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LMS patent
August 31, 2006 2:00 PM   Subscribe

Can you patent learning? Blackboard Inc. is granted a wide-ranging patent for its learning management system and immediately sues their rival, Desire2Learn. Opponents and documentarians have taken to creating this Wikipedia entry on the history of virtual learning environments.
posted by mattbucher (28 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite

 
Gah. Blackboard. I hated supporting that cruft magnet. Apparently highly insecure - something to do with the subcriber's URL redirects to their servers. (I've seen students/faculty "log in" to "campuses" that weren't ours. I couldn't deterimine if it was a server-side issue or local cache issue or what.) Please do burn in hell.

I've no experience with Desire2Learn, but if I can do a knee-jerk judgement based on the layout/design of their site pages I can only assume it's at least a marginally better system.
posted by loquacious at 2:15 PM on August 31, 2006


hmm. I wonder if my old computer group at UCLA would get sued over making a similar courseware app starting in about 1996. They even open sourced it.
posted by mathowie at 2:19 PM on August 31, 2006


I've often thought Blackboard could be easily improved upon. The patent sounds ridiculous. It would be like Amazon trying to patent selling products online in general.
posted by xammerboy at 2:21 PM on August 31, 2006


I've seen students/faculty "log in" to "campuses" that weren't ours. I couldn't deterimine if it was a server-side issue or local cache issue or what.

Speaking of UCLA, I've live-edited webpages of theirs from across the country, just by changing URL variables (nothing to do with classweb, it was another product which will remain unnamed.) Blackboard is not the only education software that is seriously lacking security-wise, but it is one of the most widely-deployed.

Not that it pays to point out flaws in these heavily-marketed products, the people who make the buying decisions have nothing to do with the implementation/maintenence and reported security problems just get a fig leaf (s/GET/POST/) from vendors.
posted by sonofsamiam at 2:25 PM on August 31, 2006


hmm. I wonder if my old computer group at UCLA would get sued over making a similar courseware app starting in about 1996. They even open sourced it.

There is a lot of fear that Blackboard will start suing other major players (Moodle, etc.) thus creating a kind of toll-road to LMS-land. It took six years for blackboard to get this patent and I suspect that their motive for acquiring it has changed over time.
posted by mattbucher at 2:42 PM on August 31, 2006


Viva Sakai!
posted by addyct at 2:44 PM on August 31, 2006


That's an impressive list of prior art in the Wikipedia article, especially compared to the pathetic list cited to the PTO, noticeably lacking in non-patent art. Sure, there may not have been prior patents, but there was lots of prior art and in failing to cite it Blackboard may have committed inequitable conduct, which would make their patent unenforceable even if it is held valid. Of course they only have to cite the art they know about, but being in the business and all it seems highly unlikely they would know of none, which is how much they cited.
posted by caddis at 2:46 PM on August 31, 2006


the people who make the buying decisions have nothing to do with the implementation/maintenence

Yeah, tell me about it.

MEMO: Attention, useless managers and PHBs! If you do not intimately understand the technology, you should not be in charge of purchasing it! You shouldn't be anywhere near said technology or said money. Just because X is 50% cheaper doesn't mean we won't actually spend 250% more supporting it. This is a fancy pants business term called "Total Cost of Ownership" or TCO for short.

Just because your PHB gave you a pat on the back and a cash bonus for "saving so much money" doesn't mean you actually did any such thing - remember, your PHB is even more clueless than you are.

From now until the foreseeable future you will turn over the entire technology budget to your IT department. We will then spend up to 50% to 150% percent more then you would on a more suitable product that actually works. We will then spend a small fraction of this now lesser TCO on other essential equipment and costs, like much needed raises, upgrading our own mission-critical support equipment and tools, and video games. Oh, and beer.

Yeah, I said raises. Your highly technically skilled support staff doesn't really enjoy doing high-stress technical work for a just a couple bucks more per hour than any chump could make at McDonald's, but we like technology and flipping burgers gives us even more pimples.

And yeah, I said upgrades. Relax, though. The upside of this crazy who-woulda-thunk-it arrangement is that your actual TCO for said product has dropped 150%, uptime has increased, your IT staff is fed, happy, finally underworked and yes, we do have time - now - to help you install your personal digital camera and post your family pictures to the internet.

Before if I ask if you have any valid objections, please keep in mind that we do indeed read your email and we are quite aware of the enormous collection of horsecock porn taking up 500% of your disk quota on your network drive.

No, we won't delete it. Laughing at it (and you) is the only thing that has gotten us through these long, trying days.
posted by loquacious at 2:51 PM on August 31, 2006 [1 favorite]


Upon closer inspection it appears that all of the cited art was in fact cited by the examiner and Blackboard cited nothing. This patent is toast.
posted by caddis at 2:52 PM on August 31, 2006


Blackboard has to be some of the worst software ever written. I actually quit an adjunct position because the department adminstrators wanted to force me to use Blackboard and Outlook webmail instead of software of my choosing.
posted by eustacescrubb at 2:52 PM on August 31, 2006


If you do not intimately understand the technology, you should not be in charge of purchasing it! You shouldn't be anywhere near said technology or said money. Just because X is 50% cheaper doesn't mean we won't actually spend 250% more supporting it.

Do you imagine that Blackboard is actually cheaper than any of the alternatives?
posted by Hildegarde at 2:56 PM on August 31, 2006


I spent most of today wrestling with the latest release of Blackboard. Among the "improvements:" the spellchecker is broken, you can no longer prevent students from printing the tests, when you try to email students they are listed alphabetically by their first names, and the discussion boards have become impossible to navigate. It is a nightmare, and it is scary to imagine how much worse they will be without competition.
posted by LarryC at 2:56 PM on August 31, 2006


Blackboard is the worst software I have ever used, hands down. It was a nightmare. And that was just on the user's end. I would rather have to do work with NOT_A_VIRUS.EXE than Blackboard.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 3:08 PM on August 31, 2006


Having used both Blackboard and Moodle in both a teacher's and a student's role (and also used eCollege to teach courses), there's no question -- Blackboard is a complete and utter piece of shit. Just no question about it. It's awful. It's a mystery to me how it's gotten so much use.

Moodle, on the other hand, rocks.
posted by litlnemo at 3:10 PM on August 31, 2006


When I've heard similar patent outrages, usually a quick look at the claims has confirmed that the patents in question had a much narrower scope than claimed in the press and there actually was not so much to be outraged about. But J.H.Christ, in this case the claims are ridiculously broad in scope and the patent examiner should be ashamed of having let such pile of steaming crap through.
posted by Skeptic at 3:10 PM on August 31, 2006


Interestingly, Linux Weekly News ran an article by Pamela Jones of Groklaw about an interesting coincidence. She was musing about how Blackboard's lawsuit has much the same smell as SCO's anti-Linux lawsuit v. IBM. She has developed a game of looking for Microsoft involvement whenever IP lawsuits against open source products occur. (I don't think Desire2Learn is open source, but the lawsuit struck her as similar.)

And, sure enough, Microsoft is a major investor in Blackboard. If I understood the LWN blurb correctly, they're in fact the single largest investor.

This article is, at present, under LWN's one-week blackout for paid subscriptions, but they allow subscribers to generate reg-free links... basically, as advertising. (and if you like Linux, you _need_ this site, they're one of the best going.)

The presumably-free link is here. Please let me know if it doesn't work.
posted by Malor at 3:35 PM on August 31, 2006


BLACKBOARD! *shakes angry fist*
posted by boo_radley at 3:39 PM on August 31, 2006


I'm no patent examiner, but the claims don't look particularly wideranging. There are a number of specific bits in the patent which could easily be eliminated or replaced by a superior solution.
posted by felix at 3:51 PM on August 31, 2006


the patent even mentions the dropbox!

My fondest memory from the version I worked with was the directory for student assignments. A single, unsortable, unsearchable list of files in chronological order. No grouped commands, subfolders, batch downloads - nothing. A bare Apache directory listing would be utterly more functional. I've rarely been so flabbergasted.
posted by arialblack at 3:51 PM on August 31, 2006


Upon closer inspection it appears that all of the cited art was in fact cited by the examiner and Blackboard cited nothing. This patent is toast.

Yikes! Somebody was asleep at the wheel on this one. Major, major red flag.
posted by Joe Invisible at 3:53 PM on August 31, 2006


Ah, Blackboard... such a miserable piece of crap, with such godawful security measures.

A couple associates and I who were TA'ing a course discovered, maybe a year ago, that if you post a collection of documents to Blackboard, with the intention of revealing them piecemeal (like if you were teaching the course for the second time, and wanted to have Quiz 1 appear on the list of links Monday, and then the answer key on Friday after you hand it back), there's no distinction made about actually hiding the document--JUST THE LINK. And since you reference documents through URL parameters, guess how long it took an enterprising freshman in Intro Comp Sci to discover that if you changed documentID=3 to documentID=4 in the URL, it brought up the document you weren't supposed to be able to see yet. No obfuscation, not even so much as token effort at security.

Yeah. I'm thrilled that they're now going to sue their competition to hell and back.
posted by Mayor West at 5:10 PM on August 31, 2006


Yeah, and if you look at the paperwork filed with the PTO, the attorney who signed it has a low enough reg. no. to know better. He has probably been practicing for almost twenty years. This smacks of malpractice, not that that will help Blackboard uphold this POS patent.
posted by caddis at 5:15 PM on August 31, 2006


This patent is, in my professional opinion, janked and busted.
posted by kosem at 5:59 PM on August 31, 2006


And since you reference documents through URL parameters, guess how long it took an enterprising freshman in Intro Comp Sci to discover that if you changed documentID=3 to documentID=4 in the URL, it brought up the document you weren't supposed to be able to see yet.

I've only ever seen version 7 and 7.1, but that would be entirely impossible in those versions. Each file has separate permissions in the content collection, so figuring out a url wouldn't help. If the instructor made the file available to the class (either by linking to it without qualifications or by manually changing the permissions on the file), it would be accessible, but otherwise, it's just not. I guess they saw that bug and fixed it.

Not that I'm a fan of the business practices in play here, but I'm not unhappy with Blackboard as a portal/LMS system, as these things go. Uh. It's my job to be positive, I just am! I can't help it!
posted by Hildegarde at 7:23 PM on August 31, 2006


The wikipedia page as of 9/1 is helpful as a starting point. But if people want to invalidate the patent they're going to have to actually read it rather than just respond to "OMG they're patenting online or electronically assisted education!!!!"

The independent claims in the Blackboard patent may be wide ranging in the sense that they encompass a lot of what people have been doing, but that's not pointed out sufficiently on the wikipedia site. If people want to help invalidate the patent, they should read it and point out with specificity examples in which the independent claims (I think they're 1 and 36 but it's bed time and I don't have the patent in front of me any more) were previously implemented.

As it stands now, the wikipedia page is cute and perhaps helpful for leads relating to prior art, but it's not anywhere near making a strong argument against the actual patent. It makes a strong case that education assisted by online or electronic means is an old idea. That's not the scope of the patent; that's merely what people who don't understand patent law are saying is the scope of the patent.
posted by psmith at 10:37 PM on August 31, 2006


Moodle, on the other hand, rocks.

I heartilly agree. Having been subjected to both BB and D2L by the clueless goobers for my state who make decisions about educational technology (yet, know nothing about it) I turned to Moodle. It put BB and D2L to shame. Even though I've pointed out that Moodle is free, SCORM compliant, benefits from an active community of learners, and is just hands down better, the decision-makers still don't get it.
posted by font_snob at 4:05 AM on September 1, 2006


No wonder Blackboard is worried.
posted by bobbyelliott at 11:03 AM on September 1, 2006


Patent learning? That's unpossible!
posted by Smedleyman at 5:02 PM on September 1, 2006


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