generation of e-learning teaching tools that are specialized by subject matter and pedagogy. The current set of tools that ship with course management systems tend to be generic; they include those 20% of features that 80% of instructors use. Some examples are the gradebook, discussion board, and chat tool. However, Building Blocks is designed to encourage developers from commercial organizations and universities to develop extension tools that go deeper: an oceanography instruction tool, for example, or a language instruction tool, or a widget that allows faculty members to check that their course Web links still work, and so on.

By opening Blackboard up and making it a lot easier for developers to create tools that can be launched from the Blackboard user interface (UI)?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùwith tracking, single-login security, and even the ability of these tools to report assessment information back into the Blackboard gradebook?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùwe are hoping to encourage innovation. The technology itself does not provide greater instruction, but what it enables absolutely does.

I can't wait to see booths at future Modern Language Association or American Psychological Association meetings with dozens of English or psychology Web tools that are Blackboard-enabled and available for faculty members to download and use in their teaching.

JF: How would you respond to critics who believe that CMS products merely provide office automation for faculty and administrators, such as enrollment and grading functions, with little focus on improving actual learning? Do we or can we expect to see these systems deeply impacting the actual learning that takes place, or is the welcome simplification of administrative tasks the greatest benefit these systems offer?

MP: Hey, there is nothing wrong with improving "administrivia." That's valuable class time being freed up! In all seriousness, you get from a CMS what you put into it. If you redesign your course, as many participants in the Pew Learning and Technology Program have, you will see results. If you don't, you won't. Carol Twigg's (2002) chapter in The Wired Tower is top-notch on this issue.

JF: This point is well taken: the CMS can't do it all. At the same time, how does Blackboard get feedback on its platform design from faculty members? Does a particular pedagogical approach govern Blackboard's decision-making process when it comes to product development?

MP: One of the great frustrations or perhaps ironies for many of us at Blackboard is that while we naturally have a passion for applying Internet technologies as a way of improving learning outcomes, we are merely providing the platform. The real difference lies in the instructor, the curriculum, and the pedagogy. In a weird way, the key for Blackboard is getting out of the way?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùmaking sure our system is flexible enough that it does not become an obstacle. By that, I mean that the system is scalable and does not disrupt instruction by crashing; that the system is easy to use so that classroom time is not spent learning our UI instead of the subject matter; and that we provide the maximum amount of customization so faculty members can elect to deploy some tools in their instructional process, but not others.

There is certainly an instructional agenda behind Blackboard. I would call it an antidote to the "bolted-down chairs" approach to instruction. Put simply, we want to make sure that the online classroom does not suffer from the rigid, facilities-driven classroom organizational structures that still predominate in the physical classroom. By definition, this is not an issue of Blackboard designing a pedagogical approach into the courseware; quite the opposite, it means unbolting the chairs so that instructors can organize the classroom anyway they like.

JF: John Hiler (2002) cited free or public domain software, such as "blogging" applications (inexpensive tools for easily posting information to the Web), as potentially "disruptive technologies" for the CMS industry. Do you consider this to be the case?

MP: Not at all. There have been and always will be generic groupware, authoring, synchronous discussion, and other tools in the general technology market. What makes CMSs distinctive is the way in which they integrate these tools, enhance them for the needs of educators, and operate them through a platform that is extensible with publisher content and more specialized, "building block" learning tools. CMSs are becoming operating systems for education in many ways.

JF: Will the CMS companies that played such a major role in expediting the transformation in education be able to stay relevant? Or will academia be thanking the CMS vendors for getting them started, but soon buck them off to turn their momentum in directions appropriate for their own specific institution?

MP: There really are two large-scale CMS companies in the market today—Blackboard and WebCT. I think there will always be homegrown or consortium products (that's a good thing). But many institutions want to choose a system that has widespread support from publishers in the form of content cartridges; from learning tool vendors in the form of CMS-enabled applications; from student information system vendors in the form of pre-backed integration interfaces; from a professional support and maintenance organization; and from a large-scale user base that spreads costs and puts the product through extensive use.

JF: What is the long-term prognosis for CMSs? Will they continue to evolve at their current rate undisrupted, or will there be some new, revolutionary approach to Web-enhanced or connected learning that will someday shatter the current CMS models beyond recognition?

MP: I think the next big leap is from CMS to OS. Systems like Blackboard will be viewed as platforms that unite a wide range of academic technologies that traditionally have been fragmented.

JF: Can you elaborate further on this leap from CMS to OS? In particular, what will this transition mean for educators?

MP: At least two metaphors for course management systems preceded the notion of an "operating system for education." The first metaphor viewed CMSs as course authoring tools. The author was the individual instructor, and the technology was largely about creating and managing a single online course environment. This view emphasized functionality but missed the importance of institution-wide adoption, integration, scalability, and more.

The second metaphor viewed CMSs as enterprise software products. Much like SCT, Peoplesoft, or Datatel for administrative systems, CMSs were enterprise academic systems for teaching and learning. This view emphasized campus-wide deployment, integration, and administrative capabilities but missed the notion that, unlike administrative systems, the instructional process cannot be bounded?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùit is infinite in its features, so to speak.

The metaphor of CMSs as operating systems for education is meant to convey that the technology is as much about enabling a wide range of home-grown or third-party instructional tools as it is about the features that come with the system on download. The fragmentation of CMSs in higher education means that students and faculty have to relearn the basic layout of an online classroom, much like computer users had to back in the days of multiple desktop operating systems. Similarly, they cannot share content or tools. CMS vendors try to load tons of features in each release, failing to recognize that while innovation is important, the long-term strategy must enable others to innovate on the platform as well.

In sum, I view course management systems as operating systems for education because I believe that their value lies as much in the standardized user interface and open architecture for third-party developers as it does in the particular tools with which they ship.

JF: By considering itself an OS and by requiring external developers to adhere to its own Building Blocks development protocol, is Blackboard trumping the evolving industry standards in favor of its own proprietary one? What will become of the acceptance of emerging standards like IMS and the Sharable Content Object Reference Model (SCORM) in the world of higher education?

MP: Innovation requires both industry collaboration and company-specific ingenuity. Building Blocks is Blackboard's implementation of an architecture that we think is highly sophisticated for integration, interoperability, and extensibility. But it was not developed in a vacuum. In fact, the lead architect for Building Blocks (Bob Alcorn) was part of the original IMS specifications team. A lot of Building Blocks comes from IMS and other standards groups, and our goal is to make it 100% standards-based as the industry reaches agreement. In the meantime, our clients need something that works today. So our hope is that we can satisfy them and provide the industry with a reference example at the same time.

JF: Educators who have moved part or all of their teaching online cite the increased workload that they now bear, both in terms of course development and ongoing facilitation of the learning process for online students. Is this a temporary growing pain, or is it a new fact of life for teaching in the digital age?

MP: I think there is always an initial burden that comes from doing something for the first time. But does online learning require a lot of ongoing work? Yes. All good teaching tools do. We try to keep things simple and intuitive—we even try to automate activities such as incorporating textbook content from a publisher in just one click. But I think the burden is still there, and until policies, institutional support services, and the platform companies themselves get more and more experience under their belt, this won't change.

JF: Some decry the "mallification" of America, with more and more towns looking exactly the same, featuring the same big-name hardware stores and coffee shops. Will the proliferation of a couple of course and portal solutions on campuses have a similar effect on higher education, or will the framework that these systems provide still allow true individuality in school identity and teaching mode?

MP: Another good question, and one that I think returns us to some of the earlier discussions about templates and the future of CMSs. Put simply, it is an issue. For Blackboard, it is the issue. At the risk of sounding like a commercial, we are 110% focused on the Building Blocks technology that forms the core of our products. The reason is that we believe that every e-learning experience should be unique, and that this uniqueness will be accomplished only by unleashing the creativity of campus developers and vendors who build specialized applications that can plug into the platforms of our 2,700 clients. I mention it because I think it is the clearest indication of just how seriously we take this issue.

JF: Neil Postman (1990)—cultural critic, author, and a contributor to your book—has said, "There is no escaping from ourselves. The human dilemma is as it has always been, and we solve nothing fundamental by cloaking ourselves in technological glory" (?Ǭ? 34). Is Web-based learning in general, and are CMSs in particular, solving anything fundamental?

MP: Another quotation that Neil includes in his chapter of The Wired Tower (Postman, 2002, p. 194) is one of my favorites from Henry David Thoreau: "All our inventions are but improved means of unimproved ends." An insightful comment, although not necessarily instructive. Do you walk away, throwing up your hands and saying, "What is the point?" Or do you take from it the need to focus on innovating the practice underneath the technology? The best answer to your question can be found in Carol Twigg's and Arthur Levine's (2002) chapters as well. In short, yes, e-learning can solve fundamental problems. These include access, quality, accountability, and more. But "can" is the operative word.

JF: But can the Carol Twiggs of the world do it alone? How should CMS providers use their courseware as evolving operating systems to ensure the proper focus on innovating the practice underneath the technology?

MP: The obvious answer is that we should do a lot; it's both what we believe and what's in our enlightened self-interest. But I think we all need to realize what we are good at. In my experience it's always a bit suspect when an education technology vendor puts out a report that technology is good for, well, "education." Companies like Blackboard should focus on areas that relate to the technologies themselves?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùspecifically, ensuring that the right data are captured and made accessible to researchers, so that they really understand what is going on in an e-learning environment, and correlating the data across different types of classes and institutions. There also should be a focus on helping to create a community for the sharing of best practices.

JF: Thank you, Matthew, for taking the time to share your insights with members of this community. Your contributions from both the technology and academic standpoints are having a clear impact on the changes afoot in higher education today. We appreciate your role in this forum, and elsewhere, as an active and influential participant in the ongoing dialogue on educational issues.


Hiler, J. (2002, June 20). Blogs as disruptive tech. Web Crimson. Retrieved August 10, 2002, from http://www.webcrimson.com/ourstories/blogsdisruptivetech.htm

Levine, A. (2002). Higher education: A revolution externally, evolution internally. In M. Pittinsky (Ed.), The wired tower: Perspectives on the impact of the internet on higher education (pp. 13-19). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Financial Times Prentice Hall.

Pittinsky, M. (Ed.). (2002). The wired tower: Perspectives on the impact of the internet on higher education. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Financial Times Prentice Hall.

Postman, N. (1990, October 11). Informing ourselves to death. Speech presented at a meeting of the German Informatics Society (Gesellschaft fuer Informatik), Stuttgart, Germany. Retrieved August 10, 2002, from http://internet-history.org/archives/inform.ourselves.to.death.html

Postman, N. (2002). Questioning media. In M. Pittinsky (Ed.), The wired tower: Perspectives on the impact of the internet on higher education (pp. 181-200). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Financial Times Prentice Hall.

Twigg, C. (2002). Quality, cost, and access: The case for redesign. In M. Pittinsky (Ed.), The wired tower: Perspectives on the impact of the internet on higher education (pp. 111-143). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Financial Times Prentice Hall.

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