Baltimore, United States
Product development in the technology market now a day is a very challenging job. Companies have to keep up with the different trends, update existing software and innovate while hundreds of thousands of people are trying to do the same. Kris Stokking does exactly this for Blackboard Open LMS, the most widely used Learning Management System in the world. Blackboard Open LMS has a wide variety of services that are available to clients all over the world and Kris, as the director of product development, promises to keep innovating and keep offering such a wide range of services for the whole international market so that Blackboard Open LMS maintains it’s high reputation in the e-learning community.
His job is to oversee all Blackboard Open LMS platforms. Blackboard is the biggest provider of a Moodle-based SaaS LMS in the market and in the world, and this has been the goal since the beginning. “We wanted to build an open source platform because we wanted to work with the open source community”, Kris explains. This is a fundamental part of his job, because it involves working with the community and allowing the outside community to work with them and influence future products. However, they didn’t want to be like all other open source products, which give the customer total freedom without guaranteeing high quality, and today this is what has earned Blackboard Open LMS its reputation.
They found a middle ground. Blackboard Open LMS allows anyone in the world to contribute to it, based on their own experience. Kris explains that many teachers who have used Blackboard Open LMS for a while have specific needs that might not be available in the catalogue of plugins offered. Plugins are like applications for a cellphone. They are functions which can be downloaded and that alter the way Blackboard Open LMS are used, and either Blackboard Open LMS staff themselves or an external user can create them. Many teachers and users have actually learned how to write code in order to create plugins.
At first, all plugins were accepted. However, writing code is a science, and a very small error can mean that a plugin doesn’t work, or can even stop certain different Blackboard Open LMS functions from working. In order to prevent this from happening and to continue assuring their customers of the quality they promised, Blackboard Open LMS staff established a code review process. So, when somebody submits a plugin, a Blackboard Open LMS developer who has been working on the software for over five years looks at the code and sees if it is going to work or if it has any errors, and then gets back to the client and tells them what they have to fix. If there are no errors, the plugin goes into the database and anyone who thinks it might be helpful can download it and use it as they wish.
Blackboard Open LMS published code review guidelines, and these are now being used widely in different open source sectors. They have progressed so far with this quality assurance that Blackboard Open LMS lead developer Mark Nielsen has actually created a plugin where it is no longer necessary for a human being to check to see if the code works, since the program does this automatically and points out errors, if there are any. These guidelines are currently being used as a de facto standard for what is acceptable as a plugin in a hosted online platform.
But even though it is now the machine that points out errors in the code, it is Kris’ fifty-person team who maintain the high quality commitment to their customers. He remembers the time when the team was very small, and if there was ever a problem with the system or with the server, a person could turn round and ask whoever who was sitting behind them what was happening, or what they were working on. Today, his team is spread all over the world and they have to rely on instant messaging tools to communicate with each other.
Kris has introduced a “daily scrum”, where engineers and admins get together to find out what is going on, what product development is creating, what flaws they have found and how to fix certain problems. Whenever there are new products, they implement a training program so that everyone knows how to use everything.
Thus, when there is a problem in the system, and since Blackboard Open LMS is a cloud provider, they have fully-integrated external availability monitors that are constantly validating that sites are up and running. If they aren’t, an alarm alerts any of the engineers who are on call 24/7 somewhere in the world and who will find any solution they can in order to get the site up again.
Kris says that the beauty of Blackboard Open LMS is not only that it is freely available and that it invites anyone to use it, but Blackboard Open LMS as a SAAS provider (Software as a Service), offers everything clients need: hosting, consulting and support. Additionally, it gives them the option of writing their own plugin for a more personalized service. This, Kris says, is the most wonderful part of the company he works for, because this was exactly the goal from the very beginning: Bringing E-Learning to the masses.
* Kris Stokking, Director of Product Development, Blackboard Open LMS.
* AFP Yuri Gripas.