Category Archives: Learning Impact Conference & Awards

IMS Global Learning Consortium conducts a unique annual conference and global competition to assess progress in adoption of technology in improving education and addressing key challenges of access, affordability & quality

Hap’s Got Apps! FAQ regarding the IMS Connected Learning Innovation Community and Challenge

IMS announced today the winners of our first (of what we expect to be many) annual connected learning innovation challenge (aka app challenge – but this is a bit of a misnomer because the challenge is as much about platforms and tools as apps). And, our eternal hats off to Instructure Canvas for creating the idea for an App Challenge and conducting the first ever last year in conjunction with their annual conference.

We say “Hap’s got apps” because Hap Aziz is the IMS wrangler for this emerging education and learning app community.

Here’s an FAQ about the challenge, including plans going forward.

Q: How many entries and how many winners were there?

A: There were 22 entries and 5 top apps were selected as the winners.

Q: Where can I see the entries and the winners?

A: The winners are summarized in the press release and on the App Challenge Winner web page.  The winners and the other entries are also listed toward the bottom of the LTI certified product web page. You can also sign-up to get the (roughly) monthly CLIC (Connected Learning Innovation Community) newsletter here – which will have features on the winning and other notable apps as well as community news.

http://developers.imsglobal.org/catalog.html

Q: Who chose the winners and how were they chosen?

A: Many thanks to a panel of expert evaluators , primarily institutional leaders, but a few suppliers, who developed a rubric for the evaluation. My understanding is that there was excellent convergence on the winners.

Q: Are these “apps” like the kind of apps available on Google Play or iTunes?

A: No – these IMS app challenge apps are generally a lot better because they are powered with LTI (Learning Tools Interoperability). That’s because these are apps that can connect into over 25 different learning environments/platforms including all of the major learning management systems. Thus, these are “cross-platform” apps, unlike Apple or Google apps which generally only work on Apple. Or Google. In addition the IMS app challenge apps exchange highly useful information with the over 25 learning environments/platforms, such as user information, rosters, progress data, etc. So, the IMS app challenge apps are real enterprise learning apps and not the sort of limited individual user apps  people download to their mobile device from PlayStore or iTunes.

Q: “Could” mobile apps such as those downloaded from Google Play or iTunes become IMS LTI Apps?

A: That’s a bit of a complicated question because it involves software architecture and software architecture limitations of the operating systems involved, but the general answer is ‘yes’. The web-hosted “back-end” of mobile apps as well as the apps themselves could potentially leverage LTI (and/or other IMS standards) to connect to learning environments/platforms. To date we have not had any great examples of this but it is only a matter of time before it will happen.

Q: Was there money or other recognition involved in the Challenge?

A: Yes, each of the top five will receive a $1000 prize and also will be recognized at the IMS Learning Impact Leadership Institute May 5-8, 2014 in New Orleans.  There will also be a plenary panel and entire track on connected learning at the event, facilitated by Hap Aziz, with many of the entrants and evaluators as participants.

Q: Where did the money come from?

A:  A huge debt of gratitude is owed to the organizations that were financial supporters of the challenge and community. They made it possible.  Cengage Learning, Ellucian, Follett, Indiana University – Purdue University Fort Wayne, Instructure Canvas, McGraw-Hill Education, Oracle, Pearson, University of Maryland Baltimore County, and Vital Source.  The initiative requires ongoing support and if your organization would like to sponsor in the future, please contact us at leadingchange@imsglobal.org.

Q: Were you pleased with the quality of the entrants and winners?

A: Very much so. The winners were a mix of small (including tiny) and larger organizations. The top vote getter, Hoot.me, was an extremely innovative combination of the educational enterprise with Facebook. This reflects a trend in which innovative faculty want to take advantage of existing non-educational applications, but couple them with their campus software platforms.  And, all five of the top winners were similarly highly innovative in terms of what they enable faculty, students and/or administrators to do – and that’s what this is all about – making innovation easier!

Q: Isn’t a non-connected app just as innovative?

A: Nice try, but not really. “Innovation” is not just about whether an application is novel.  It also has to be useful (in fact some definitions of the word take into account adoption/usage as a critical aspect of innovation). Apps that are easy to access and use are a lot more useful in the education space than those that aren’t. Having to enter student roster data or having separate logins or going to a different URL for an app is not at all cool. But, more importantly, these extra steps detract from the innovativeness. Faculty and students need to focus on learning and not on configuring software.

Q: Is the IMS Connected Learning Innovation Challenge going to become an annual thing?

A: Yes. We are on an annual schedule of app boot camp for developers at our August quarterly meeting, promotion at Fall EDUCAUSE, promotion at Winter EDUCAUSE ELI and announcement of annual winners during the run-up to the annual Learning Impact event in May.

Q: Is IMS going to do more to make it easier to find apps than the current LTI catalog web page?

A: Yes. The Connected Learning Innovation Community is also sponsoring the Community App Sharing/Store Architecture (CASA) project. Indeed, CASA is more than a whitepaper!  It is open source software that is being developed by a collaborating group of IMS HED institutions, led by UCLA and the University of California System.  CASA is a breakthrough. It’s a peer-to-peer app sharing architecture that will enable institutions or suppliers to partake in a network of  cross-platform educational app sharing. The very first public demonstrations of CASA will occur at the IMS Learning Impact Leadership Institute May 5-8, 2014 in New Orleans. For more background on CASA see this post.

Q: Is the Connected Learning Innovation Community (CLIC) meant to be an open source community?

A: Yes. IMS expects that for those institutions or suppliers that wish to share and collaborate on open source apps, tools or platforms that implement the IMS standards CLIC will evolve into a vibrant software collaboration. We like to say that this is like “an open source community on steroids” because the software developed will run cross-platform. So, whereas the current open source collaborations like Sakai and Moodle have been and will continue to be great, this is a different kind of community that adds a completely new dimension of cross-platform/cross-community.

Q: Where is the K-12 community in this?

A: IMS expects that K-12 institutions and/or states will begin to participate – it’s only a matter of time and resources.  HED has taken the lead here because HED institutions are developing lots of LTI apps on their own. And, HED is more used to these sort of development collaborations. But K-12 is coming.

 

Why Does IMS Global Learning Consortium Publish an Annual Report?

Today IMS released our annual report for the calendar and fiscal year 2013.   See the press release.  See the annual report.

IMS annual report 2013 cover

Producing an annual report is a lot of work – and these days when it seems like very few people have time to read one might ask why do we take the time and effort to do this?

We first published an annual report for the year 2009 – so 2013 is the fifth edition.

IMS annual report 2009 cover

I think there were really two catalysts that got us to publish the report.

The first was that after I came into IMS as the CEO in 2006 it became obvious that not even the Board of Directors much less all stakeholders in IMS were getting accurate financial data and other metrics on the organization. First we corrected the situation for the Board but then the Board also vowed that we should be providing this information to the members and the stakeholders.

The second catalyst was Jan Posten Day, who at the time was with Blackboard, and is now with Pearson. As a member of one of our leadership committees in IMS Jan was adamant that IMS should have an annual report. At the time Jan suggested this we were struggling to keep the organization afloat and I pushed back on the idea because it just seemed like we could not pull it off.  But Jan’s insistence made an impression on myself and the other staff – and I think it was within a year or so that we dug deep and got out the 2009 report.

As you will see in this year’s report, IMS has been growing nicely now for eight consecutive years.

ims growth through 2013

 

In fact, even though there has been quite a bit of churn in the member base over that time, the consistency in the net growth has been a little scary. It’s scary because we have looked long and hard and have not found any other similar growth pattern in organizations similar to IMS. Indeed during this same period most other organizations classified as “standards consortia” have generally been flat to declining. And, if you look at the historical patterns for standards consortia they tend to grow very rapidly when first originated and then flatten or tail off.

So, IMS is an organization in unchartered territory. In my mind it is all about leadership in terms of which way it will go. IMS has provided a viable organization for those organizations, institutions and suppliers, who wish to evolve an unprecedented collaboration to new heights. Or, those afraid of the disruption that IMS is enabling may slow it down. Everyday I see forces on both sides of that equation and think it’s going to be very interesting indeed as we go forward.

However, I assure you that, means willing, IMS will be publishing the report whether or not the results are as rosy as they have been.  Indeed when we began publishing the report we had no idea that the chart data would keep going up for the next 5 years!

But, here’s why I think the report is useful and why you should give it a look:

  1. In one relatively short document you get a full view of the work of IMS – which is not easy to see if you are focused on one or a few IMS initiatives.
  2. You can see how the organization is doing in terms of building momentum and in terms of financial strength.
  3. You can get a great a very summary of the major thrust of IMS and the key initiatives – and a concise commentary on why we are doing what we do.
  4. You can see the individuals and organizations that are leading IMS.
  5. It is a format that can be easily shared with someone else whom you might want to introduce the organization to or update on IMS progress.

IMS architectiure

Hopefully the experience of perusing the report should give you a sense that IMS is indeed a non-profit organization worthy of your support because IMS is changing the education and learning sectors for the better.  And, if you look at the range of initiatives that IMS is undertaking you can feel pride in that your support has made this progress possible. I assure you that without your support this work would not have happened – not only not have happened in IMS, but most likely would not have happened anywhere. IMS is that unique in the leadership and collaboration for progress to the education and learning sectors.

As with most “things IMS” the annual report is a testament to leadership. Not the leadership of the IMS staff, but the leadership of the IMS members, both organizations and individuals (like Jan Day above) who are insistent that we must do better in enabling the next generation of education and learning!

IMS community

 

Does IMS Have a Strategy?

Please excuse the long time since the last blog folks.  IMS is adding a lot of new members and staff supporting an unprecedented array of exciting initiatives – which has kept yours truly very busy the last few months.

We are now in the final push toward our annual Learning Impact event, May 5-8 in New Orleans, USA. While this is also a busy time we’ve got a great chance at the event and before to be talking about where we are and where we are going in IMS. We hope you will join the conversation! Consider this a first installment.

The (perhaps) provocative title of this post is actually one that we are sometimes asked. After all, IMS is very much a “bottoms-up” meritocracy, like many other organizations that develop interoperability standards. Most of the ideas in IMS, and certainly the best ideas, come from the individuals that are participating on behalf of their member organizations.  And, IMS is a true membership organization (legally organized as such) that provides a level playing field for organizations of all sizes – a construct that we think provides a very good structure for what we do as previously described here. So, when the members speak – we listen – and usually act.

IMS does have a strategy. IMS has an elected Board of Directors that helps formulate the strategy. But, the strategy is very organic, flowing and dynamic. New ideas brought forward by the members go through a certain “due diligence” that occurs by putting the idea in front of key stakeholders – those most motivated to act – and adjusting accordingly (including sometimes putting on the shelf until further interest). Having much experience in the venture capital world I will tell you that it is much like the funneling of ideas/business plans that every VC firm goes through in terms of the process of looking at the risks and opportunities involved.

So, the resulting IMS strategy is a function of bubbling up, testing (against the critical concepts of adoption and learning impact) and organizing into something as coherent as we can make it given what is actually happening in the sector and various sub-segments.  And occasionally adding some key missing pieces that for whatever reason have not bubbled up – like for instance members not willing to share in an area that is actually good for them to share.

For several years past this process unfolded into an IMS strategy centered on what we have called the “Digital Learning Services” standards, focused on (but not limited to) Common Cartridge, Learning Tools Interoperability (LTI) and Learning Information Services (LIS).

The strategic theory behind the DLS focus was that together these standards would solve a very large percentage of the integration challenges in/with the education enterprise.  And, in fact, while different pieces have evolved and been adopted at differing rates, we think this thesis has largely turned out to be on target.  See the accompanying charts on growth in IMS membership during this strategy and growth more recently in the conformance certifications that are the market adoption proof point.  Notice the 97 certifications in 2013 – almost 2 a week. So far in 2014 we are averaging close to 3 a week. In other words, this strategy is still taking hold, but clearly it is taking hold in a big way!

IMSmembergrowth

 

IMScertgrowth

 

IMSpackagegrowth

 

However, the IMS strategy has definitely shifted beyond DLS in the last year or so. First of all, e-assessment, an area IMS has had some activity in for a long while via QTI (and a subset of which is covered in Common Cartridge) became a hot area. The very simple idea that electronic assessments if done right are much more affordable and scalable than paper assessments coupled with the very obvious idea that there should be open formats to enable the e-assessment ecosystem of suppliers and states has come of age (both in the U.S. and other nations such as the Netherlands). Second, now that the IMS DLS standards are working – radically reducing cost, time, complexity of seamless integration – our attention is naturally now turning to what can be enabled with the standards.

While there may not be complete agreement in the IMS community (given its size and diverse nature) over what we should be enabling with the standards, here are the current thoughts – and thus, the strategy going forward:

  1. The power of LTI (first v1 and now v2) to reduce cost and time of achieving seamless integration by 10-1000x will soon lead to 1-click integration.  IMS-enabled applications will be auto negotiating which IMS services are supported – thus revolutionizing the ease with which standards-based applications will be incorporated into the teaching and learning process.
  2. #1 enabling a very diverse open ecosystem of new types of learning platforms and applications and potentially rearranging the ordering of  integrations – very much an “app to app”  model of cooperation with or without a learning management “system” in the middle.
  3. Merging LTI with the IMS work on student information (LIS) and course planning and scheduling (CPS) exchange to continue to open up the educational enterprise via easy to use standards.
  4. Establishing and growing the “educational app community” – like an open source community on steroids that builds things that work across platforms (the “things” may be open source or not, but there should be tools to enable this that are open source). This is a remarkable new type of community indeed – suppliers and institutions working together across platform – kind of like the worldwide web but focused on the education vertical.
  5. Enabling what most refer to as e-books or e-texts as a highly interoperable format across a wide variety of e-readers/mobile devices for the needs of learning and education.  See EDUPUB.
  6. Making instrumentation / measurement of learning activities easy to enable collection of analytics – big and small data. See Caliper Analytics.
  7. Including everything we’ve learned and are learning about e-assessment across #4-6, meaning that we’ve got the standards to enable innovative assessment apps, enable assessment in e-text and the enable easy instrumentation of assessment in learning platforms and apps (via Caliper and the outcomes standards developed on QTI/APIP).
  8. Utilize the standards to create an open source reference implementation for a peer-to-peer app sharing framework that can be used to do, well, what it says – share apps with trusted partners and encourage using standards to do this – thus, the enabling of a standards-based “app store” or “app sharing” equivalent to iTunes, etc. See CASA.

Perhaps though, most importantly, IMS is making great progress with our end-user/institutional led groups to ensure that all of these initiatives are in fact getting them where they want to go.  Our K-12 district advisory board (I3LC) continues to grow and our new HED connected learning advisory board is shepherding the app community, the app sharing architecture, analytics and competency-based learning initiatives.

Hopefully you will see the evolution of the IMS strategy in the above. The IMS community is making change happen in some very substantial ways and I invite you to partake at the May 5-8 Learning Impact event – where the breakout tracks mirror the strategy areas above and the plenary sessions undertake the broader discussion  of “why” we are doing this in terms of the emergent models of education that we wish to enable.

IMSLearningImpact

What You Need to Know About e-Assessment

With IMS’s recent announcement of the upcoming e-assessment interoperability challenge we thought it would be a good time to discuss electronic assessment. Here is a Q&A with Rob Abel of IMS Global. Feel free to post additional questions and Rob will answer them (if he can)!

Q1: Is it time for electronic assessment in education?

A1: Yes, paper tests are more difficult to administer, take longer to process, are more prone to error and are not able to provide timely data to help improve instruction. Compared to a situation where paper textbooks may still have some usability advantages over digital e-books, paper assessments have no advantage at all over e-assessment.

Q2: Can e-assessment be used for summative or formative testing?

A2: Both.  E-assessment can be used for pure “high stakes test taking” scenarios as well as intermingled throughout other learning activities for formative assessment.

Q3: Is interoperability of assessment items important?

A3: Yes – very. In general digital assessment enables new forms of collaboration. For instance, in various countries around the world there is a desire to enable school organizations to collaborate on item development – since many schools are testing on the same subjects. Standard formats for assessment items enables collaboration on/exchange of items without every organization needing to use the same software platform for item creation and/or delivery. It is becoming pretty clear with historic collaborations such as the U.S. states on the Race to the Top Assessment initiative that the era of the “single delivery platform that outputs pdf” is coming to an end. With interoperability of assessment items enabled by standards there is no reason to be locked into a single vendor solution. Across the assessment community replication of effort goes down, investment in proprietary solutions ends and more investment is focused on innovation.

Q4: Does IMS have standards and a community focused on assessment interoperability?

A4: Yes.  IMS has two related standards that the assessment community worldwide should be making use of. The first is QTI (Question and Test Interoperability) and the second is APIP (Accessible Portable Item Protocol). QTI enables interoperability of assessment items and tests. The latest version is v2.1 which is the one that the assessment community is rallying around. A subset (profile) of an older version of QTI, v1.2, is used in Common Cartridge, which is a format for importing and exporting content into/out of learning platforms. APIP adds accessibility constructs to QTI to enable electronic delivery of a variety of accessible assessments.

Q5: What about other types of interoperability that might enable more effective use of e-assessment?

A5: Yes. There is a very compelling need to use interoperability standards to enable assessment software platforms to “plug into” or connect with other software systems. So, this is the “assessment software product” as an LTI (Learning Tools Interoperability) tool provider, enabling the assessment platform to be seamlessly “launched” from a host system (like a learning management system). This type of “plugging in” can be useful in both formative and summative scenarios (depending on how the later is administered). We see at least four types of assessment products beyond the state level large-scale assessment that will benefit from this type of interoperability:

  • Standard quizzing/test authoring and delivery software that are typically used already with learning platforms
  • The increasingly popular “homework applications” or “adaptive tutoring applications” can be also be viewed as formative assessment platforms.
  • Classroom test creation and scoring systems – yes, including those using paper and pencil
  • Assessment tools used for competency-based degree programs, such as those used by Western Governors University.

Q6: What about interoperability of assessment data?

A6: This of course is also very important. QTI describes formats for item data – which describes how test takers answer questions. The latest IMS work on analytics – the IMS Caliper Learning Analytics Framework (see blog Q&A) – will leverage the QTI data formats as well as other assessment-related formats (e.g. gradebook data). Thus, assessment data can be provided “back” to a learning platform, an assessment delivery platform or to an analytics store.

Q7: What about authentic assessment in the classroom or project-based learning?

A7: Any type of educational assessment, including e-assessment, is just a tool. It is one source of input. In our opinion assessment should be used to improve teaching and to improve learning. Thus, e-assessment plays an important role because it can provide real-time or near real-time feedback in a very transparent way – on a question by question basis (QTI enables such feedback), for computer adaptive testing or simply faster processing of an entire quiz or test. And that feedback can go to teachers, students, parents, etc – whatever makes the most sense. And, initiatives like Race to the Top Assessment are folding teacher evaluation of various “performance events” into the assessment mix. Mobile platforms and interoperable apps could obviously have an very important and innovative role to play in that regard as well as all types of assessment wrapped into apps or otherwise. We’ve already seen some fascinating use of QTI in the mobile setting via the Learning Impact Awards.

Q8: Why has IMS announced a Worldwide Assessment Interoperability Challenge?

A8: Use of interoperability standards such as QTI in the past has been rather flakey in that each supplier implemented different versions and different subsets of functionality. Very few assessment product providers provided feedback to IMS to enable the issues to be resolved.  As a result, interoperability was limited.  Things have turned around radically in the last few years in that IMS now has some 25 or so world-leading providers of assessment products actively involved in implementing QTI and/or APIP. As a result, IMS has been able to finalize these specifications and conformance certification tests that will result in high levels of interoperability. The “challenge” is our way of saying to the world that we have a very strong core set of suppliers who have agreed to achieve conformance certification together over the next few months. Please come and join in for the good of your product development efforts and the good of your customers who desire interoperability that really works.  The extra added “bonus” for participating is entry into the annual IMS Learning Impact Awards under special assessment product categories. Details on the “challenge” are here: http://apip.imsglobal.org/challenge.html

Q9: What if a region of the world wants to work with IMS on a regional profile of QTI or APIP?

A9: Yes, IMS is set up to facilitate that and is in fact in partnership in the Netherlands for the last two years on such an effort regarding national exams.  Feel free to send us an email at assessmentchallenge@imsglobal.org

Q10: What do you see for the future of e-assessment?

A10: We are at the very beginning of a long road ahead filled with many exciting product opportunities.  As with many of the other IMS standards, like Common Cartridge and LTI, we are going to see a very dynamic evolution based on market needs of QTI and APIP. For instance, one of the other application areas we are working on at the moment is QTI application to e-textbooks. E-assessment will permeate every aspect of digital learning materials and activities – with an emphasis on adaptive testing to help pinpoint where additional alternative materials and activities are needed. And, with the undeniable trend toward competency-based learning paths and credentialing the need for better assessment is increasing. As with all of the IMS focus areas the key will be for the technology of assessment to “get out of the way” and be simple and easy to use and benefit from.

 

What is Disruptive Innovation in Education?

At the 2013 Learning Impact conference I presented a keynote “Innovation, Disruption, Revolution – Oh My!”  I chose this topic because the degree of hype about “disruption” in education seems to be at an all time high right now. BTW it’s amazing how well the Gartner Hype Cycle fits the Wizard of Oz!

From Rob Abel's Learning Impact Keynote: Innovation, Disruption, Revolution Oh My!

From Rob Abel’s Learning Impact Keynote: Innovation, Disruption, Revolution Oh My!

Excitement about the role of technology in improving education is a good thing as far as I’m concerned. Education is a segment that needs disruptive innovation. To me the hype around things like MOOCs represents a longing by many for “a better educational future” – presumably involving lower costs to students and better career/life fulfillment, not to mention better global citizens needed to solve our global challenges. Let’s face it – there is a general sense that the current education system is not up to the challenges of the future. And, it’s not clear how we get from “here” to “there.”

But, as leaders in the education segment we do need to get better at understanding where we have been and where we are going, what constitutes innovation and/or disruption that is worthy of investment?  Are you an investor? I would argue that any individual that is putting time into educational technology leadership at any level is an investor, but certainly institutions that are spending on innovation, and yes, venture capital investors (investors in this segment, including some pretty big names, are making some bad decisions right now about where they are putting their money – but this post is more about how institutions should decide to invest their resources).

In IMS we try to ferret out “winners” by looking at criteria for something we call “Learning Impact” – which is defined by a set of judging criteria we use in our annual Learning Impact Awards (LIAs). You can think of it as evidence that the application of technology in an educational setting has had a clear impact on access, affordability and/or quality. We’re pretty proud of this program because there is simply no way to win with hype. But, in general the whole annual Learning Impact event is about understanding where the innovation really is.

Right now there are quite a few over-hyped activities in the education segment.  I would include in these MOOCs, Common Core State Standards, analytics, badges and open educational resources (OER). Sorry if I tipped over one of your sacred cows there!  Over-hyped does not mean that something good will not come from these developments. It just means that they are being portrayed as more significant in terms of ability to “disrupt” education than they will be capable of delivering on. As with most hyped innovations, eventually some aspects of the innovation “survive,” crossing the chasm to productive advancement of the industry. The challenge for innovators and investors is to utilize critical thinking to rationalize what will sustain and what the real Impact will be.

MOOCs are perhaps everyone’s favorite example of hype right now. It’s difficult to imagine how something could have achieved more hype in the higher education segment – and they are very clearly striking a nerve for being potentially highly disruptive. Literally every day MOOCs are in the headlines – and smart marketers are trying to jump on the MOOC bandwagon even as that bandwagon morphs continually to address the glaring deficits of the MOOC model and quite frankly, more failures than successes at this point.

Clayton Christensen, the leading expert on “disruptive innovation,” has written at least two books specifically focused on education. According to Christensen’s disruptive innovation theory markets are disrupted when new entrants figure out an innovative way to provide a “simpler” product to a wider set of buyers at a more affordable price.  Since the simpler product is actually what the broader market prefers (simpler means more usable, more effective for the desired purposes) the product is highly disruptive – better product at lower price point.  And thus, these new entrants change the market behavior substantially.  Jim Farmer does a very thorough job of digging into the theories as applied to MOOCs here.

While I, like many other silicon valley entrepreneurs, have found Christensen’s original formulations on disruptive innovation descriptive of what is generally seen in the high tech world, and a useful thought framework, well, the problem is that these formulations have not been at all predictive for education – and that is the acid test for using theory for strategic gain – is it predictive?  Writing about what happened in the past and putting a framework around it is great – but if it doesn’t help predict the future it doesn’t especially help entrepreneurs or us “investors.”

The innovators in the education segment have NOT disrupted the status quo significantly so far. While Christensen predicted in 2008’s Disrupting Class great disruptions in the segment from online learning, the reality so far is that greater adoption of online learning has continued as expected but not very disruptive: price points for education continue to rise ahead of inflation and while online education continues to grow it is largely seen as reflecting traditional models rather than a disruption.  And, while online/blended models have certainly improved access – well, the percentage of the population that has achieved credentials has been very level.  I wrote a paper about what the technology impact in higher education back in 2005-7 – and the situation is not significantly different today.

Christensen was recently quoted in an interview as stating that higher education institutions are going to be in real trouble 5 years from now. However, he has not made it clear why things will be different in the next 5 years versus the last 5 years since Disrupting Class was published. I do agree that “buyers” (students/parents) are in fact getting smarter about looking for lower cost options as well as attempting to understand the value of a higher education degree.  But I would argue that we are nowhere near a true disruption (rise) in the number of participants in higher education.

While it is very valuable to have any great thinker on business strategy analyzing education and providing insights from other industries that might apply (like Christensen), education leaders need to do their own critical thinking about these formulations of “disruptive innovation” in the education segment.

I’d like to provide three key factors that IMHO are needed to be understood if to  understand disruption in education. While these factors may be relevant to understanding MOOCs, they can be applied to other hype areas as well. Hold on to your hat here as these are things that we don’t hear much talk about in the education space – especially when you go to meetings on one of the hyped topics or even to investor conferences!

  1. Education is a complex services business in which quality is difficult to define. Disruption in the education space requires better service models that are built around improved educational program quality. Comparison of education to the disruption of the steel industry by mini-mills (a connection some have made because Christensen uses this as a classic example of disruption) is not a valid comparison. Disruption in education is not about replacing the low end of a well-defined product. It’s about redefining quality in a much more complex world of knowledge than that from which most current educational models were designed.  So, for instance, a true disruption in education would be highly desirable/effective K-masters degree in 15-16 years versus the current 19 years (ideally that meets the needs of under performing populations as well as traditionally successful populations).
  2. The next phase of true progress will be to come out of the current era of massification into a new era of more real world relevant and personalized educational pathways.  Massification of educational experiences will not be the ticket to success in the next wave of educational models. It seems that many of the entrepreneurs and investors in the education space fail to realize that we have already been in the era of massification of education for the last 30 years or so in developed countries. The disruption in terms of content will need to be content that enables educational experiences that are up-to-date (read “relevant”), adaptive to the interests of the learner, easily adaptable by teachers and yet thorough in terms of teaching the educational foundation that are defined via #1.  No offense to our friends at Coursera (one of the growing number of MOOC providers), but “course era” is an especially off the mark name for describing the future IMHO.  It is NOT a course era now in education nor will it be in the future. It is the same era that it has been: which is one in which a distinctive program of high quality education will be highly valued. It’s just that we need to do a better job getting such distinctive programs to the currently underserved populations at a better price point. Yes, there will be different sources of supporting digital resources that will help enable the redesign of educational delivery (potentially a role for MOOC courses). As discussed in other LI blog posts (here & here) digital resources will need to be in a form of a highly usable toolkit for faculty and learners.  But, these supporting resources have a VERY long way to go to meet the needs of learners. And, the more available (i.e. free, open, massive, etc) a course or content becomes the faster it will become commoditized.
  3. Education is the ultimate “long tail” market with a growing proliferation of high value niche providers and boutique programs. This is only going to increase in the future. Contrary to other recent online phenomena like facebook or twitter, education is not a “winner take all” market. I was at an education investor conference earlier this year where a leading investment advisor made the statement that education is the “ultimate winner take all market.” Education, if done correctly, is life success enabling. The more unique and distinctive your educational experience is, the more valuable it is. The ability to produce knowledge is the key currency in the current and future global economy. There is no distinctiveness to attending “Massified University.” And, a credential from a massive provider will most likely be such a commodity that most will prefer not to waste their time on it (other than for pure fun or reference). We need many more niche-oriented institutions that provide specialized, career-enabling and life-enabling education. Note that even large public institutions, while having many students, can engage this philosophy to create a large number of differentiated programs of study.   Therefore, the “disruptive technology platforms” for education will need to enable great diversity. Diversity in terms of delivery models and blending of high touch with personalized self-service.  Disruptive platforms will also need to enable seamless integration among cooperating providers of the various components of a solution – meaning close partnership among institutions as well as innovative learning tools.  Old style Web 2.0 thinking of the single pervasive platform or the single way of analyzing data will not work for the future of education. Education is not that simple (sorry!).

Are MOOCs potentially promising innovations? Yes. They are clearly an evolution of the trend toward pervasive online/blended/more flexible educational models/flipping the classroom. Will they disrupt education?  Not on the current trajectory. They pretty much fly in the face of the three tenants above.

But, there are some potential ways in which MOOCs could be disruptive in a more limited way.

I think MOOCs have the potential to be disruptive on the low end of the education market as a new model for delivering “open university style education.”  For example, today’s MOOCs could be an appealing alternative to the content portion of massive open universities around the world, featuring star professors from highly ranked universities. And, such populations of learners could probably support an advertising/low course fee model of consumption. So, open university providers get a “pay per use” version of content (versus the larger investments they must make today for tuition) that is likely better than what they are offering today, which if subsidized by advertising (net revenue equals small pay per use from open university provider coupled with advertising revenues) could equate to substantial revenues over a large numbers of users with similar interests (as indicated by the topic of study).

In such a model MOOCs could also double as a new type of “tutorial” reference materials. Very much like Kahn Academy, which is often referred to as a MOOC now even though it existed for a few years prior to the term.

Would this application of MOOCs be disruptive? Well, if you consider displacement of open universities and/or a new business model for them disruptive, then yes.  This approach could potentially disrupt the open university market worldwide and create a much larger interest in open university derivative models as a way to learn more about a particular topic and/or as preparation for entry to other universities.  Will they substitute for those universities – no. Such a disruption will not radically change the efficiency of higher education segment at all.

Is there a strong motivation for current providers of education to engage in this model? Unclear. As previously discussed the more you commoditize an educational experience the less valuable the education is. As discussed above the next stage in education is greater diversification, not massification. Personally I would like to see existing institutions respond to the three factors above by rolling out new “institutes” with new types of degree programs that meet the evolving needs of society.

Should open universities or other new entrants that wish to compete in that space try a MOOC/advertising/low course fee supported model?  I hope so.  That would be a good fit with the “course-focused” strength of MOOCs.  It would also provide a potential revenue producing and marketing outlet for institutions and their “star teachers.” Of course there are the normal challenges of achieving accreditation from the countries/states as needed to prove value to the potential students.

So, hooray for the MOOC phenomena in terms of making claims about needed innovations such as scale, analytics and the potential power of star teachers that will help accelerate the innovation trend toward online/blended that we are already on! And, congratulations to the leading institutions willing to make a space to try out the MOOC innovations as another set of tools that might be leveraged in the quest for improved education.

However, I would say that if you don’t know at this point why you are investing (in terms of what impact you expect will sustain at your institution, (and therefore what the return on your investment is likely to be) then you are not applying the level of critical thinking you need to. Personally I would be asking MOOC providers to take the risk in terms of proving the validity of the market/business model (such as the ideas around open university displacement) – and not taking on that risk for my university. 

[Note: In a future blog post I will take a whack at what I think will be the sustainable innovations that might cross the chasm coming out of some of the hype items mentioned above: MOOCs, Common Core State Standards, analytics, badges and open educational resources (OER).]

See more of Rob Abel’s views on educational innovation throughout the Learning Impact blog as well as this feature interview with Anthony Salcito of Microsoft.

 

Western Governors University and the Future of Competency-based Learning

A special featured keynote by Bob Mendenhall, President of Western Governor’s University at Learning Impact 2013

It really doesn’t matter who you talk to in the education field. Literally all agree that doing a better job of understanding competencies is the way that education needs to move. It’s about what you know and what you can do, rather than what course you took and what grade you got in that course.

Western Governors University (WGU) is the recognized leader in competency-based non-profit higher education in the U.S. We are very pleased that President Bob Mendenhall will be joining us at this year’s Learning Impact 2013 to tell the WGU story and participate in a panel on higher education leadership.

As we do with many of our keynotes at Learning Impact we have published a brief interview article with Bob.

In some respects this is sort of a “coming out” for WGU in that they have been replacing proprietary integrations (those very popular “open APIs” that every vendor likes to promote) with open standards-based integrations using IMS LTI. As the article mentions, WGU has quietly replaced 20 such custom integrations with LTI over the past several years, with probably 30 or so more to go!

Which brings us to the very critical link between competency-based learning and open interoperability standards.  The reason why WGU has so many different applications to integrate is because the best resources in different fields come from different providers.  You might think this circumstance is unique for WGU. It is not even today, but less so in the future. That’s because your departments and faculty want to use these sort of resources – or will be wanting to – and, if they are doing so now they are probably doing it WITHOUT INSTITUTIONAL INTEGRATION AND SUPPORT.  Sorry to get loud there, but frankly we are finding that many educational CIOs need to be woken up to both the challenges and opportunities (for better service) to departments and faculty. Well, in a nutshell, IMS standards are all about enabling this – just as is happening at WGU.

There is more information on how to join this open digital innovation revolution, including two special programs to aid higher ed involvement/adoption (called THESIS) and K-12 involvement/adoption (called I3LC).

 

Is an institutional version of an educational “app store” in your future?

We hope so! And we hope many universities, school districts and suppliers will collaborate on developing it!

See today’s announcement about the launch of a new collaboration to do just that.

Well, we know that the higher ed market seems to want to keep talking about the LMS, last week’s announcement from MIT and Stanford not withstanding. But, some of us are moving on. For those of us that have been attending Learning Impact the last several years (and, yes, don’t forget to sign up right now for this year’s because space is getting short!), we already know what the future of the “LMS” is (and that the term LMS is a bad name for what it has been or what it will be).  We also know what the general roadmap for digital learning resources is and how this evolution is intertwined with the evolution of the LMS. That’s because the LMS is evolving into a disaggregation of features and resources that come together easily and seamlessly for the needs of teachers and students.

The last few years have popularized, in the consumer world, the app store model. The app store in the consumer context is as much, or more, about controlling purchasing paths and revenue distribution as it is about software that the user interacts with (like iTunes). I have about eight Apple computers in my home and have been a user of Apple since the Lisa. What a stroke of genius Steve Jobs had in envisioning Apple computers at the center of home entertainment/personal digital lifestyle! And, iTunes was the delivery mechanism to make getting the digital resources easy. And, as we know, the 1-click buying, downloading, installing experience has evolved from computer to mobile devices of all shapes and sizes. Hooray!

Success of this model has lead to a lot of imitation by other large consumer-oriented companies and creating similarly vertically integrated buying experiences. To succeed at this you’ve got to have a massive point of sale presence. Amazon became the leader in e-Books. And, Google has the primary competitor to iTunes for mobile devices.

Ease of use/convenience in getting digital resources, evolving to the very popular apps (software applications) has made these vertical stores very appealing. Problem is that they also tend to lock the buyer in to a specific device or family of devices. If I want to switch from iPhone to Samsung Galaxy Note II – which I recently did – I have to start over again with the apps (Yes, the Galaxy Note II is a much better phone than the iPhone – sorry Apple!).

Of course, there are now mobile applications focused on the education segment: as our friend Robbie Kendall Melton from Tennessee Board of Regents has probably the best collection! Problem is that these vertical app stores have created a nightmare for teachers and students who generally need something that cut across many different types of devices (think BYOT). And, in order to make the user experience seamless and productive, educational apps typically require exchange of information (think user data and/or analytics) with other software in the educational enterprise (yes, like an LMS or whatever the LMS evolves to).

So, IMS finds ourselves in an interesting position in that we are going to need to enable a model in education that is not Apple, Google, Amazon (or any proprietary vertical marketplace approach) centric.  The app store project is, at it’s beginning, a collection of universities that are working to define and build a reference implementation of an app store based on open standards, that any content provider can participate in.  The advantage of building apps that utilize the open standards (think APIs – but vendor neutral) is that they will be easily integrated into a seamless teacher and student experience (yes, think 1-click). Now, will it be a gigantic app store with zillions of resources? Probably a smaller set of resources that are much more manageable for each course (while some are in love with the “learning objects in the sky” concept it is not what most faculty have time for).

The IMS educational app store project is in a top-level design phase now – with the expectation that there will be mock-ups and wireframes to discuss at the upcoming Learning Impact. From there we will herd the cats and begin building. The idea is NOT that IMS would maintain some sort of app store.  The idea is that institutions and/or suppliers will collaborate as they see fit in providing institutional or supplier-specific versions that may or may not be coordinated with peer implementations. Contact us if you’d like to get involved.

Briefly back to Apple, Amazon, Google – sorry to have to pick on you guys. But, for education it’s time to move to the next logical phase of the app store concept. The good news is that you can utilize the open app store APIs (or others can) to link the proprietary applications built for your stores into the open educational app store should the educational community wish to do so. It would be much nicer if you would spend a little bit of time and effort to engage or even contribute to the project – but we realize you are very busy making money with your vertical platform strategies and probably won’t help out the education segment.

IMSappstore

 

Big data: Cool; Small data: Cooler

An LTI-based prototype for a Student Progress Dashboard

At the last IMS quarterly meeting in February 2013 at Lone Star College in Houston we spent a lot of time on analytics. Analytics is a pretty hot topic in education these days. In fact, in HED the hype has been off the charts for about two years now. At EDUCAUSE 2011 analytics was the savior, At EDUCAUSE 2012 the hype was more muted – but still strong.

Why? Economics. Retaining one student is worth substantial dollars. Retaining many = mucho dollars. Not to mention national goals for graduating more students – which has a broader impact on any national economy as the delta in wages over a lifetime is large between degreed and non-degreed people.

One of the problems with the term analytics is that it is VERY broad. At our quarterly meeting we had a parade of companies (large & small) as well as very well-informed individuals working in the analytics field.  We learned that there are at least three levels of analytics applicable to education:

  1. Learning analytics: Data analysis that helps students improve learning outcomes.
  2. Academic/program analytics: Data analysis that provides information of what is happening in a specific program and how to plug holes or otherwise adjust.
  3. Institutional analytics: Data analysis that helps make decisions about how to improve at the institutional level.

There is also a fourth level – an even higher level at which governments might crunch numbers to understand a statewide or national level. Since we don’t consider ourselves to be part of the government in IMS, this fourth level is not too interesting to us.

There are some great companies doing some great work in analytics. Companies like Oracle, Desire2Learn, LoudCloud, McGraw-Hill and Civitas Learning – all of whom presented at the IMS quarterly.

And, of course one of the things we have learned previously about domain-specific adaptive tutor/homework applications, like Pearson My-Labs, is that they can make use of data collected across many institutions.

The use of analytics to crunch, and potentially correlate, data from what might not appear to be related things, has appeal to many. For instance, one of the claims made by the CEO of Knewton at the U.S. Whitehouse Data Palooza event last year was that the Knewton product would be able to predict how well a student would do based on what they had to eat for breakfast! That sort of data would be very interesting to Frosted Mini-Wheats, as well as some parents.

Crunching large amounts of data from many sources and then figuring out which data is most useful/predictive is often referred to as making use of “Big Data.”

But, there is also “Small Data.” Small data tends to be more localized, and perhaps, immediately actionable (see non-education article on Why Small Data May be Bigger than Big Data). As Mark Milliron said at Learning Impact 2011, “Students are good with collecting data on them if it can actually help them as individuals.”  This makes a lot of sense to us at IMS.

Now, of course, data interoperability can potentially aid analytics because agreed upon data definitions used across many tools/products should be easier to compare. Analytics is a really important focus area for IMS – and will be a key focus at this year’s Learning Impact 2013 conference May 13-16 in San Diego.

The sort of “holy grail” of data interoperability is an agreed upon “learning/progress map” that all tools and assessments could populate. Some are working on that very issue today (see for instance the Dynamic Learning Maps collaborative that is participating in IMS via CETE at University of Kansas). However, while it is relatively straightforward to agree on some types of data – like for instance assessment item results data as in QTI/APIP or usage data on things like e-books – the state of the market is that student learning models and data is in its infancy. Therefore, many tools will be producing analytics information that makes sense within the tool, but not more generally. IMS wants to put in place standards that encourage that type of innovation through variability, as well as the type of standards that capture things everyone can agree on.

To enable more use of small data in education, it occurred to us that it would be very cool if it was easier for students or teachers to simply see all of the progress data in one place – even though the tools are all separate. What a major step forward it would be for a student to work in several tools and be able to see how their results compared. So, we decided to see if LTI could be used to enable a Student Progress Dashboard that is a mash-up of many dashboards from independent tools. We see such a dashboard as displaying the unique analytics capabilities of any tool – whether or not data definitions are agreed to – and, whether or not the tool provider is willing to share such data. We think this very simple idea is empowering and will complement the progress we are making on defining agreed data fields when we can.

And, now we have a very simple prototype to show one version of the concept – using tools that are not especially analytical in nature – but ones we had lying around.  If you go to this screencast by Stephen Vickers you will see the very first IMS-enabled Student Progress Dashboard prototype. We expect this to be a standard feature to be supported in LTI going forward and want to see lots of riffing on this in the LTI community! Let us know what you think! And, tool providers, start your engines!

Note that we may not be able to tell how well a student will perform based on what they had for breakfast, as perhaps Knewton can, but, we can perhaps make a combination of tools – tools available today – more actionable for students or teachers!

Student_Progress_Dashboard_Prototype

IMS LTI-Enabled Student Progress Dashboard Prototype

LMS Smackdown 2012: Analysis

Takeaways from Learning Impact 2012 – Part IV

(Note: You may wish to visit the previous post in this series to get a summary of what was said by the panelists at the 2012 Learning Impact LMS Smackdown – this provides some background upon which the analysis below is based).

A. Would an LMS by any other name still smell as __________ (fill in the blank)?

When I came to IMS (over 6 years ago) I was very perturbed with the frequent use of the term LMS (Learning Management System) to describe products like Blackboard, WebCT or ANGEL in the IMS community. In my experience, these products were all Course Management Systems – they helped faculty manage courses – they did not manage learning in any way. Yet, the prevalent use of the LMS acronym in IMS caused me to eventually give in and use it as well – although I always felt the suppliers were making a mistake to let themselves be in a named category that spoke more to their deficit than their value. Naming of your category according to the value it brings is a really important (if not critical) aspect of product marketing.

Desire2Learn uses the term “Learning Platform” – and Michael Feldstein is also using that “category” name as describing the future of the LMS versus today’s enterprise systems.  Learning Platform is a nice broad term but it has a similar issue to LMS in terms of accuracy. Is what Desire2Learn sells really a learning platform? I would argue that the term “learning platform” has a very student-centric connotation – an LMS where the learner is in control. It connotes something that the learner owns and, therefore, probably pays for. Not today’s model. A very interesting and good model for the future – but not today’s model.

All-in-all I think this year’s IMS LMS smackdown confirmed that the perceived goal of this product category is to improve teaching and learning. This is the product category that has the expectation to do that. The problem is, as Curtiss Barnes from Cengage pointed out, these are big shoes to fill. Our understanding of the science behind how to improve teaching and learning is quite limited. We are just beginning to understand how the brain works. Learning is something we all do, and we all manage, but it certainly appears that no one has cracked the code on how to ensure better learning. Of course, Adrian Sannier’s (Pearson) point is that cracking that code is a very discipline specific endeavor that products like MyMathLab, working across a large number of institutions, have the best chance at solving.

On the other hand, there are strong arguments that at least a portion of being a better teacher has to do with the teacher being better organized and being a better communicator with students. The LMS appears by all accounts to be a product that if used well by the teacher improves the student’s experience via better course organization, ability to time shift, etc. And, the LMS has become the backbone for higher education online learning – which has grown at a 25% annual growth rate, touches about 25% of all students and is continuing to grow. For instant, we have been talking about “flipping the class time” for years – i.e. putting the expository learning materials online, asking the students to spend time on it outside of class, and then using the class time for more discussion, application, etc. This enables greater time on task and greater engagement with the material in a “problem-solving” mode. This is a great example of a delivery model that we know works better and where the LMS can play an important role. If I was an LMS provider I would be laser-focused on how to make “flipping the class” really. Really easy to do and effective in my product.

Every year we ask if the LMS is dead. And, every year Adrian Sannier tells us that it is – his point being that it is becoming commoditized because it is not improbing learning.  From my perspective, the LMS is definitely not a failed product category, dead, or even dying.  We don’t see higher education institutions dropping the LMS altogether. They may be replacing it with a new brand – but they are not saying, “Hey, we don’t need that LMS-thing.” U.S. K-12 is also now beginning to pick-up on LMS-like features, creating some opportunities for the LMS platforms, but also creating additional questions about where does it fit in a K-12 enterprise that has other products with greater market share, such as professional development and instructional management systems (yes, IMS’s – the instructional management system name/category actually did stick in K-12 although it’s not what the higher ed folks in the early IMS envisioned).

On the flip side of this we try to determine if another new product category is showing signs of overtaking the LMS. The answer to that question is clearly ‘no’. As an example, e-portfolios or e-portfolio-like systems remain a niche product. To break through to the mainstream they need better integration – probably with the LMS. Categories that have broken through – such as classroom capture – have made seamless integration with the LMS a key attribute. But, nothing has emerged as the replacement for the LMS.

All this to conclude that the good news for all the providers in this category (and therefore the buyers as well) is that the LMS is still growing in importance in terms of its ability to improve basic organization and communication. The importance of mobile is a great indicator of that. And, probably most important, the LMS has become the main integrating platform for the course-specific tools or content that will have, hopefully, eventually be the key to improving that learning experience. For a long time now I’ve expected to see the student systems or portals start to challenge the LMS as the primary integrating platform, but, so far they have not. This has been a big win for the LMS providers and a key reason why I think the term “enterprise” will remain important in the value proposition for the foreseeable future.

However, I agree with other pundits that the naming of the category will be important going forward. Taking on the mantle of “learning platform” is a good position – it is the high ground.  The “learning platform” would be the campus application that is probably of greatest value in terms of relevancy to the institutional mission and touching more stakeholders more often than any other system. But, being a learning platform is also difficult to deliver on. Suppliers will need to think carefully about how to position their products going forward – and what “learning” capabilities they can actually deliver on. Buyers will have to think carefully about what functionality they want, how they are going to be able to plug it in and how they are ultimately paying for it.

The bottom line is that the LMS, arguably the only billion dollar market cap software industry that has ever arisen in sole service to the needs of teaching and learning, is strong and, quite frankly, the star in terms of enabling institutions to “go digital,” at least for the time being. Most estimates have the LMS market in education growing at 25% per annum – a very healthy rate.

B. To be bloated or not to be bloated? Is that the question?

Do you prefer separate fax, printer, copy machines or a multifunction device? What combinations of products make up an office software suite and which ones fall outside that category? Was it obvious in 1996 – the heyday of Yahoo, AOL, Alta Vista, etc. – that Google would come along with a product focused purely on making search easier and better and dominate the market? Why did LMS become its own category and not just get subsumed into the SIS or campus portal? Some thought it would.

The coupling and uncoupling of products – and the extent to which they make sense and make life better for the users/buyers – are critical to the development of markets. Designs require tradeoffs – there is always some penalty (usability, cost, complexity) for adding additional functionality.  When your product appeals to more kinds of users it has the potential of turning off one category of users to please another. If you turn off a large segment of users – well, you have just put yourself out of business.

The issue of what constitutes the core functionality of the ‘LMS’ category is a key question. Can this core functionality be achieved at lower cost? Is an LMS with additional features of higher value? Is the value in the bundling from one supplier or am I better off getting this functionality separately?

Google disaggregated search from the bloated search portal and changed the world. However, Google also brought an entirely new business model and a patented technology that was difficult to replicate (focused on creating economic opportunities from search).

OpenClass from Pearson definitely seems to be challenging the combo features model by offering a simpler starting point. In some sense, there is nothing new here in that major education publishers have long had simplified, hosted LMS’s for faculty to use for their courses when using digital content from the publisher, albeit not connected to the enterprise in any way (for instance, McGraw-Hill PageOut). The difference with OpenClass is that it is being sold at the institutional level, not as support for individual faculty. OpenClass also strives, I think, to take advantage of other “free” apps like Google. So, the question is can this combination provide higher value than the existing LMS providers?

One can definitely look at various moves by Blackboard including the launch of the free CourseSites and moving into open source services as trying to meet the market with a less premium, more unbundled offering. But can the challengers, namely Instructure Canvas and Pearson OpenClass, win by coming at this issue with a core set of functionality that is hosted in the cloud and easier to use? An important consideration is if the new comers have a business model that works: will providing less for perhaps a lower cost actually be less expensive to provide and therefore allow them to stay in business? Outsourcing of hosted email and app suites to Google or Microsoft is subsidized with deep pockets from other sources of revenue.

Instructure has yet a different strategy which is to say that there is nothing wrong with features per se, but that the usability of the LMS must be better. Instructure has probably benefited the most from the uptake of the IMS standards as this has supported an open standards-based plug & play strategy for tools from the get go – whereas the leading LMS’s have been retrofitting standards like LTI, Common Cartridge and LIS into their stacks. That’s the wonderful thing about open standards from the buyer’s perspective and why institutions should be requiring open standards and supporting organizations like IMS – they do make it possible for new comers more easily enter a market.

The discussion of what are the core features, of course, also relates to pricing. When any product category establishes a common denominator of features that all competitors support then commoditization potentially begins to take hold. Clearly Pearson thinks a free OpenClass alternative is a good strategy for Pearson. However, in the world of marketing, rarely, if ever, does attempting to commoditize your competitor’s product help your product succeed, unless you can bring a radically different business model.  Are publishers ready to aggressively bring or buyers ready to accept a radically different business model in higher education, such as the “pay for performance” at IMS member Western Governor’s University? Maybe – it will be interesting to see – but probably not. More likely publishers will be forced into business models such as this over time (see post on where e-textbooks are going <link>).

Bottomline here is that I think Instructure has a lot of this right.  It’s about making technology easy and productive. I haven’t been following Instructure too closely and I can’t verify their claims, but, I’m impressed so far. What I’m impressed with is that they seem to be breaking through on the LMS cloud model to the enterprise. eCollege (now Pearson Learning Studio), Eduprise and a few others had pioneered the hosted LMS model prior to the turn of the century. However, the focus on that hosted sale was largely the distance learning office. Instructure appears to be truly breaking through in terms of pushing the advantages of this model in a way that the many other “hosters of the LMS” – pretty much every provider does this now – have not. The other thing that Instructure has brought to the fore is an open source model that is more tightly controlled (I guess kind of what MoodleRooms was attempting with Joule, but obviously could not exert control over the Moodle community). There appears to be value in this model as well – especially as it relates to enabling institutions to customize tools, modules, etc – something a lot of universities or even faculty seem to want to do. The question regarding Instructure is whether they have a sustainable competitive advantage? It certainly appears that this strategy can be replicated by either the proprietary systems on one side or the open source platforms (Moodle, Sakai) on the other. And, actually Blackboard can play both sides of that strategy now with their recent moves to support Moodle and Sakai.

So, in conclusion – bloated or not bloated is not the issue – ease of use is. Going digital needs to make life easier for faculty and students – otherwise it won’t happen. If you are a supplier and are not focused on “easy” you need to reconsider.

C. Parts is parts? Revisiting the infamous “immature product in a mature market.”

Hey, if you want to or need to put oil in your car or buy an oil filter you have a lot of choices. Depending on the importance you place on such things you may want to get the premium product or not. If you don’t know much about it you may just take the advice of whomever is there at the time to advise you – the guy in the auto parts store or your mechanic.

Although there are clearly innovations occurring in the “car engine oil” segment, I’d characterize this segment as “mature,” meaning that no one is perceiving an investment in a car engine oil brand as a major growth opportunity – there may be price appreciation over time and nice returns on such an investment, but the market is not going to double in the next 5 years.

At this year’s Learning Impact I was struck by the potentially very high value of the ‘parts’ (tools, content, new features/functions) that the LMS providers are talking about. The items highlighted, such as analytics, mobile, discipline-specific high value content, even improving the user interface – do not strike me as ‘small’ tweaks of low value. They strike me as high value if done in a way that can change behavior to affect retention, graduation rate, etc. There are of course other add-ons/tools that were not discussed but generally perceived as important.  Things like classroom capture, e-portfolio, assessment tools and a wide variety of digital content alternatives (like e-Textbook – see my analysis).

I spend a lot of time in the K-12 segment and I would say similarly that the sort of innovations school districts and states are looking at around the world are not “low value.”

Also, the annual spend on printed educational materials in the U.S. alone is something like $25 billion.  I think it’s pretty clear that over the next 20 years that stuff is all going to convert to digital. Assuming that those dollars are going to be associated with better LMS’s, well, I guess I’m pretty bullish on the growth prospects. The LMS market could easily double in the next 5 years if focused on addressing customer needs as they go digital. Therefore, this is not a “mature market” by any stretch of the imagination (as somewhat famously characterized by our friend Casey Green’s seminal characterization for a few years now, for example see http://www.campuscomputing.net/new.html ).

But, a key strategy question for all the LMS providers, as well as institutions, is whether they are better off getting the “LMS provided parts” or other “3rd party parts.” For instance, attending the LI conference was a representative from an up and coming visualization software company, not primarily focused on the education segment – but they have some pretty impressive products. Is every LMS and content provider in education going to invest in building their own visualization software as the drive to better analytics continues?

Parts are not just any old parts if they bring high perceived value. If you’re a buyer do you want your high value tools, applications, content all from a single supplier or from a variety of suppliers?  If you are a supplier should you be investing in a particular tool or partnering with the market? There are a range of strategies that are possible on both sides of this equation. Certainly Blackboard and Pearson have acquired several parts providers (such as Blackboard acquiring Elluminate & Wimba).  But in doing this they usually want these parts to work with other platforms so they can be sold into institutions running those platforms. Who will emerge as the best providers of these parts?

I think the educational technology market is more like the market for high fidelity audio systems in the 1960s (another analogy I like to use is the market for electrical appliances around 1900). In the 1960’s you could buy the “all-in-one” stereo, radio, TV console system. This was a cool breakthrough at the time because it brought a sophisticated listening and viewing experience into many homes for the first time.  It wasn’t very clear how this scenario would evolve.  What ended up happening was that the various parts turned into their own segments – each becoming more and more innovative – with an evolution from analog to digital. This was made possible by the willingness of the buyers to spend for greater sophistication and the technical interoperability that enabled different types of products to plug together to form an integrated system. This home entertainment scenario is still evolving today with Apple’s now famous achievement of breaking into this market as a computer manufacturer.

So, I would characterize the educational technology market space, including LMS’s, as an immature product in an immature marketplace, just as the console systems in the 1960’s were immature, but so was the marketplace.  The buyers could not see where it was all going in terms of home entertainment. As per the discussion above, the buyers of educational technology are in a similar situation. The LMS as it exists today is just the beginning of where this is going.

One of the things that is very gratifying about the Learning Impact conference is that we had a goal of creating an experience for the attendees that would allow them to see what was happening in the market that were not easy to see elsewhere. In that spirit, I’ll summarize the bottom line here with two quotes from others attending the conference that were made privately to me:

“It’s obvious that all the LMS providers are primarily becoming integration platforms.”

“It’s obvious that the world’s of learning platforms, content, assessment and analytics are converging.”

We are at the very early stages of institutions understanding all the components (parts) they need, much less in the conversion from print to digital. There are not only opportunities for parts suppliers but also for providers with vision to change the game, much as Apple did.

Should be even better next year! See you there if not before.

 

 

Rumbling Right Along – LMS Smackdown 2012: Summation

Takeaways from Learning Impact 2012 – Part III

This post focuses on summarizing the positions of the participants in the IMS Learning Impact Smackdown panel 2012 – in a subsequent post I will provide some additional analysis.  Feel free to jump in with your opinions and comments you wish to share.

“It’s like the highlight of my year to come to this session because it gives us the opportunity to tell the truth.” – Adrian Sannier, Pearson

The annual LMS futures panel at Learning Impact 2012 (held in Toronto, May 14-17) was a doozy this year. Part of the Learning Impact conference that features an “inside look” at the role of technology in changing education across K-20, this panel has always been an attendee favorite since we starting having it several years ago. This year I told the panelists that I wanted to present the questions from the perspective of a potential buyer and wanted to understand clearly how they were different or the same. In other words I wanted to drive to some clarity, especially on basic “positioning” for perspective buyers – both in terms of current capabilities and future. We’ve had some really awesome panels at LI over the years, but several commented that this particular panel was the best ever.

I’m certain that the quality had much to do with the panelists – who were forthright, feisty at times, and clearly all show the marketing skill that has gotten them far in the educational LMS race: (1) Ray Henderson, Blackboard; (2) John Baker, Desire2Learn; (3) Adrian Sannier, Pearson (4) Josh Coates, Instructure; (5) Curtiss Barnes, Cengage Learning. In my opinion, this group of individuals and their organizations are truly devoted to creating great products and learning experiences for their customers.  It should be noted that MoodleRooms was going to participate to represent the Moodle perspective but pulled out after the acquisition by Blackboard. Also, Cengage Learning does not have a platform in competition with the others but provides an additional ‘publisher/content provider’ perspective in addition to Pearson (which does have learning platform products).

(1) Is the LMS becoming a commodity item? Is it dead? If not, why not?

All panelists appeared to agree that the purpose of the LMS should be to improve teaching and learning.

Blackboard and Desire2Learn appeared to agree that the evidence from customers is that the LMS is in fact making good headway in improving teaching and learning and that the best days of the LMS category are ahead, not behind it. Blackboard conducts ongoing customer satisfaction research and claims that this is trending upward. Desire2Learn has conducted research with specific clients that they claim proves their learning platform (a term they prefer to LMS) has helped improve completion and graduation rates.  Blackboard and D2L cite key areas of innovation, such as analytics, mobile, etc that are driving additional adoption (discussed in more detail in #2 below).

However, Pearson and Instructure believe that the legacy LMS’s are not providing what is needed to improve the customer experience from where it is today.

Pearson’s perspective is that current LMS’s have helped with basic posting of materials and the like, but that most instructors are frustrated by their LMS because it really doesn’t help them substantially improve their teaching. From Pearson’s perspective, the LMS’s have become bloated with additional features that most faculty don’t use and find frustrating. Therefore, Pearson claims that from the instructor perspective the choice of LMS’s is not particularly exciting or important. “The only thing they hate more than using their current LMS is moving to a new one.”

Instructure believes that most current LMS’s fall down on usability. If the LMS can “get out of the way” and really make the teacher’s job more efficient, then they can spend more time on helping students. But the legacy LMS’s are too difficult to use.  Instructure cited poor user satisfaction for competitors products on Amplicate.com (note: others on the panel argued that this is not a reliable source). For Instructure the bottom line is that the market is saying, “We want a better product.”

(2) Where is the LMS headed?

It appeared that all panelists agreed that the interplay between digital content and learning tools with the LMS is key going forward. It does not appear that any of the suppliers believe that their LMS can do it alone.  Thus, the LMS of the future is less about inherent ‘features’ and more about ability to provide a rich content and learning toolkit that is easy to use. (Note: This overarching message was very consistent with my takeaways from the e-Textbook panel at Learning Impact covered here).

Cengage argued that the “killer app” going forward is instructional design – meaning the ability to get the right learning experience to each student – a student-centered approach. Cengage pointed out that the biggest problem of the LMS is perhaps that there was an expectation that the LMS, a delivery system, could make large improvements in the education experience. From Cengage’s perspective, the LMS plays an important role but does not provide all the required content and tools for learning.

Blackboard agrees on the need to support diverse sources and types of content and tools. Blackboard points out that because digital content and tools are relatively new that the role of the LMS in making the usage and combination of diverse sources is a key capability for the future LMS. In addition, Blackboard sees analytics, mobile and the user interface as three other key areas going forward. Blackboard believes that analytics from the LMS need to enable faculty and students to be able to compare their performance with peers. Blackboard is focused on both positional awareness and assessment in the mobile realm and says that its experience is that a good mobile environment can greatly increase student use of the LMS. From a user interface perspective, Blackboard believes that students want a user experience that is better integrated with external social media and commercial sites.

Desire2Learn sees growing importance of being able to leverage the learning platform inside the classroom, as well as at home. D2L is moving into the K-12 market space and noted that students are now entering college that have already been using learning platforms at school, via virtual schools or via dual enrollment. These students have a high expectation for what technology can bring to the educational experience. This scenario also increases the potential role of the LMS in serving the lifelong learner, beyond its current institutional role. D2L also believes that there will be greater use of tools that are available in the Learning Platform going forward to enable new types of learning experiences.

Instructure believes that their product is better designed in terms of usability and that this makes a big difference, claiming a rise from very few institutions served to 170 in about a year, with substantially greater usage (about 2x) than the predecessor LMS. Instructure concurs that having a platform that is well-suited for integration of a wide variety of content and tools is key. Instructure is leveraging the IMS LTI (Learning Tools Interoperability) and Common Cartridge standards for this. Instructure cited 40 LTI product integrations that they support, but also noted that as an open source platform that the institutions are free to create their own – so they believe there are many more LTI integrations out there. Most of all, Instructure reiterates that the key to the future LMS is usability. They cite that there are many operating systems, but some are much more usable than others – and this makes all the difference. Instructure provides a cloud-hosted solution that is easy to set-up, is never down, never goes through upgrade cycles, always uses the latest technology and continues to add improvements and features, just like other major cloud platforms (e.g. Gmail, Skype, Twitter).

Pearson provides OpenClass as a basic, easy to set up and easy to use cloud-hosted free platform. Pearson believes that OpenClass sets the bar for a low cost alternative to bloated LMS’s. As a provider of leading discipline-specific learning applications, such as MyMathLab (often referred to as homework applications or adaptive tutors  – more on homework applications as a key digital content driver here), Pearson sees possibilities with this category of product that put the focus on learning that an LMS cannot. For instance, with a discipline-specific content/assessment product students and institutions can leverage analytics to compare to a much broader base outside the institution and such data can be used to improve the quality of the said products. A discipline can form the basis for a larger and more learning-focused community across many colleges and universities than can be achieved with an LMS. Note that other educational publishers have similar products. Pearson also believes that such products enable change from the current mode of every faculty having to put their own course online to being able to leverage state-of-the-art content freeing them up for what most faculty want to do – teach. Pearson agrees with Instructure that cloud-hosted solutions have many benefits and are the future.

(3) What factors should an institution consider in choosing an LMS partner?

Blackboard has staked out a position as a “solution provider” with a diversified set of offerings. Blackboard has been continuously broadening its offerings via acquisitions over the years including the most recent acquisition of two Moodle service providers. Blackboard believes that “one size does not fit all” with respect to the LMS and believes that open source has a key role in its solution portfolio – choosing to work with existing platforms (specifically Moodle and Sakai at this point). Blackboard has a strong commitment to and leadership of open interoperability standards that serve to help customers keep their platform, content, and tool choices open in a rapidly evolving marketplace.  Blackboard believes that potential buyers should consider the track record of a supplier, its vision and its ability to deliver on that vision operationally.

Desire2Learn feels strongly that the relationship between the learning platform supplier and the institution is a true partnership in which they work together over time to address the evolving challenges of education. D2L believes that this is a transformational era in terms of technology helping institutions address issues of access, scale and quality and that the learning platform supplier should be viewed as a key partner in helping institutions realize their unique path forward in better serving faculty and students. D2L believes institutions need to think of the learning platform as their vehicle for enabling new types of learning experiences and be looking for a learning platform partner that can best help achieve that and is strongly committed to that long term vision. D2L also believes that the partner network of the provider is critically important, as are use of open interoperability standards.

Pearson believes the institutional conversation should and is changing to be about how teaching and learning can be improved – and that this requires a focus on discipline-specific content and applications. The LMS as it has existed for the last 10 years “is not the bus that will take institutions to the Promised Land” of significantly improved teaching and learning results. As such, Pearson believes that the cost of the basic LMS should come down to reflect these limitations. OpenClass has achieved 3500 activations in 6 months, showing that there appears to be momentum building in their approach. The partnerships needed to move the industry ahead are therefore focused on improving teaching and learning through discipline-specific content and communities that cut across universities.

Instructure believes that an institution should look for a partner that is focused on providing a truly great next generation LMS product that is easier to setup and use that provides an open and modern technical infrastructure for incorporating new and advanced capabilities on an ongoing basis.  Institutions should measure their product choice by how much it is used and how much is makes the lives of teachers and students easier. As perhaps the newest entrant in the field, Instructure has grown rapidly in the last 12 months and looks forward to seeing where things are in another year.

Cengage Learning does not have an LMS product, but as a leading publisher sees the importance of content, tools, and LMS’s being able to work together in a student-centric fashion. The LMS has an important role to play but cannot do it all on its own. Institutions need to understand there will continue to be an evolution in the LMS landscape for the foreseeable future, including the interplay between publisher products and LMS’s. Therefore, commitment to open interoperability among suppliers is key.

(4) Analysis – How is the Education Learning Platform/LMS Segment Changing?

It’s been an eventful 12 months from May 2011 to this year’s Learning Impact. Last year every one was wondering what would happen with Instructure – and it certainly appears they are making good if not outstanding inroads into the market. Pearson announced OpenClass in October and now that appears to be getting some traction. Blackboard announced key acquisitions that have put it in the business of open source services, including the leading Moodle services and platform supplier: MoodleRooms.

What do you think? I’ll be publishing my analysis of what we have learned and where things are likely to be headed in the coming days.  Would love to hear your thoughts as well.