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TBR: Second statewide system to terminate RFP process initially awarded to Blackboard Learn

Two months ago the Alabama Community College System (ACCS) completed a Request for Proposal (RFP) process for a systemwide LMS, initially awarding the contract to Blackboard Learn, yet one month later the entire process was terminated. Now the Tennessee Board of Regents (TBR), which runs that state’s community and technical colleges, has followed suit and terminated a RFP process that initially awarded Blackboard Learn the contract.

Note: Due to the nature of disputed RFP processes, I have not asked for vendor commentary for this story and am focusing on information from the system.

TBR is one of two statewide public systems in Tennessee (the other being the University of Tennessee). Unlike most states, the member schools report directly to TBR and do not have their own governing boards. Until 2017 it also governed six state universities in addition to 40 community and technical colleges, with more than 200,000 students. After the reorganization that established separate governing boards for the state universities, and based on recent enrollment trends, there are now roughly 90,000 students in the system. TN eCampus is part of the TBR system, and it provides a coordinated system for online courses at the 40 institutions.

TBR awarded a systemwide LMS contract to D2L (known at the time as Desire2Learn) at the end of 2006, and the current contract expires December 31, 2021. Based on this contract end date, TBR issued an RFP one year ago, with the evaluation of proposals and demonstrations occurring in the spring and summer. In August 2020, TBR initially provided the award to Blackboard, which bid a combination of Learn Original and Learn Ultra as its LMS offering. 1

Notice of Termination

That award was never finalized, however, and last month TBR terminated the entire process. A spokesperson from TBR provided a letter sent from the system Chancellor Flora Tydings to the college presidents about this decision.


I want to let you know that we have decided not to go forward with the Learning Management System (LMS) bid at this time, mainly because the challenges of implementing a new LMS would be detrimental to the best interests of the system. As we all know, this past year has brought many challenges as colleges have increased online course offerings and improved capabilities. I am proud of your efforts and successes and am confident that TBR colleges will continue to improve online education in the coming year. Given the past and ongoing efforts your faculty, supported by the IT staff, have put into enhancing technical capabilities, I do not want to place additional technical or IT-related burdens on them at this time. I am also particularly concerned about the potential disruption for our students.

After a careful review and analysis, Vice Chancellor Gibbs has recommended to me that we reject all LMS bids. I have accepted his recommendation.

Our contract with the current provider doesn’t expire until Dec. 31, 2021, and we’ll provide more information later about our options ahead – but I know there has been faculty concern and I wanted to let you know about this step now so you can share it with your campus community.

Thank you,

Flora W. Tydings

Compare and Contrast with ACCS

The news is more complicated than this letter suggests, however, based on information from my sources. Like ACCS, Blackboard offered a steep discount, which was a significant factor in their initial award – outside of open source solutions such as Open LMS (Moodle), Blackboard has become a low-cost provider in the academic LMS space. In terms of product evaluations from proposals, sandboxes, and demonstrations, Blackboard Learn came in third, behind both D2L Brightspace and Instructure Canvas (these were the three systems under consideration for final decision).

Also like ACCS, it is unclear what TBR plans to do next. The contract expires at the end of the year, but there is not enough time for a new RFP process (the last one took eight months) along with system migration (the planned migration was to take a full year).

Unlike ACCS, TBR has long been centralized but has recently decentralized with the spinoff of the six state universities. These universities are holding their own LMS evaluation and selection processes.

Also unlike ACCS, Blackboard offered both Learn Ultra and Learn Original as options for the system. This is a challenging situation, however, as the definition of “Learn Ultra” is, well, complicated. Learn Ultra is a user experience, but it is tied to specific code and deployment options. On one level, Blackboard refers to Learn Ultra as long as a school running a cloud-hosted (i.e. SaaS) version of Learn has enabled Ultra Base Navigation, which provides new functionality and design above the course level. A second level, and one that is more important for RFP evaluations, is whether Learn Ultra is used within courses. A school can choose to have both experiences (Original and Ultra) running in production on a course-by-course basis, but you cannot have both running within a specific course. I believe this was one of the problems with TBR’s evaluation process, as there were assumptions made about running both experiences that may not have been accurate.

Risk in Implementation

A review of public transition planning documents shows both the confusion between systems and the concerns about Learn Ultra missing functionality. 2

This conflation of systems and missing functionality added risk to an already challenging implementation. Not only would faculty and staff have to negotiate Learn Original and/or Learn Ultra to address specific course usage needs with a new LMS, but they would have to do so in the midst of radically-increased adoption of online and hybrid formats due to the pandemic.

Competition Not Just Amongst Vendors

The ACCS and TBR situations highlight the competing pressures that colleges and universities face during the pandemic. On one hand, there is a need for the benefits of bundled systems and lower-priced offerings, often achieved through centralization. On the other hand, there is a need to to choose the products desired by faculty and staff, given the enormous pressure on these groups during the pandemic and emerging new normal, which can be more difficult for centralized systems. It is more crucial than ever that schools and systems get real buy-in from faculty, students, staff, and administration to address this challenging situation.

Disclosure: Blackboard, Instructure, D2L, Moodle, and Turnitin are all current or recent subscribers to our EdTech Market Analysis service. As a consultant, I have facilitated multiple LMS evaluation processes for statewide systems of higher education.

1 Disclosure: Blackboard, Instructure, D2L, Moodle, and Turnitin are all current or recent subscribers to our EdTech Market Analysis service. As a consultant, I have facilitated multiple LMS evaluation processes for statewide systems of higher education.

2 This list was created in the fall and may include functionality planned for Learn Ultra in 2021.