Elgg and the LMS Patent

Alfred Essa asked this question on my post, Blackboard Sues D2L over LMS Patent:

I am not sure where Jarche gets the notion that Elgg Learning Landscape is not affected by the current Blackboard LMS patent suit. As I noted in a recent posting, Blackboard’s “invention” describes a generic learning system and a corresponding set of methods. The 44 claims cover any system which supports students interacting with instructors in an online course setting. Interaction simply means the manipulation (read, write) and exchange (asynchronous, synchronous) of data files. It’s that simple. It’s also frighteningly comprehensive because it can be interpreted to cover not only learning management systems but standalone tools such as blogs, wikis and online chat when used in the context of a course. The patent could also be interpreted by the courts to cover any other elements (e.g. e-commerce engine, card systems, ERP connectors) that integrate with the basic system.

Please explain why you think Elgg is not covered.

I think that the Blackboard patent filing is a load of crap, based on significant prior art, but here is my understanding of this patent in relation to Elgg’s design. Essa may have a point that the patent could be given wider application by the courts, but I’m not a patent lawyer or a judge. I still disagree with the principle of Blackboard’s patent and feel that it may lead to further patent infringement litigation.

A reasonable person could not interpret the following 44 points as applying to the Elgg Learning Landscape. Elgg uses a completely different model than most online learning systems. It does not use content (e.g. course) as the basic building block, but rather the individual person.

As I mentioned in my initial post on this patent, my view is that Blackboard’s patent is for an “education” system, not a learning system. Elgg is a learning system.

Anyone in the Elgg community should feel free to correct me if I’ve made any wrong assumptions.

1. A course-based system for providing to an educational community of users access to a plurality of online courses, comprising: a) a plurality of user computers, with each user computer being associated with a user of the system and with each user being capable of having predefined characteristics indicative of multiple predetermined roles in the system, each role providing a level of access to a plurality of data files associated with a particular course and a level of control over the data files associated with the course with the multiple predetermined user roles comprising at least two user’s predetermined roles selected from the group consisting of a student role in one or more course associated with a student user, an instructor role in one or more courses associated with an instructor user and an administrator role associated with an administrator user, and b) a server computer in communication with each of the user computers over a network, the server computer comprising: means for storing a plurality of data files associated with a course, means for assigning a level of access to and control of each data file based on a user of the system’s predetermined role in a course; means for determining whether access to a data file associated with the course is authorized; means for allowing access to and control of the data file associated with the course if authorization is granted based on the access level of the user of the system.

A. Elgg is not a course-based system. There is no mention of courses in the interface, nor ability to create a course.

2. The system of claim 1 wherein the instructor user is provided with an access level to enable the creation and editing of a plurality of files associated with a course.

B. Elgg does not have an instructor mode, nor use the term instructor.

3. The system of claim 2 wherein the course files comprise an announcement file.

4. The system of claim 2 wherein the course files comprise a course information file.

C. Elgg does not use course as a metaphor, model or term.

5. The system of claim 2 wherein the course files comprise a staff information file posted to all registered in the course.

D. Elgg does not differentiate between staff and students.

6. The system of claim 2 wherein the course files comprise a course document file posted to all registered in the course.

7. The system of claim 2 wherein the course files comprise an assignments file posted to all registered in the course.

8. The system of claim 2 wherein the course files comprise a dropbox file.

9. The system of claim 2 wherein the course files comprise an asynchronous communication file.

10. The system of claim 2 wherein the course files comprise a synchronous communication file.

E. You cannot create courses in Elgg. See point A.

11. The system of claim 2 wherein the student user is provided with an access level to enable reading of a plurality of files associated with a course.

F. There are no students in Elgg, only Friends.

12. The system of claim 11 wherein the student user is provided with an access level to enable modification of a subset of the plurality of files associated with a course.

G. Access level is controlled by each individual and cannot be imposed by the system or some other user.

13. The system of claim 11 wherein the user is provided with an access level to enable creation of a student file associated with a file for which the student user is able to read.

14. The system of claim 13 in which the file that the student is able to read is an assessment file created by the instructor user, and the student file created by the student user is a response to the assessment file.

15. The system of claim 14 wherein the assessment file comprises a plurality of examination questions selected by the instructor user to assess the ability of the student user.

16. The system of claim 15 wherein the examination questions are selected by the instructor user from a predetermined pool of available examination questions.

17. The system of claim 15 wherein the examination questions are created by the instructor user substantially at the time of the creation of the assessment file.

18. The system of claim 15 wherein the student file is reviewed by the instructor user and assigned a grade.

19. The system of claim 18 wherein the grade is made available to the student user.

20. The system of claim 18 wherein the instructor user collates a plurality of grades obtained from reviewing a plurality of student files, and wherein the collated grades are made available to all student users associated with the course.

21. The system of claim 13 in which the file that the student is able to read is an assignment file created by the instructor user, and the student file created by the student user is a response to the assignment file.

H. There is no assessment file or grading application in Elgg.

22. The system of claim 8 wherein the dropbox file comprises a plurality of files transferred to the server computer from one or more student users associated with the course.

23. The system of claim 22 wherein the instructor user is provided with access to the files in the dropbox file, whereby the instructor user may download, edit and upload the files in the dropbox.

I. There are no assignment files or drop box files in Elgg. However, learners can upload files and make them available to selected groups, including someone who may be a teacher. This is not the same as a drop box.

24. The system of claim 1 wherein a user is required to enter a login sequence into a user computer in order to be provided with access to course files associated with that user.

25. The system of claim 24 wherein the user is provided with access to all courses with which the user is associated after entry of the logon sequence.

26. The system of claim 25 wherein the user is provided with a web page comprising a plurality of course hyperlinks, each of said course hyperlinks associated with each course that the user has enrolled in.

J. There are no “courses” in Elgg. There are communities, but the individual must decide to link to a community.

27. The system of claim 26 wherein selection of a course hyperlink will provide the user with a web page associated with the selected course, the web page comprising a plurality of content hyperlinks to various content areas associated with the course.

K. There are no courses in Elgg.

28. The system of claim 27 wherein said content hyperlinks comprise an announcement area hyperlink, a course information hyperlink, a staff information hyperlink, a course documents hyperlink, an assignments hyperlink, a communications hyperlink, and a student tools hyperlink.

29. The system of claim 28 wherein selection of the announcement area hyperlink provides a web page comprising a group of course announcements.

30. The system of claim 28 wherein selection of the course information hyperlink provides a web page comprising information regarding the associated course.

31. The system of claim 28 wherein selection of the staff information hyperlink provides a web page comprising data regarding the instructors of the associated course.

32. The system of claim 28 wherein selection of the course documents hyperlink provides a web page comprising a listing of documents associated with the course.

33. The system of claim 32 wherein the listing of course documents comprise active hyperlinks to the documents.

34. The system of claim 28 wherein selection of the assignments hyperlink provides a web page comprising a group of course assignments.

35. The system of claim 28 wherein selection of the communications hyperlink provides a web page comprising hyperlinks to a group of communication tools comprising an asynchronous communication tool and a synchronous communication tool.

L. No courses, no staff, no assignments, no students.

36. An method for providing online education method for a community of users in a network based system comprising the steps of: a. establishing that each user is capable of having redefined characteristics indicative of multiple predetermined roles in the system and each role providing a level of access to and control of a plurality of course files; b. establishing a course to be offered online, comprising i. generating a set of course files for use with teaching a course; ii. transferring the course files to a server computer for storage; and iii. allowing access to and control of the course files according to the established roles for the users according to step (a); c. providing a predetermined level of access and control over the network to the course files to users with an established role as a student user enrolled in the course; and d. providing a predetermined level of access and control over the network to the course files to users with an established role other than a student user enrolled in the course.

M. There are no predetermined roles in Elgg. The individual determines all connections with resources and with people. Access control is user determined.

37. The method of claim 36 wherein at least one of the course files comprises a course assignment, further comprising the steps of: e) the student user creating a student file in response to the course assignment; and f) the student user transferring the student file to the server computer.

38. The method of claim 37 further comprising the steps of: g) the instructor user accessing the student file from the server computer; h) the instructor user reviewing the student file to determine compliance with the course assignment; and i) the instructor user assigning a grade to the student file as a function of the determination of compliance with the course assignment.

N. There are no “student users” nor “instructor users”. Individuals do not send files to a separate place. Users allow access to their Files. The “instructor” in Elgg would have to be granted permission by the “student” to see a file in the “student’s” Files.

39. The method of claim 38 further comprising the step of the instructor user posting the grade to a file on the server computer accessible only to the student user with which the grade is associated.

O. There is no central grading repository in Elgg.

40. The method of claim 38 further comprising the steps of the instructor repeating the steps (g), (h), and (i) for a plurality of student users that are enrolled in the course.

41. The method of claim 40 further comprising the step of the instructor user performing a statistical analysis on the grades assigned to the plurality of student users.

42. The method of claim 41 further comprising the step of making results of the statistical analysis available to the student users enrolled in the course.

43. The method of claim 36 further comprising the step of providing an asynchronous communication tool accessible to student users enrolled in the course for enabling asynchronous communication amongst the student users.

44. The method of claim 36 further comprising the step of providing a synchronous communication tool accessible to student users enrolled in the course for enabling synchronous communication amongst the student users.

P. In summary, there are no predetermined roles in Elgg. Everyone is an individual and can allow their posts and files to be viewed by whatever groups or communities they wish. Each user can create a new group or community. Elgg is not about courses, instructors, students, tests or assignments. Elgg is about connecting people, most of whom are learners.

14 Responses to “Elgg and the LMS Patent”

  1. Alfred Essa

    Thank you for the clarification. First, I should say that I am also not a lawyer and, therefore, all of this is sheer speculation on my part, especially when Blackboard has refused to say what its patent covers. My interpretation of the Blackboard patent is that potentially it covers any system with exhibits certain implements certain methods when used for supporting a course. What you call items in your data model is irrelevant. If Elgg is never used in the context of a course by faculty and students, then you probably don’t have anything to worry about. However, if Elgg is used by faculty and students as a collaboration tool in the context of course then you might be infringing on their patent. I worked with a similar system where we had communities and user roles. A course was just a type of community and faculty, students fulfilled roles. Just because Elgg does not use certain terms in its data model, doesn’t mean that you are off the hook.

    But I think we agree on the fundamental point: Blackboard’s patent should be invalidated. At the minimum, BB should describe to the rest world what they believe their patent covers.

    Reply
  2. Harold

    Thanks Alfred, and thanks for the opportunity to review what Elgg can do – patent suit or not 🙂

    I agree; we’re debating angels on the head of a pin, while the main effort should be to stop this patent foolishness.

    Reply
  3. Paul

    Thanks Harold. Your work here has really helped me to clarify the position as I try to evaluate Elgg and the patent and whether or not I should proceed to employ it as part of a project I’m developing – part of which is the development of a module for playing back (not creating) SCORM conformant LOs. I no longer believe the BB patent, pernicious as it is, applies in the case of Elgg. Great work.

    Reply
  4. Dave Lee

    Harold:
    Awesome analysis. I disagree with you only in your “angels on the head of a pin” analogy. Having a learning professional explain exactly how Elgg works and doesn’t fall under Blackboard’s patents is very important. No attorney would ever look at Elgg or any other learning system and understand it to the depth necessary. (That’s probably why the patent got approved in the first place.) Hopefully every attorney who ends up defending Elgg, Moodle, Sakai, Desire2Learn, etc. will have this post as a reference. To that end, I’m going to set a link and trackback from my blogs and reccommend everyone else do the same to make sure that this post comes up high in an attorney’s google search.

    Reply
  5. Harold

    Thanks, Dave, I appreciate the vote of confidence.

    Unfortunately, I don’t know if we could do the same analysis for the other LMS that you mention, because they’re all course-based. The initial statement in the patent application, “A course-based system for providing to an educational community of users access to a plurality of online courses, …” is quite all-encompassing.

    It still boils down to the fact that the USPTO did not do its homework and is leaving it to the courts to decide. I hope that Canada does not follow suit.

    Reply

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