The Blackboard Patent

Probably one of the more absurd recent software patents has to be Blackboard Inc.’s successful application for a patent on “learning management systems,” and its attempts to strongarm competitors by charging them with patent infringement.

Blackboard Inc. owns two “learning management systems” — Blackboard and WebCT. Those are easily the two most popular commercial course management systems, though anyone who has had to use either as a student has to ask why. For the most part, they are stripped down versions of genuine content management systems that force users to jump through hoops right and left to accomplish anything. Their sole advantage seems to be that they scale well on the backend, but open source alternatives are starting to catch up there.

So it makes sense for Blackboard to go the patent route — better to sue your competitors rather than have to compete with them — but its patent again raises the issue of just what the folks at the USPTO are smoking. Just take a quick look at the abstract for the Blackboard patent,

A system and methods for implementing education online by providing institutions with the means for allowing the creation of courses to be taken by students online, the courses including assignments, announcements, course materials, chat and whiteboard facilities, and the like, all of which are available to the students over a network such as the Internet. Various levels of functionality are provided through a three-tiered licensing program that suits the needs of the institution offering the program. In addition, an open platform system is provided such that anyone with access to the Internet can create, manage, and offer a course to anyone else with access to the Internet without the need for an affiliation with an institution, thus enabling the virtual classroom to extend worldwide.

That’s right folks, Blackboard has essentially been granted a patent on applying a CMS to an educational environment. A close reading of the various patent claims reveals there’s not a goddamn single point of originality or innovation here at all.

Blackboard flaks have publicly said that one of the strongest claims they will pursue is on claim 36 of the patent, which essentially describes a system that provides different levels of access to a website based upon a user’s role — a fundamental feature of most content management systems and of computer systems in general.

As Eben Moglen, attorney for the open source Sakai Foundation, put it in a press release,

The recent announcement by Blackboard that it is attempting to assert patent rights over simple and longstanding online technologies as applied to the area of course management systems and e-learning technologies, and its subsequent litigation against a smaller commercial competitor constitutes a threat to the effective and open development of software for higher education and the values underlying such open activities.

Blackboard is currently pursing legal action against Desire2Learn and presumably will aim its guns at other competitors sooner or later.

Free, Online Book about Learning Objects

Reusability.Org is hosting a free, online book, The Instructional Use of Learning Objects. The book is released under the Open Publication license which means it can be redistributed for free. Nice stuff, but it is a shame that the version on the Resuability.Org site is in Microsoft Word format. Yuck.

It makes sense to put documents on the web in Word or PDF format if the document has layout features that are beyond HTML’s capabilities, but for just straight-up text like this, why bother with proprietary formats that require additional applications beyond the browser?

Are Swim Tests Finally History?

The Associated Press reports that the final holdout colleges and universities are finally getting rid of their swim tests.

Swim tests are an early 20th century anachronism when a wave of interest in physical fitness combined with the two World Wars, etc., led many colleges and universities to require students to demonstrate that they could swim before being granted their degrees.

And, like anything, once something is institutionalized it is damn hard to get rid of. So Notre Dame, MIT and other institutions of higher learning still require students to pass a swim test to graduate.

Along with the sheer silliness of it all (I’d require students to pass an advanced critical thinking test, but then again that’s not a skill necessarily encouraged at all institutions of higher learning), the swim test has run into very contemporary problems. According to the AP,

There are administrative hassles finding instructors and accommodating students with chlorine allergies or religious objections to being seen in bathing suits. But mostly, it’s just a headache getting hundreds of college students to show up for any one event at an appointed time and place.

Are they kidding? Getting college students to show up on time for an event is trivially easy to accomplish — simply add beer (presumably, after the swimming test has been successfully administered).

I wonder what traditions and practices that we take for granted will be considered antiquated in the early 22nd century. Perhaps institutions that still require basic introductory computer courses? (Those have been an anachronism for a couple years now).

Importing Textbooks from India

The New York Times recently ran a brief article about the burgeoning grey market in textbooks published in India. An engineering textbook that might cost $150-$200 in the United States might sell for $8-$10 in India.

According to the Times, it is legal for U.S. students to import such books for personal use, though the Indians exporting the textbooks are breaking the laws of that country.

On the one hand, it is just plain weird to think there are essentially region-specific textbooks to go along with region-specific DVDs and video games.

On the other hand, the publishing companies are in exactly the same boat that pharmaceutical companies frequently find themselves in. It is both in their economic interest and good public relations to sell goods in poor countries at deeply discounted prices. Essentially, consumers in rich countries end up subsiding consumers in poorer countries.

But this is only feasible if they are able to prevent reimportation. And given that some textbooks now cost more than a couple grams of cocaine, trying to stop reimportation of textbooks will be about as successful as efforts to stop importation of cocaine have been (plus you have to assume that there isn’t a lot of violence in the illegal textbook business, which on the downside means there won’t be any cool rap songs about jacking someone for his books).

Yet another example of how price discrimination is becoming increasingly difficult when information travels so quickly.

Michigan Anti-Affirmative Action Proposal Has 60 Percent Support

A group calling itself the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative began circulating petitions back in November to put a question on the November 2004 ballot on whether or not to ban racial discriminatory admissions policies at universities and colleges in Michigan.

Many of the leaders of the Republican Party came out against the idea. One of their fears is that such a proposal will help increase turnout of Democratic voters in the election that could impact other elections, such as those for the president and statewide offices. A ballot initiative that would have created an educational voucher system in Michigan lost soundly in 2000 and was credited for increasing turnout among Democrats (i.e., it may have cost Bush the state of Michigan).

According to a Detroit News poll, however, the proposal enjoys 64 percent approval today, and the actual support is probably a bit higher given some people’s reticence to discuss racial issues with pollsters. Those actually opposing the initiative are only at 23 percent. That’s a pretty stark contrast with the voucher initiative which was pretty much a losing proposition very early on.

If the group can actually manage to collect the necessary signatures, it looks like this proposal has a good shot at passage in November.


Michigan voters want affirmative action ban. Charlie Cain and Mark Hornbeck, Detroit News, January 20, 2004.

Michigan’s Proposal 4

One of the more bizarre election year campaigns here in Michigan centers around Proposal 4. This is an initiative that would alter the state constitution to restrict how the state can spend the money it receives as part of the tobacco company settlement.

Of course the legal theory behind the tobacco settlement was that states had paid out hundreds of millions of dollars in extra health care costs for smokers, so the tobacco companies should compensate them for this.

In Michigan, like most states, little of the tobacco settlement money has gone into the health care system or into initiatives to lower smoking rates. Instead it goes to fund thing like scholarships for college students and a large part of the settlement gets kicked backed to cities to use however they please.

Proposal 4 would essentially change that, forcing the state to spend the money on health-related issues.

So what we have in Michigan is a war of words between hospitals and doctor on the one side and college students and municipalities on the other. It’s kind of funny to see anti-Proposal 4 commercials referring to hospitals as “rich special interests.” Yeah, hospitals are really rolling in the dough.

But what’s absurd is that both sides are wrong. The money shouldn’t be spent on smoking cessation programs or college scholarships or the pet projects of Michigan cities. If tobacco use really increased state expenses, then that means that taxes in Michigan were artificially high to pay for the health problems of smokers. The tobacco settlement, then, should be given back to taxpayers either directly in the form of refunds for past taxes that subsidized smokers or in the form of a tax cut.