Edit: With some embarrassment I have to report that a significant amount of the post below is wrong… with the root being mis-attribution of the patent on 3D eLearning to Blackboard. My source for this has also now been updated. The overall worry that someone is trying to patent 3D eLearning remains, however. It’s not Blackboard doing the patent, and so I will score out some of the sections of this blog, but I’ll leave the text intact otherwise. The basic worry remains. djl – 7th May 2009
With VirtualWorldWatch reporting that almost all of UK higher education institutions are now actively using virtual worlds (to some extent at least) and virtual worlds for children (Club Penguin, Moshi Monsters, etc…) make virtual spaces a natural habitat for the newest generations of learners, it seems that virtual worlds have an assured place in the future of eLearning.
VirtualWorldNews regularly features news of new platforms and partnerships in this area, and the famous Second Life has found a home alongside platforms such as Forterra’s OLIVE, OpenSim, Croquet, Sun’s Project Wonderland. New arrivals Metaplace, RealXtend, Caspian Learning’s ThinkingWorlds and a range of offerings from my near neighbours TPLD sit alongside bespoke customizations/mods of commercially available games such as Neverwinter Nights (e.g. Altered Learning for key skills) or Unreal and a huge host of purpose built serious games and simulations. See e.g. SeriousGamesSource.
All in all, the future looks very promising for virtual worlds in education. Sadly the future might be less rosy than it appears. Some readers may be aware of the complex legal actions taking place in the US where VLE/LMS market leader Blackboard are currently trying put one of their main competitors out of business by patent suit – a process that continues even though the original patent was rejected by the US patents office. This is complex and messy – with Blackboard taking a very aggressive stance in the courts on the basis of what was a patent with a huge amount of prior art out there. Although the original patent has been rejected by the USPTO, a continuation patent has been awarded, and the legal fight is far from over. Blackboard now spend considerably more on lawyers than they do on software development. Lots more from Seb Schmoller and Michael Feldstein.
One thing particularly disturbing to me is the discovery (from Seb Schmoller’s discussion) that Blackboard have a patent application in for a “3D Learning Environment”. Despite not actually having a 3D learning environment product, or doing any development at all in this area (at least as far as I am aware – other than a $25,000 greenhouse grant awarded to Ball State a little while ago), Bb have applied for a patent. And using the continuation process they will quite likely seek to extend this patent over forthcoming years – while keeping the original filing date (see Wikipedia for a basic outline of this bizarre process). This is what they’ve done in their current case against Desire2Learn, and there is no reason to imagine that they won’t aggressively seek damages and license fees from vendors in the 3D eLearning market in the future. Every company and product that I’ve mentioned above is potentially under threat from this. Companies that have been innovating and developing new products and systems coming under threat from a company that decided not to bother developing new software or technologies when a patent application would do.
Seb also notes that this 3D patent (from a company that doesn’t do any 3D software, remember) is not part of Bb’s patent pledge – where they pledge not to pursue open source software vendors or users. From eLearning provider to patent troll in a few short years.
And as if this wasn’t enough, patents on how virtual world servers communicate with clients are at the heart of another patent battle (this time between Worlds.com and NCSoft) and if upheld will then be used by Worlds.com to pursue Linden Lab (makers of Second Life) and others. And again, Worlds.com are using patent continuation to gain patent cover over techniques and ideas developed since the original patent – which then gain the same application date as the original, and can then be used to seek money from other companies using what are standard and commonsense software and network engineering methods to build their products. While Worlds may be less likely to put the competition out of business, licensing standard algorithms will add to costs to providers of other platforms.
Software patents are a mess, but there is no sign that the US will abandon them or substantially reform the current system. Meanwhile, its a worried wait to see what is going to happen in Europe, where decisions are due soon as to whether to adopt a more US styled approach to software patents, or to adopt our own (hopefully more stringent) standards of technical innovation required for patentability.