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 1EdTech 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 (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 1EdTech 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.