Monday, 6 April 2009

BbWorld Europe 2009 (Day Zero!) - Keynote

Day Zero? Strangely this year, Blackboard decided to schedule Michael Chasen's keynote the day before the main conference. Chasen is Blackboard's CEO and last year his talk was in the afternoon, sandwiched between other talks but nevertheless a very energetic performance in which Chasen gave a demonstration of the then-unseen Blackboard Version 9 with its new "Web 2.0 look and feel".

This year's talk, which one might've expected to be more motivational in order to kickstart the conference, seemed a lot more subdued and in places felt as though it was an attempt at being more reflective than inspiring. Whether or not this has anything to do with the new administration in Washington isn't clear though Chasen didn't hesitate to use clips of President Obama talking about education to break up his delivery.

The focus was on what's being called (by Chasen at least) the 'global education imperative' - this imperative itself comes from Obama's urge for education reform, in particular a line from his speech to the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in which he says 'Education is no longer just a pathway to opportunity and success, it is a prerequisite'. To be honest, it took me a while to work out just what Obama was saying here, let alone Chasen.

A pathway and a prerequisite can be the same thing, surely - or at least that's what I thought. But, I suppose Obama is saying that to be educated is no longer a sufficient condition for success but a necessary one. Hence the imperative.

However, some of things Chasen said I have yet to get a grasp on. For example, one of the keynote's recurrent phrases was 'leveraging the community'. I struggled to understand what this meant in practical terms. 'Leverage' is not the most eloquent of words even in its proper context, which I believe is that of financial markets. There it's a noun; Chasen used it as a verb. I wasn't sure if he meant 'promote', 'lift up' or simply 'use'. Not that Chasen would have said 'use', preferring the longer and not entirely necessary 'utilise' instead.

In the end, it seemed to be a reference to the new Blackboard Connections site, which as a tool seems to be designed to listen in on the gossip and complaints of the user community and gather more feedback. Perhaps 'leverage' is meant to imply that they are trying to stick the oar in, lift us out of our group huddle. But these huddles are important if we're to work out what it is we want, what our strategy is going to be. A simpler phrase like 'listening to the community' would have won me over.

'Expanding openness' was another refrain of the speech, showing that even if the software is moving away from clunkiness, the corporate language isn't. In practical terms, this primarily referred to the new, more inclusive API so that students being asked to access modules on various systems and VLEs now need know only one login to get to the materials (presumably the Blackboard one).

However, it also seemed to be vague enough to encompass other things like Facebook Sync, Blackboard for the iPhone, and, most interesting of all, the use of Blackboard outside America. Tim Collin, Vice President of Blackboard's EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Asia) Division, gave us some interesting information on the government initiated roll-out of Blackboard to the whole of Columbia (that's the Columbian government doing the initiating by the way, in case there was any doubt) and said that, globally, so many institutions had opted for the Blackboard hosting option, their servers now contain more data than on the whole of Facebook.

All in all, I don't think Chasen or Collin succeeded in joining all the elements from the bigger picture to the elements in the smaller but the talk was an interesting way of trying to frame both so that they were at least occupying the same gallery space. I was glad that the talk was different from last year's delivery which, while more enthused, was closer to what I'd expect from a shrill salespitch than from a keynote.

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