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Learning Impact Blog


Community leadership for more effective use of technology in service to education

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.    

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OK - so I'm a bit slow in responding to Michael Feldstein's blog post from February 4: When It Comes to Content, Say “Yes” to Wrappers But “No” to Containers. OK - so at least it's still the same century!  In my defense, I just saw it today for the 1st time when Michael tweeted it as a classic post. The post over on Michael's blog is closed to responses now - so, I'm posting my response over here:

Michael Feldstein posted about six months back some of the issues with using standards like Common Cartridge to package up content and move it around, namely that this wreaks all kinds of havoc with version control, updating of content and digital rights.   Scott Leslie had some issues importing some Common Cartridges created on the OER project related in Michael's post conducted by the Washington State Board of Community and Technical Colleges into Moodle at the time - which caused me reason to post a response to explain. Michael and I got into a bit of a back and forth on the topic of how content should best interoperate. In February Michael posted his view on "wrappers" being better than "containers."

The issue of digital content interoperability in education is a deep and evolving topic that we all need to work on together – institutions, publishers, platform providers, OER advocates.

Basically I'm good with what Michael is proposing with respect to hosted content.  He is right, I think, that the most common case in today’s web based world is that the original asset stays in one place and only changes in that one place.  I’d like to get Michael's specific ideas on the extensions to the IMS e-textbook task force – so, Michael, please pass along to Claude or otherwise get over to us.

The IMS community is definitely evolving Common Cartridges so that they are more containers of links (LTI or otherwise) to hosted material and applications. If people want to call that a “wrapper” than so be it – no difference to us.  So, for instance, an alternative way to do the Washington SBCTC content would have been to host, and simply pass a Common Cartridge with a set of links back to the “learning objects” and applications (I don’t know that there are any applications in this particular case - I think not) that might be accessed individually or reordered. The advantage of doing this is that now a "user" can reorganize the links in the LMS. With Michael's extension idea some of the objects could be passed with licensing rights and therefore edited locally (by the way, Common Cartridge authorization can handle a limited set of licensing scenarios today – I think what Michael is proposing is probably a relook at that – love it!).

There are a couple really nice features that come with thinking about it in this manner, i.e. the skinny cartridge (or wrapper :-) ) of links:

(1) The links can be to any type of application – so rather than having to support exchange of data for all application types across all LMS’s, it can support any type of application  - so we don’t have to have that functionality natively inside the LMS – but it could be any LTI-enabled app

(2) These links can come with metadata that enables some nice searching across hosted content sources from within the LMS

Why use Common Cartridge to pass this stuff around?  No special reason other than it is a format that exists and is now supported in all the LMS’s – and used as an export feature in about 50% now (Instructure has export now – see http://www.imscert.org/ ).  So, a teacher can do some rearranging and save and import to another system if needed.  Common Cartridge does really work well – there were specific issues with the Washington SBCTC that were problematic: (1) they were using Angel to create the content and export it – for which Blackboard dropped support at the time and was therefore not up to date on Common Cartridge, (2) the Washington SBCTC guys never tested their cartridge with our free validator – we ended up doing that and manually fixing the broken ones a few weeks later, and (3) Scott was testing with Moodle – which was not certified at the time. It is now.

So, call it a wrapper or container – we don’t care – but there does need to be a way to pass around manifests of combined hosted and downloaded content and Common Cartridge does the best job at that in our world – and we are evolving it to make sure it meets the broad needs of the e-textbook world – I recently posted a view of what that world looks like: E-Textbook: What has really happened so far and what will happen going forward.  But, Michael's thoughts posted are quite consistent I think regardless of whether it's called a wrapper or container or whatever.

Important notes: LTI links to multi-tenant hosted content and apps are great for publishers or other providers with the resources to stand up such applications. But, this is not easy to do. Also, some OER providers may desire to have something that is completely malleable. These are two important reasons to have packaging formats for passing content around and not force a hosted model on every provider.  

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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.

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Some great comments on the Learning Impact 2012 conference by Jeffrey Katzman, Founder and CLO at Xyleme, Inc. on the Dawn of Learning Blog.

Reaction to IMS Learning Impact 2012 Conference

"The IMS is at the cutting edge of web 2.0 open and flexible architectures. LTI (Learning Tool Interoperability) in particular has cracked the LMS open."

"LTI is a disruptor."

"This is an exciting development and one that can truly make an impact on the quality and flexibility to create individualized learning experiences."

"I would have never expected innovation to be led by our public K12 system. They say necessity is the mother of all invention and in this case, I believe its true."

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Takeaways from Learning Impact 2012 - Part II

Digital educational content of all sorts is always a major topic at the Learning Impact conference – and it was again in 2012.

In 2012 we had a great panel moderated by Jeff Young (of the Chronicle of Higher Education and the Wired Campus blog). It featured executives from VitalSource, CourseSmart, Cengage Learning, Follett / CafeScribe, and University of Maryland University College. The panel had a provocative title: Will Apple or Anyone Reinvent the Textbook? This title was chosen to highlight that this last year saw yet another supposedly "disruptive" entry to digital content to education from Apple – the iBook – but that this is just one in a series of such products – the issue being that the adoption of digital books in education is still very low, perhaps 2-3% of the market.

Why do we focus on e-textbook at Learning Impact?

  1. Education will eventually move from paper to digital.
  2. The textbook and supplementary materials market across K-20 is large – roughly $20-25 billion U.S. annually – thus a disruptive solution here has significant market for a digital (technology) solution.
  3. Textbook costs are considered a hot button issue – with some very loud voices calling for change in terms of cost reduction.
  4. The textbook as an “organizing format” remains by far the most proven educational format preferred by faculty (despite years of advocates, including yours truly, for granular learning objects).

The number one thing that the Jeff Young panel clearly concluded in my mind is that none of the major providers see the e-textbook of even the near term future as a digitized book. They ALL believe that the market in education is for something else – something of greater value. The best example is the rise of “homework applications” (e.g. Pearson MyLabs, Cengage Brain, McGraw-Hill Homework Manager, ALEKS).  These are discipline specific online homework applications that typically bundle digital content, digital assessment & adaptive release of content based on skill level obtained.  These products have become popular with faculty as they automatically grade the online assigned homework and thus allow monitoring of student progress. They are popular with students because they provide formative feedback and ability to work at varying paces.  The IMS Learning Impact Report from early 2010 pointed to this as the highest Learning Impact product/project category.  Even the leading providers of the digital alternatives that are closest to “a digital book” all agreed that the future is coming fast in terms of features in the digital books – such as collaboration, assessment and usage tracking – that clearly go beyond a digitized book.

My understanding is that the homework applications market is growing rapidly in terms of dollar size, notwithstanding a recent report from Ithaka (see Barriers to Adoption of Online Learning Systems in U.S. Higher Education) that points out some potential barriers to larger scale adoption. A related note is that University of Phoenix recently acquired a provider of adaptive math tutoring products in this same category: Carnegie Learning. I think that acquisition speaks volumes to the perceived future value of educational technology in this category.

The number two thing that is happening in e-textbooks is that there is a continued move a-foot for leading universities and colleges to foster centralized adoption of e-book alternatives, in many cases entailing price negotiations with publishers that are willing to play (for instance see Internet2, McGraw-Hill, Courseload, and Five Universities Implement eText Pilot in Spring 2012). There is essentially a new category of intermediary suppliers rising rapidly here - with IMS member VitalSource emerging as a leader, along with IMS members CourseSmart, CafeScribe/Follett and CourseLoad. Note that the business models of these organizations vary pretty substantially – but what is the same is that on the “buyer” side you have a university or college that wants to encourage digital version availability (either because digital is the chosen university format or as an option) and on the other side there are the mainstream publishers who have agreed to work with these intermediaries (for a variety of reasons – ranging from providing a full customized service to being simply the distribution platform of choice by the institution). The question that needs to be answered is how robust will the development of these centralized agreements become in a higher education world that is notoriously decentralized?

There are also niche suppliers such as Kno and Inkling which by all appearances are challenged by a lack of breadth for an institutional sale and/or a lack of deep/better content. While there should definitely be a long tail in education the reality is that selling to faculty/teachers requires substantial reach.

So, the good news is that there is no lack of competition or innovation as we move from print to digital in education. The attributes of digital products that are worthy of a price are becoming known and accepted. And, basic digital alternatives are widely available (and easy to integrate into the institutional enterprise thanks to IMS standards :-) ).

The bad news is that the thing that will really drive a tipping point in terms of conversion from print to digital - the “better digital alternative” to the printed book – does not appear to be in hand. And, it’s not clear where the motivation to make that happen will come from. Let me explain.

Teachers need a digital toolkit that is easy to use and most of all makes their job easier. When I say “their job” I mean the job of being the leader of guided discovery. Example: Everyone is talking about “flipping the classroom” for its potential to focus class time on more engaging content (than lectures). This means that the replacement textbook product is a toolkit to make flipping the classroom easy. Whether teachers are flipping the classroom or not they like to customize the materials. They like to pick a chapter here, a section there, an article there etc. In the digital world is it really easy for a teacher to do this? Teachers don’t have time to search the cloud for learning objects and put together original curriculum. They like the textbook plus supplemental material model.  Is it easy to do this digitally? No. Here’s a great blog post about application of Universal Design for Learning to Flipping the Classroom: UDL and The Flipped Classroom: The Full Picture.  Are publishers or anyone else providing teachers with a digital tool kit to make this type of teaching easy?  No.

How about students? Let’s take something as simple as reading text on computer. Is this easier than reading text in a book? No, it is not. Nick Allen of UMUC pointed out that students need the digital textbook materials on an e-reader if we really want them to read it. I have a Barnes & Noble Nook Color – and I completely love it – I would rather read a book on my Nook than any other way. However, is there a publisher out there that sells a complete course toolkit that works for teachers (lets them customize, integrate with the LMS, easily incorporate formative assignments, makes it easy to create summative assessments) and works for students in that it provides the right mixture of e-reader and computer content across a variety of platforms? No, there is not. Not even close from what I can tell. Readers please correct me if you have better information.

Another rumor at the conference was that sales of Kindle versions of textbooks is picking up substantially, despite the "low grade" content. Amazon is a major and growing threat to college bookstores.

So, whereas we see the “homework applications” really making the lives of teachers and students easier – and therefore of high value – these are at best “supplements” and not a complete alternative to paper. The alternatives we have to truly replace the textbook, well, are just not clearly better.

Educational publishers are some of the strongest supporters of IMS. I’m sure they all know much more about their business than I do. And, they are doing a lot of stuff that perhaps some of which I’m not aware of. But, my sense as an entrepreneur says that the textbook replacement opportunity writ large will come from a pretty substantial R&D investment in which publishers work closely with their primary customer (faculty) to figure out what is needed in the textbook replacement toolkit – you know, in depth usability studies, possibly with lots of the digital stuff publishers already have – and how to provide the complete solution. This may even require including the reading device in the bundle the student buys. To get to true digital replacement of textbooks, the “whole product” for "easy and better" is needed.

Sadly, I’m not sensing that any suppler – large/existing or new/entrepreneur is on to this yet. Worse, while the large publishers may have the resources for the R&D to do this, it’s not clear if they have the motivation. After all, the printed textbook is the cash cow. It’s not growing substantially, but the movement to a myriad of digital distribution channels probably provides some growth as people ending up buying the same book in multiple formats (much like we all have bought the same Beatles albums - OK I'm dating myself - many times over in the different formats).

However, for those hoping for the digital education of tomorrow, please don’t be dismayed. Industry forces are at work. I can tell you that I have seen the movement each year at Learning Impact. In some sense, IMS is playing a key role. Our technical interoperability work is all about making life easy for suppliers and users. e-textbook has been the initial killer app for IMS Learning Tools Interoperability (LTI).  In fact, using IMS standards you can begin to pull together the pieces needed for the toolkit – and those disruptive suppliers that wish to encourage this can do so much more easily than they could in the past.  Perhaps more importantly, buyers can demand conformance to standards that keep their options open in terms of how to configure content solutions.

But, perhaps more significantly, I sense a great frustration on the part of the end user institutions: K-20. The frustration on the part of higher ed institutions has been growing steadily each year. This year we pretty much had institutions saying directly to the publishers that “we want to take advantage of better digital solutions for content and apps and either you’re going to make it happen or we’re going to make it happen without you.” Sound far-fetched? My business sense is that it is not. See "what is happening #2" above in which universities are collaborating on centralized e-textbook negotiation and distribution. It is making more and more sense for a well-resourced supplier or group of suppliers or even universities to move aggressively to digital in the future.  And, if this is true in higher education it makes even more sense in K-12 where curriculum and textbook purchases are substantially more centralized and therefore the buyer – who wants to see digital content disaggregated – has even more power. This message came loud and clear from the leading K-12 districts attending Learning Impact this year.

What about open content? This area is still of great interest to institutions although I am sensing they are more interested in self-generated content than open content. Even many school districts are generating quite a lot of digital content. Of course, this is an area when IMS standards potentially shine in that such content developed using tools that can export Common Cartridge, like SoftChalk and Blackboard, can work on other platforms as well. A related development in the marketplace that I find interesting are new programs to provide stipends for faculty developing online courses that are in essence replacements for textbooks (for example see Taking a Bite Out of Textbook Costs and Temple faculty experiment with alt-textbooks). In the early 2000’s we saw similar stipends help institutions rapidly advance online courses. Will the same happen now with respect to online content replacement for textbooks?

So, the future of digital textbooks – really content - is unfolding – a $25 billion opportunity.  It will get even more interesting. IMS will do our best to enable an open and innovative playing field.

What about Apple? Apple has so far turned out to be a non-event. Everything that has been said about education so far has simply been a ploy to sell more iPads. Hey, I have one, don’t you? We love cool gadgets! My iPad has its place next to the sofa so I can search the web when I watch TV. It may have a role to play as one of the e-reader devices mentioned above - too early to tell. Samsung has joined IMS Global and I’m hoping for great things in education from Samsung!

More on mobile in another LI Takeaway future post.

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Every year I like to take some time to reflect on the Learning Impact conference experience, this year held May 14-17 in Toronto. In 2011 I wrote up my summary as a single short paper for the IMS community.  This year, with the introduction of the Learning Impact Blog, I will be posting a series of short summary pieces over the next few weeks.

Our number one goal with the Learning Impact conference when we created it 6 years back was to create a conference on educational technology that leaders would actually want to go to and attend the sessions because they provided real insight into where the educational technology industry was going.  The nice thing about doing this as the IMS Global Learning Consortium is that was are a member consortium that “makes our living” so to speak by actually doing things. Our main priority is not to observe, exchange, write about things. Our main priority is to help the education industry transform by doing collective good work around technical standards, adoption and impact. One of my favorite sayings that I use a lot in presentations to distinguish IMS is, “After all has been said and done, a lot more will have been said than done.” In IMS we are about doing. We will always do a lot more than we will write or talk about it.

In a separate post I have characterized the current state of educational technology adoption and interoperability as being equivalent to the adoption of electricity to homes and use of electrical appliances in 1900 – see It Will Be Us, It Will Be Now. We have a long way to go, but we also are seeing the foundation take shape.

What makes IMS special is that we are a community of organizations and individuals that is working actively to realize the foundation that is needed for educational technology. In this introduction I would like to thank the IMS member organizations and the many leaders who came to Learning Impact 2012.

In the posts that follow I will be giving my impressions of what we learned.  In 2012 we focused on the state of digital learning platforms (learning management systems, apps, tools), the state of digital content (e-textbooks and beyond), the state of mobile technology for learning, the state of e-assessment and the state of technology applied to continuous instructional improvement (closed loop learning, professional development, curriculum improvement, individualized learning), institutional leadership in adopting technology, and, of course, the Learning Impact Awards. We also had the most infamous and controversial LMS smack down panel in the many years of being the only conference that has the top dogs from the market leaders face off.  I will be covering each of these areas in subsequent posts.

The focus will be on movement. If there is a lack of movement where I believe the IMS community would like to see more, I will call that out. This is about working together to create the change we would like to see. If you want to run in place with respect to educational technology adoption – or pretend that the latest fad is an innovation – well, then I suggest you not tune in. If you want to understand how the leaders are laying the foundation for the future today – then this should be interesting to you.

Many thanks to Jeff Swain of Penn State for his blog post with his unsolicited impressions of the Learning Impact conference! I’d have to say that this is a pretty typical reaction from a newcomer.

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A couple weeks back there was a lively discussion on the EDUCAUSE CIO listserv about whether the CIO is or should be the Chief Innovation Officer? This topic came up last week at Learning Impact - and our higher education leadership panel made the point that key to innovation in institutions are two things:

1. It should be perceived as everyone's job, goal, etc.

2. The governance structures about how to lead and foster innovation should be clear

A study was cited by Mark Stiles of JISC that indicated that when executives were not clear about how IT governance occurred in their organizations, it had significant ramifications on the performance of the organization (see What Makes for Good IT Governance).

Today, by pure chance, EDUCAUSE released a podcast interview I did at EDUCAUSE 2011, where I discussed how interoperability standards can play an important role in helping CIO's set up a foundation for Innovation, and thus being an innovation leader, versus what many are really focused on today: integration.

Listen to the EDUCAUSE podcast interview with Rob Abel of IMS here.

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In IMS Global we are coming off the high of our annual Learning Impact conference held this year in Toronto. This was the 6th annual Learning Impact conference and the 10th annual conference held by IMS (we changed the name and the focus to Learning Impact in 2007).

The conference has grown nicely over the years, but it is still an "intimate" group of about 300 or so industry leaders equally split among suppliers and institutions across K-20. A lot of really interesting things happen at the conference as it is as much or more a venue to work on IMS continuing initiatives as it is a "state of" the ed tech industry. This includes the annual Learning Impact global competition that is the only competition of its kind worldwide: an independently judged awards program that recognizes the achievement of technology in helping to improve education, particularly access, affordability and quality.

Most years I do a keynote in which I attempt to provide some details of the "big picture" on all things knowledge economy, education trends, tech trends and the role of interoperability. This year the main message was that the IMS community is clearly creating a major shift in the education landscape.  The change is as simple and yet as profound as the change around 1900 when electrical outlets started appearing in homes for the 1st time.

Most people alive today take the ease with which a wide variety of electrical appliances can be "plugged in" for granted. However, this was not very easy in 1900. The "killer app" for electricity to the home was the lightbulb.  As a result, early wiring of homes terminated in light bulb sockets - of which there were quite a few competing forms.  As a result, the "standard" for getting electricity to new categories of appliances was a light bulb screw that had an electrical wire coming out to the appliance (see collage).

So what?  Well, this is where we are in terms of the ability of educational institutions to adopt educational technology. Every vendor has their own integration APIs that are analogous to the variety of light bulb sockets. The "wiring" of integrations is complex and messy - and just not as easy as it should be (and in the case of electricity, eventually became). It was not such a great time to be selling appliances in 1900 as they were not easy to adopt.

The good news is that every industry eventually overcomes these barriers. The education segment has some unique challenges compared to some other industries which I will be discussing in this blog over time. But, the bottom-line is that the 3% of education expenditures that is spent on technology in education worldwide (see BCG report here) will eventually rise to the more normal 6% - but in order to get there, incorporation of technology will need to get easier and its value will need to be clearer.

Both of these issues - making adoption easier and getting clear on the Learning Impact of technology are key themes of IMS Global.

In this year's keynote I relayed some very good news.  I showed 75 major products or institutions that are actively involved in deploying IMS standards and directly involved in conformance certification. We are very sure that the real "market" is at least double this right now. This means that for the 1st time in its history, the educational community is in fact putting in place the "plug and play" infrastructure needed to take out unnecessary cost (think all that custom lightbulb wiring) and open up the market for greater innovation (think all those appliances available to you today in your home).

At the conference I learned of the progress of Instructure - the new entrant in the LMS segment in the last 1 year or so. Instructure has built an entire partner network around the IMS standards! If I am a venture capital investor in educational technology, I am jumping for joy right now!  Do you realize how much investment was saved by not having to develop and maintain their own proprietary integration scheme? This frees up capital for focus on higher value areas.

I also learned about Harvard Business Publishing using the IMS standards to more easily deploy their high quality simulations in a large variety of institutional integration configurations. This makes the use of technology more seamless for faculty and students and reduces unnecessary cost.

I could go on and on with these examples - which we do write up and capture on the IMS web site. But, to sum up, why are we only in 1900 with respect to the education segment? Well, the interoperability is getting where we need it to go, but not quite there yet. The people that are responsible for building the houses - the institutions - need to embrace interoperability as a key strategy. The suppliers need to adjust the culture of custom integrations further and embrace the strategy from the top to the bottom in their organizations.

I chose 1900 as the date not only because it shows the limitations, but also because it was an approximate turning point beyond which electrical outlets rapidly made their way into homes and appliances began flourishing. It is readily apparent  to me that the IMS and larger educational communities are ready to turn the corner or reach the tipping point on this. I see a tremendous cadre of leadership among our IMS community - who I think have the momentum and will make it happen. We need to understand that this change is inevitable and understand our role in the history of educational technology. So, I ask, why not us and why not now? And I conclude that it will be us and will be now!

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The title of this first post to the new Learning Impact blog is a quote that can be attributed to Bernie Luskin. Most people involved in educational technology don't realize it, but we are at the very beginning infantile stages of what will grow to become one of the most vital growth industries. Yes, education expenditure by most nations is already large - in the range of 5-7% of GDP. However, the percentage of those expenditures on technology is about 50% of other major industries (for instance, see this report from BCG). In this blog I will do my best to try to understand where we are, where we are going and how we can get to a better place faster with respect the use of technology to support education.

As noted in the tag line, a lot of this will be about leadership. Education is a very unique industry and community with special considerations and needs. We need community leadership on quite a few fronts - that means leadership across institutions, suppliers to the segment and government entities. I am privileged to provide this perspective from a nice vantage point as the CEO of what has arguably become the most significant collaboration to accelerate technology innovation in education ever: The IMS Global Learning Consortium. IMS began as a project in EDUCAUSE in the 1995 timeframe. IMS was at the beginning of the start of the course management / learning management products for education. After stagnating through 2005, IMS has had a resurgence (see the 2011 IMS annual report) that now encompasses K-20+ and key technologies such as the future of the LMS, digital content, learning applications, e-assessment, educational positioning, the future of the student system, accessibility for digital learning, and so forth. In fact, the resurgence has kept myself and the IMS staff more than busy - really too busy to blog or otherwise adequately communicate all that is occurring.

Until now! I hope! It will be challenging to find the time to blog.  But I feel that we have learned so much in IMS over the last 6 years that it is time to share what we have learned and what this means for providing a more productive use of technology to serve education.

What needs to change? In a word, leadership. In a sentence, leadership that recognizes that the education community is powerful and can catalyze a more productive use of technology to serve education with some targeted collaboration. We are all learning together how to make this leadership happen - and I will do my best to share here what is happening in IMS as well as insights that the IMS experience may provide in interpreting current events.

See you in future posts!

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