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There is certainly clear prior art from the very early 1990s. Details follow.

From the historical perspective I date the development of "modern" bulletin board systems in e-learning from 1991. When we started to use FirstClass at the Open University on the JANUS project, within a few months many of the so-called "standard" features had been developed - quasi-geographical virtual campus representation, assignment submission, student-only areas, chat, etc - with the development of which I continue to associate key names like Ches Lincoln and Tony Hasemer. Although FirstClass originated over dial-up with a custom client, within a couple of years we were using Internet networks and by the mid 1990s, certainly by the time I had moved to Sheffield Hallam University (and soon installed FirstClass and TopClass), the use of browser access was common.

In case any vendor thinks that documentation from that era is not available or was not published prior to 1999, that is not true. There was massive public disssemination of these results including through the major European projects JANUS, EOUN, Cafe Mondial, etc. Also I am sure that the Open University in its current "open source and open content" mode would be among the first to note that the documentation on the 1994 Virtual Summer School remains available, at http://kmi.open.ac.uk/kmi-misc/virtualsummer.html. (Gary Alexander and Marc Eistenstadt were among the key names on a large team.)

Even the extremities of the patent are well exercised. We are coming up in 2007 to the 25th anniversary of the closure (not the start) of the "Cyclops" whiteboard system developed at the OU in the late 1970s - many from its development and evaluation team (Bates, Sharples, McConnell, Woodman, myself) are still active in e-learning - and have good memories and files (even paper ones as Tony Bates pointed out recently)

One awaits further developments with interest....

Paul Bacsich

Paul is, of course, right. This is one of many madcap US attempts at claiming copyright years after the horse has bolted. However, our very own BT also made a complete fool of themselves by claiming the rights over 'hyperlinking'.

In the new Web 2.0 world these companies simply don't get it. They don't realise that making these outlandish claims is a PR disaster for their own companies.

I'd start selling Blackboard stock NOW!

Assuming the assertion that Blackboard filed their application in 1999, I can certainly recall a great deal of prior art from my own experiences as an IT student at the Australian National University (from 1996). Not only did the Department of Computer Science there utilise course-based web pages to store and disseminate course-based information, but an electronic network-based submission system was in place there from at least the beginning of 1996. The electronic assignment box even incorporated a novel piece of software called "Gotcha," which compared assignments with each other as well as searches of the Internet to identify instances of plagiarism; and because it employed an algorithm search, it was no use renaming variables in a programming assignment to make it "different" to another students, Gotcha would still pick it up.

In addition, we made extensive use of newsgroups as the primary source of both information dissemination (teacher-student) and discussion (student-student/teacher).

Blackboard's claim of patent is both outrageous and repugnant. As an educator and manager of e-learning at a tertiary institution (even one that uses WebCT, a Blackboard product), I'm concerned this will stifle future innovation and competition in e-learning technology development.

This is good info on prior art. It might be worth posting at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_virtual_learning_environments.

There's an online learning history which is in effect the beginnings of a summry of prior art [on the Moodle web site] here:

Moodle docs.

Comment from Seb: I tend to think that the best place to put the "prior art" evidence is on Wikipedia at:

History of VLEs.

I guess one positive outcome is that we are collectively documenting the rich history of virtual leanring environments. As Paul Bacsich says, we were developing and using a multi-site shared whiteboard system (Cyclops) for teaching at the Open University in the early 1980s, and the Poplog virtual learning environment has been in continual use from the late 1970s to the present day, providing hyperlinked course material and interactive demonstrations for AI and computing students.

For BT it was a silly PR disaster as Paul suggests. I am not so sure for Blackboard. The form of the suit is absolutely standard. The filing of the suit is entirely within the law. What it could do is force small outfits to the wall. I cannot comment on the outstanding case. I can say that I have seen nearly identical filings by the same trio of lawyers who filed for BB. Between Nike and Addidas it is all part of the grand scheme of things. Between BB and D2L it will, in the first instance force D2L to hire lawyers and turn up, miles from their homes and businesses. They may or may not ever get that outlay back. It will force them to write legal briefs not upgrade specs. In short it will take their eyes off the ball and cost them real money. I can see it as nothing other than bullying.

In a system that uses the courts to define the applied limitations of a patent in practice after its award, it is interesting that Blackboard chooses a small company from a neighbouring country that routine sells into its own market. Unfortunately, companies that either pay up on demand, or who don't/won't/can't fight the suit, merely enforce acceptance of the initally granted terms of reference for a patent. In this case, the system feeds lawyers and stifles enterprise. The selection of D2L as an early target becomes predatory.

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