Thread regarding Blackboard Inc. layoffs

Blackboard Inc

Blackboard Inc. has laid off 90 employees, according to a source with knowledge of the job cuts, the second major round of layoffs since the education technology company’s $1.64 billion buyout by Providence Equity Partners LLC last year.

The staff reductions span a wide range of departments, while sparing the mobile and professional education teams, the source said. The move follows a round of 75 pink slips Blackboard issued in November.

It’s unclear whether the cuts are due to a top-down squeeze from a new private equity owner or are part of a deeper restructuring that would have happened independently of Providence, or some combination of both.

In a statement, Blackboard spokesman Matthew Maurer said the company has “seen strong growth this year in terms of revenue and in the acquisition of new businesses that have opened up new markets for us.” The company’s total workforce now stands at 3,000 globally, “even with the recent elimination of a small number of roles,” he said.

“In making the changes we’re focused on maintaining a positive experience for our clients, driving greater value for them, and positioning our company for future growth.”

In some ways, Providence’s deal for Blackboard hasn’t played out in typical private equity fashion — Blackboard has purchased competitors and kept co-founder Michael Chasen on board as CEO. What is certain is that Blackboard is at a crossroads, analysts say, facing stepped-up competition in its core learning management system (LMS) business from Canadian company Desire2Learn Inc. and Salt Lake City-based Instructure Inc. At the same time it’s looking to shift away from its legacy products and break into open-source software. Desire2Learn, which was sued in 2006 by Blackboard in a high-profile patent infringement battle, this month raised $80 million in a growth round led by Chevy Chase-based New Enterprise Associates and OMERS Ventures.

That growth deal, the largest on record for a Canadian software company, signals that investors see opportunity in challenging Blackboard’s traditional market dominance.

Learning management systems are software platforms that enable schools to handle a host of course management, communications, testing and other teaching and administrative tasks online. Blackboard is watching some high-profile customers migrate to other LMS platforms. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill plans to dump Blackboard’s LMS by December in favor of Sakai, an open-source alternative. Duke University undertook that same shift last year. The University of Central Florida said in July it would adopt Instructure’s open-source Canvas product as a replacement.

The defections underscore the ever-expanding threat that open source poses to Blackboard and its bread-and-butter software licenses.

Recognizing that threat, the D.C. company in March said it would snap up two companies built off the popular open-source Moodle platform: Baltimore-based Moodlerooms Inc. and Australian NetSpot Pty. Ltd. Those acquisitions, however, haven’t immediately prevented Blackboard’s rivals from gaining ground.

“In the market, let’s say three years ago, one of the most common refrains from institutions was ‘Blackboard or Moodle,’” said ed-tech analyst Phil Hill, executive vice-president of Gurnee, Ill.-based Delta Initiative Inc. “That narrative has changed to where today, the most common decision seems to be Desire2Learn or Instructure.”

Much of the pressure on Blackboard stems from its push to migrate clients from its legacy products like Angel Learning and WebCT into its latest LMS offering. That move has left customers facing “up or out” decisions, providing an inroad for rivals, said Kenneth Green, founding director of the Campus Computing Project.

Hill agreed: “That’s probably the biggest dynamic that’s been changing the LMS market over the past two years.”

Green’s group releases an annual survey of campus ed-tech adoption. In last year’s campus computing survey, 50.6 percent of institutions reported using some form of Blackboard LMS as the campus-standard. That’s down from 57.1 percent in 2010 and 71 percent in 2006, according to the Campus Computing Project.

“There has been a clear erosion, in terms of their market share, as measured by the number of campuses that use Blackboard LMS as their exclusive campus product,” Green said.

Understanding what’s happening at the formerly public Blackboard has become tougher following its acquisition by Providence, which financed the buyout with $1.15 billion in debt. The firm declined to comment.

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