Education / Startups

How the end of the Moodle-Blackboard partnership affects Baltimore edtech

While Blackboard's Moodlerooms is no longer a certified Moodle partner, eThink Education stands to gain a deeper foothold in the open source learning management system community.

eThink Education's Services team at a 2018 retreat. (Courtesy photo)
Updated at 4:47 a.m., 8/23/18.

There was a shake-up in the world of elearning in recent weeks, as an official partnership between learning management system providers Moodle and Blackboard ended.
Within Baltimore’s edtech community, the move will bring changes on a couple of fronts. Moodlerooms, which was acquired by Blackboard in 2012, will be rebranded and is no longer recognized as a certified partner with Moodle. In the meantime, Baltimore is home to the second-largest Moodle-recognized partner in eThink Education. Now the company is aiming to step in and become the largest certified Moodle partner.
Moodle is an open source provider of education tools that helps deliver education content and other learning materials. The Australia-based organization enters certified partnerships with companies that can then help institutions with hosting and use of the platform, and the companies in turn pay royalties on revenue that’s tied to the platform.
Moodle initially entered such a partnership with D.C.–based Blackboard in 2012. That came in part through Baltimore edtech, as Blackboard began working with Moodle after acquiring Baltimore-based Moodlerooms. The D.C.–based company also acquired NetSpot. Both were Moodle partners, and propelled Blackboard to become the largest in the network.
But on a Friday in late July, the partnership ended. As Inside Higher Ed reported, each side took credit for the break-up. Moodle said it opted to cancel the partnership. Moodle’s release came first, with founder Martin Dougiamas saying in a statement that “Blackboard has always been a sensitive and sometimes confusing subject in the Moodle community, since Blackboard has of course continued to develop and sell its own competing products.” He added that “the proportion of our revenue” coming from Blackboard has been declining.
Then Blackboard followed with its own announcement a few hours later, saying it “strategically decided” to end the partnership and focus on a Moodle-based SaaS product. Blackboard officials told Inside Higher Ed that the deal was up for renewal, and Blackboard wanted “a totally different kind of partnership.” But now, the company will have to rebrand Moodle offerings by September. Blackboard Chief Portfolio Officer Kathleen Vieira said in a statement that the move “will not impact our unwavering commitment to open-source and open standards, and we will continue to invest in our Moodle-based SaaS solutions and to contribute to the open-source community.” A company spokesperson said no official changes are expected to its Moodle-related workforce in Baltimore or elsewhere, and also said clients will not see changes.
Nevertheless, there was acknowledgement that it marks a big shift. Lou Pugliese, a cofounder of Blackboard and the former president and CEO of Moodlerooms, posted a statement in the comments of Moodle’s announcement saying he was “deeply saddened.”

“As one who had led this transaction, I had been hopeful that Blackboard could balance and navigate the duality of two very different business models in a manner that could support and accelerate the Moodle community at large. It is apparent and unfortunate for all that this did not materialize,” Pugliese wrote. “I wish Martin and the Moodle Community all the best in continuing to grow this valuable resource.”
eThink Education CEO Brian Carlson recognized Moodlerooms’ role in helping to expand the community.
“Moodlerooms contributed significantly over the last 13 years that they’ve been a Moodle partner,” he said, adding that they helped put the partnership network “on the map.” Similar to Dougiamas, however, he said the move would bring clarity in the market given the similarity in names between Moodle and Moodlerooms, and Blackboard’s place as a maker of a proprietary learning management system that also services a separate, open-sourced product.
eThink Education has been gaining on Moodlerooms in the past few years after becoming a certified Moodle partner in the U.S. in 2016. The Betamore-based company has since been picking up dozens of new clients, and hired 10 new employees this year – a group that included former Moodlerooms team members, Carlson said. Having already been the second most lucrative among U.S. certified Moodle partners, per Inside Higher Ed, Carlson now believes the company is poised to move into a “frontrunner” spot. Interviewed shortly after the announcement, he said he’d been hearing from clients about potentially switching.
“Clients have the ability to go to someone else and that’s unlike any other closed software package,” he said. “That’s what makes this special.” And with choice in the market, “clients want to be with a partner that’s certified and has a connection to Moodle,” he said.


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