Here Come the Courts
Two big lawsuits roil the E-Learning community
Most people accept that the Internet is a bit of a new frontier, a Wild West where tech pioneers often settle new territory before the sheriff has a chance to arrive. Such is the case with E-learning, where prominent, ongoing legal battles could have a profound effect on two industry titans and, perhaps, on the students who use their services.
A recent patent award for the technology that makes many E-learning programs possible has made some in the industry concerned that innovation could be stifled. In the other case, a lawsuit filed against a leading online university alleges that the school violated federal law by paying recruiters bonuses based on the number of students they enrolled.
In July, Blackboard-the company responsible for the software many institutions use to manage their online education courses-announced that it had been awarded a U.S. patent for E-learning technology. The same day, the company filed a patent-infringement suit against Desire2Learn, one of its primary competitors. For the first time on a major level, the potential conflicts of E-learning's two main influences clashed, the freedom-of-ideas model of higher education facing off against the intellectual property practices of the tech industry.
Patent progress. "I think students should get used to whatever they have now because they're not likely to see big improvements," says Michael Feldstein, a critic of the patent who has covered the issue on his e-Literate blog (mfeldstein.com) and also works as assistant director for the State University of New York's online learning network. "I don't see a way forward for the progress of E-learning technology until we resolve this patent issue."
The two sides are scheduled to meet with the courts in December, according to the attorney for Blackboard. That company, which already controls about 60 percent of the market for these learning management systems, maintains that most students and faculty won't be affected by the legal battle. "This is no different from the many, many other E-learning patents that are out there," says Matthew Small, Blackboard's lawyer. "It has no negative impact on learning."
Meanwhile, the for-profit University of Phoenix is being sued by two former recruiters, who allege that the school offered bonuses based on the number of students they enrolled, charges Phoenix denies. Such awards are prohibited by federal law to discourage recruiters from signing up people who might not be academically qualified. The case, originally filed in 2003, has bounced around the legal system. Last month, a federal appeals court panel denied the University of Phoenix's attempts to have the case dismissed. The next step is unsettled, with options ranging from a jury trial to a U.S. Supreme Court hearing.
Neither of these cases is likely to have an immediate impact on enrolled students. But they both show that we're still writing the book on E-learning.
This story appears in the October 16, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.