All Major Canadian ISPs Slow Down P2P Traffic (and why you should care)

You might have heard, but the CRTC (the regulatory body for all things broadcast and telephony here in Canada, very roughly equivalent to the FCC in the US) is holding hearings on claims that ISPs in Canada regularly ‘shape’ (a codeword for ‘limit’ or ‘slow down’) traffic on their networks, specifically P2P traffic. And as TorrentFreak reports (and seemingly backed up by a summary of filings that’s been collected) it’s not just the much publicized Bell who engages in this practice, but apparently ALL major ISPs (and trust me, if you are in Canada, this effects you, because even your ‘Mom and Pop’ ISP buys their connectivity from these guys; indeed, that’s who started these hearings).

So why should you care, especially if you are an educator? I mean, it’s just P2P traffic, right? Kids illegally downloading albums and movies, right? Well, wrong, first of all – the shaping is indiscriminate, restricting the flow of perfectly legal uses of bittorrent as a ways to share files, along with everything else (and don’t believe the hype about new technologies being rolled out on campus to examine the content inside the packets and filtering accordingly, it’s a crock). But beyond that, this is the very start of the very slippery slope to undermining net neutrality; first ‘shaping’ a particular protocol, but how long before whole subnets disappear. Bittorrent traffic as Sudetenland, as it were. (I know, I think I just fell prey to Godwin’s Law.)
But again, why should you as an educator care? Well, if, like me, you see education and your place within it outside the limiting frames of your particular institution or role, you may, like me, have come to the conclusion that, even if we do nothing else, if we at least preserve the conditions for access, the possibility for connection, then knowledge and learning will flourish (are already flourishing, look around you.) This is Charter stuff here folks. This is man-the-barricade-stuff. I know, “hyperbole” you think, “a hundred better causes” you can think of. Well, this is one I know to be true, know is worth fighting for. (The worst part is that University campuses are some of the biggest offenders for this, can’t wait to see the comments from network admins, whose networks are indeed often truly besiged, that this post brings out.)SWL

Zotero creators sued by Thomson Reuters

I don’t usually just re-post stuff like this, but this is important and I’m hoping to add to whatever backlash we can create. This is obscene – that Thompson-Reuters is suing over their proprietary “endnote format.” If you somehow needed a new reason to stop forcing your students to buy textbooks from Thompson-Reuters… And hopefully this will see ed tech departments, libraries and grad schools across the continent remove links and endorsements to Thompson’s Endnote product. Locking in your customers and protecting your business through proprietary data formats is just not acceptable. – SWL

Jim Farmer’s Eyewitness Account of the Blackboard Patent Trial

Through a combination of resignation towards what seemed a pre-determined outcome and pre-occupation with Northern Voice when it was announced, I managed to miss most of the recent hair-pulling that the ridiculous finding in Blackboard’s favour prompted. And thank goodness too, my hair couldn’t have stood it 😉

But I did go read Jim Farmer’s extended eyewitness account of the trial which Michael Feldstein graciously posted over at e-Literate, and I thoroughly advise you too as well, as much for what it portends for the future of high tech patents as what it says about this particular judgement.

It is not difficult to see a picture here (and I want to be clear here, because I think Jim did a fine job being as impartial as possible, that these are my interpretations) of not just “Justice for Sale” but “Patent Law Judgements as Economic Diversification Program.” It’s bad enough to have to read this about Blackboard’s (god how I even cringe to write that name) expert witness:

“Expert witnesses always are asked about their fees. When asked how much he had earned, Mark Jones was unable to give an answer. He said he had spent “hundreds of hours” and gave his rate as $325 per hour. (I thought he said $375, but court documents have the lower amount). He also said he had received $170,000 in fees from Blackboard before the end of 2007 as his [IRS Form] 1099 showed. It is likely he will have been paid more than $300,000 for his testimony when the trial is complete.”

But the picutre of an economically challenged town with a propensity to trust the government (in this case the Patent Office) gearing up to become a high tech patent rocket docket should send shivers up your spine (well, at least unless you are totally jaded about the state of justice in the land, which I can’t say I’d blame you for being.)

Go read for yourself. But all I can help thinking is – did we honestly think it was going to go any other way? And how far along are you on your open source CMS? (or even better, on your loosely coupled teaching platform?) – SWL

educate/innovate = use patents?

OK, so at least they did post something back on August 7 about the patent (a staff member posting a letter on behalf of Michael Chasen, the CEO), but otherwise, the Blackboard “blog” has been thunderously silent given the amount of hoopla in the blogosphere over the last month directly concerning them.

Not really surprising, but also not what I’d call an “authentic” engagement with the concerns of their readers/customers. (And my reaction to the notes from their conference call with ALT in the UK is the same as Stephen’s – apparently I’ve found another use for our stockpiled baby wipes now that our kids are out of diapers).

I did say that I was reserving judgement on the BB ‘blog’ until there was more to judge. Looks like the evidence is in, though, and on the charge of “falsely impersonating a blog” the evidence is based on the omissions as much as what is there. – SWL

Blackboard Patent and Prior Art*/

I am officially still on holidays until next Tuesday but made the mistake of checking my email (I have managed to abstain from my bloglines account though!) and through a mailing list I subscribe to saw a post on the nastiness that is Blackboard’s patent application. If you can beat them, sue them, eh?

The ensuing effort to create a history of LMS/VLEs through Wikipedia is great and to be applauded. When I saw the posts about Blackboard’s patent I immediately thought of our Edutools site, actually its predecessor, Landonline, developed by my colleague Dr. Bruce Landon and hosted by my former employers, the now defunct Centre for Curriculum, Transfer and Technology (C2T2).

Bruce originally created that site in 1996 (pre-Blackboard, in fact the early version was pre-WebCT as well.) I checked the Internet Archives, and while they don’t have a copy from 1996, they do have ones from 1997, 1998 and 1999. If you have a look at the copies on the Wayback machine. The copies on the Wayback machine aren’t pretty (lots of broken images) but you can see, for instance in this comparison from 1998, that Blackboard (here called Courseinfo) and WebCT show up in this apples to apples comparison with 4 other systems at the time.

It’s not like Landonline/Edutools is the only example you can point to that was comparing Blackboard and WebCT to competing offerings – Marshall University’s Center for Instructional Technology’s comparison of LMS/CMS tools from 1999 is still available online, as is Virginia Tech’s from 1998. What I do think is significant, however, is that at Edutools we can actually show a continuous development of the feature set that we use to compare these products from 1996 until our current one – certainly with changes and modifications over time, but it has been a relatively consistent point of comparison for almost 10 years now.

I am not a lwayer and don’t play one on TV, and I am sure there is enough weasily language included in the patent that Blackboard will have some success using it to bludgeon competitors and customers alike. But if the creation of this behemoth didn’t light a fire under your ass to do something different, maybe consider this a second opportunity to change course. – SWL

More on the new behemoth – Timing, Open Source and Interoperability

So I’ve had a bit of time to digest the <a href=""big announcement yesterday and process what I heard on the analyst call, as well as see some of the feedback from around the edtech blogosphere. Here’s some more thoughts:

Timing and Rationale
First off, let’s put aside any euphemisms about this being a “merger” of equals. This was an acquisition by the largest player in the market (Blackboard, with $90 million in licenses last year) of its next biggest rival (WebCT with approximately $30 million last year in licenses). The offered price allows WebCT’s venture backers to recoup their investment (approx $120 million) with a decent return, far better than they were going to see anytime soon from the 5% operating margin that WebCT was turning at the time of the acquisition. Blackboard has been turning a profit plus is cash rich after it’s IPO, and with that and its line of credit, was in position to take over WebCT.

And the timing does make sense, in retrospect, in relation to WebCT’s recent release of CE6. Very few customers of their existing CE4 product have had time yet to do the upgrade. Sales for Vista have I think not been as good as hoped. So WebCT CE4 customers, expect some vigorous sales calls from Blackboard folks in your near future. BB hopes to convert many of these customers to its platform, and for those it doesn’t, it can still profit from sales of CE6 licenses without having to invest much by way of development in the near future. It will be surprising if there is anything much more than a few bug fix releases of WebCT CE6 before the new behemoth platform emerges.

Open Source
When challenged with the threat of “open source” both Blackboard (and WebCT in the past) have made incredibly vaporous statements in the past about how they are “open systems” if not open source, in an attempt to stave off interest from their customers in open source options. No doubt they will continue to do so, and Bryan Alexander’s right, we are likely to see more FUD coming from that camp. But on the analyst call yesterday they did come off as relatively nonchalant about the open source threat, and unfortunately not all of that is posturing.

Undoubtably, there are existing and future customers who will choose to go with the likes of Moodle and Atutor. Maybe if some of the bigger schools would weigh the value of ease of use and pedagogical flexibility more heavily than IT concerns we’d see even more adopt these two and for them to get the respect they deserve (I know, I know; look I’m not levying this claim, I’m just reporting what the common perception is, rightly or wrongly).

But for now at least, the promise that has been held out for those ‘bigger’ institutions has been lately from Sakai, the ‘enterprise’ open source CMS. And in my eyes this is the real tragedy here. In theory this presents the perfect opportunity for Sakai to shine and come into its own, to convert a ton of both BB and WebCT customers. Certainly, David Wiley seems to lament it not having showed up on a recent RFP in his state. Well true enough, I can understand David’s frustration at it not even showing up in the competition. But in reality it would have had to be an RFP so heavily weighted to business concerns at the expense of current functionality for Sakai to have stood a chance. You may hate the vision of online learning that CMS represent, but if you are trying to compare apples to apples, I just can’t see how the current release of Sakai measures up to these loathed commercial competitors.

But wait, what’s that you say – “but it’s open source, it will grow and and bloom as more people adopt and develop it.” Well, maybe. Hopefully. Last I heard, the soft money didn’t have too much longer to go and there look to be only a couple of instances actually in production. And maybe someone from inside that project can comment to the rest of us how many developers who are not funded through that soft money, and who are outside the “core schools,” are actually contributing code back into the core project right now. ‘Open Source’ at its best means more than just ‘source code availability.’ I will leave it at that lest I spark a religious debate. I do truly wish that project well, as monoculture in elearning is not a good thing. But I speak from personal experience in saying that adopting software solely or primarily because it is open source, and not weighing heavily enough its fit to functional requirements and one’s own capabilities for rectifying that lack of fit, is a fatal mistake in software acquisition and development..

Interoperability and Open ‘Standards’

This is the piece that really gets my goat. IMS has been around since 1997. The Content Packaging, QTI and Enterprise specs (the ones I take to be of primary concern when it comes to CMS portability) are now all at least 5 years old, if not more. And yet all of us, yes US, the adopters, implementers and purchasers of CMS, have given the commercial CMS a pass on these. (SCORM is a different story here, but unfortunately it’s never really applied that well for the higher ed sector, nor for the CMS that service it).

It’s not totally our fault – yes, the specs were a moving target for a long time. Yes, compliance testing likely means a load of liability insurance that no one can afford. Yes, there are good reasons to accept that the specs need to be able to be extended to accommodate things they couldn’t do in their original incarnations.

But we’ve accepted all of these excuses and what do we have? Instead of content interoperability and portability between systems, we basically have vendor lock in, the very thing the freaking specs were supposed to help avoid! And that just got a world worse too with this consolidation. David Davies has it exactly right when he says that “BigCo vendors were cautious about embracing interoperability too vigourously.” But who the heck thought they were ever going to adopt these voluntarily? Say what you like about the military and SCORM, but there are a whole lot of LMS that spent money to conform to that specification, and we know they do because there is a test you can run to confirm this, and there are procurement folks who insist they prove it before they are awarded a contract.

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Wow, I must have been bottling a lot of stuff up over the last few months of not posting to the blog. At least that’s the excuse I’ll give to anyone I pissed off with this write up! Anyways, that’s my limited view of things. Good luck! – SWL

More on WebCT aquisition by Blackboard

On the analysts call the first piece of work that was identified to bring the two products closer together was unifying an API for the Blackboard and WebCT.

So, what does that mean for things like the IMS Tools Interoperability Profile? Well, seems to me like the new unified API becomes a de facto ‘standard’ that will be even harder to displace for any of the more open approaches to integrating 3rd party tools into CMS. – SWL

WebCT announces participation in IMS Tools Interoperability Working Group

I’m sure the chattering masses (hey, I don’t exclude myself from this grouping) will have something to say about this one – yea, as the prophets foretold, in the year of the mark of the sign of the beast, the ‘evil empire’ took control, yada yada yada – but from where I’m sitting, if there’s a way that 3rd party learning tools can interoperate with different learning environments that is not based on proprietary APIs, that seems like a good step forward. If, instead, the Tools Interoperability specification becomes ‘Powerlinks for everyone,’ well then clearly the eschaton is near, so praise the lord and pass the hand grenades 😉 – SWL