The Battle For Openness In The LMS Market

Last year it seemed like every new LMS company was trying to position itself as the “Facebook” of online learning. Then Facebook started to make everyone angry (or bored, or both), and we saw that idea dry up pretty quick (well, for the most part). The new catch phrase battle seems to be heating up over the words “open” and “free.” Both Pearson and Blackboard are racing to establish either part or all of their services as open and/or free.

Many people have examined the concepts of open and free to see where various companies stack up. But of course, a lot of this is hard since few people have been inside of Pearson’s OpenClass.

Pearson is lifting the veil a bit more by releasing some screen shots of their OpenClass platform (although, anyone that has been reading this site for a while or attended one of my presentations with Harriet knows that mock-ups and screen shots of ideas are pretty easy to come by). The OpenClass screen shots look nice and they look like they integrate with Google well. But to be honest, anyone that wants notifications of new Gmail messages or Google docs can just as easily install any one of a large number of extensions for Chrome or Firefox or any number of browsers. Google docs are pretty easy to embed or add users to, so I know there will be a long line of people pointing out that you can already do what these screen shots show with just a few extra steps. Busy instructors will love this, of course, because saving steps and integrating products easily is always a welcome move in their world.

What we have shaping up here is basically a “Googlized” Blackboard with probably a healthy portion of Apple-esque eas-ability of use thrown in. That is not necessarily bad – these are all welcome steps forward for the LMS.

But it still only really brings us into the 1990s. What about those instructors that don’t want to use Google services? What about those courses that use specific web tools for specific reasons based on the specifics of the field they are in?  How hard will it be to plug in embed codes or APIs from non-Google services?

It might end up being very easy. But this is still not the open I am looking for. This is also not what I would consider the iPhone moment that the LMS market needs. Whether you build a system around Blackboard’s core code or around Google, you are still building it around a specific system and you will only be able to let in what that system lets in.

The whole point behind the “New Vision LMS” was that it needs to be built from the ground up to be open to any system that you could want to plug into it. The subway terminal concept could basically be that iPhone moment, if it is designed well. It would also be the true “openness” that I am looking for.

For different reasons, many of the usual uses for the term “open” are not exactly what I am looking for when I want open. They are all great, but I still think there is more. These uses include:

  • Open as in open source code. I’m a big supporter of open-source software. But you can still install open-source programs like Moodle and then clamp them down so tight that they don’t feel open to the users.
  • Exportable content. You can make your LMS software open by making it easy to export classes to course cartridges and other common formats. If you design your course well from the beginning it wouldn’t be that hard to re-design it in another LMS. So easy export is nice, but not that big of deal in my experience (and this is coming from some one who has had to migrate hundreds of courses from at least four different LMS systems through the years – open export formats are nice, but not  a necessity). If you place all of your content on sites like WordPress and then link to them, exporting isn’t that hard.
  • Free to Access Outside the LMS. Blackboard’s recent announcement that you will be able to make courses “open” is nice, but you still have to use the Blackboard system to design those courses. Some instructors want their content out there and free for anyone to be able to see. And there are still ways to do that inside of Blackboard and other LMS systems. In fact, I teach a course that technically works like that.

All of these are great, but to some degree we already have all of these somewhere. To me, a truly open system is one that lets you use any tool you want, and then that will be imported into the system and organized so that learners can follow each other easily. Which also means that this organized activity will be exported out in any way that students want so they can follow course activity using any tool they wish.

And of course, this system would need to scale easily from small courses of specialized learners to massive open courses.

In other words, we still need that tool that can organize Personal Learning Networks to allow learners to focus in on specific classes or assignments when they need to. But also a tool that easily integrates with other school systems (like enrollment, emergency notifications, grade tracking, etc).

That is the kind of iPhone moment I am looking for. Of course, the iPhone isn’t really what anyone would call open… so the metaphor breaks down if you look at it too closely. But I think you know what I am getting at.

Matt Crosslin
Matt is currently the Learning Innovation Coordinator with the UT Arlington LINK Research Lab. His research focuses on Learning Theory, Innovation, and learner empowerment. Matt holds a Ph.D. in Learning Technologies from the University of North Texas, a Master of Education in Educational Technology from UT Brownsville, and a Bachelors of Science in Education from Baylor University. His research interests include instructional design, learning pathways, sociocultural theory, heutagogy, virtual reality, and open networked learning. He has a background in instructional design and teaching at both the secondary and university levels and has been an active blogger and conference presenter. He also enjoys networking and collaborative efforts involving faculty, students, administration, and anyone involved in the education process.

Google, Pearson, and Misunderstandings of Moodle

The recent announcement of the partnership between Pearson and Google is certainly an interesting one. Many people have been calling for Google to get into the LMS business for years and years (although, I believe most were hoping that Google would actually design one and not just add someone else’s ideas to their Apps for Education). New ideas are always good, but we’ll have to wait to see if this new partnership actually goes anywhere.  Google, unfortunately, has a track record of being involved in great projects that go nowhere.

I still haven’t gotten to look inside of OpenClass, but I hope it is cool as the slick video they made to promote it (even though the video really shows nothing more than a bunch of buzzwords). Funny that they think the LMS is dead… even though the numbers are showing that more and more courses are going into walled gardens every year. Love ’em or hate ’em, LMS’s aren’t going any where for a long time. They haven’t even started declining yet.

I don’t like it either, but I can’t deny reality. Not all the time, at least.

The interesting thing I keep seeing posted over and over again is how Moodle ends up being a drain on resources – you need more people to keep it running and upgraded and all that. To me, it is weird to claim this because all the IT people I have ever talked to about Moodle rave about how easy it is to keep going. At least when compared to other systems that track things like enrollment or issues like that. What I hear most often is that if you have a modern enough IT department, the people you already have in place will be able to easily keep Moodle running.

The problems tend to come when you have to modernize your systems. In other words, that 10 year old student enrollment system is not going to work with a modern LMS. So don’t try to pin the costs of modernizing your systems on Moodle.

I also find it interesting when people talk about having to fix your own bugs in Moodle. Unlike… what competing system? In Blackboard, we discover bugs every month, and then we can’t even fix them. At least in Moodle, you have the option of fixing them. In Blackboard, you send a ticket off into Bb Tech World and hope the fix shows up in the next release. Which is usually doesn’t. So how is the ability to fix your own bugs bad when compared to this?

No program of any kind is going to be perfect, but at least try to get those downsides right :)

So, the question is: will OpenClass be the iPhone moment for the PLN? Even if I end up hating it, I still hope it is. We need something big that takes us in another direction.

I actually have three sister-in-laws that work for Pearson, so I should see if they can get me an inside scoop. I doubt it – so much of this seems to be kept under wraps and I bet most employees were kept in the dark until right before the announcement. But I did sign up to be in the know when they open it up to the public – so hopefully that will happen soon.

Matt Crosslin
Matt is currently the Learning Innovation Coordinator with the UT Arlington LINK Research Lab. His research focuses on Learning Theory, Innovation, and learner empowerment. Matt holds a Ph.D. in Learning Technologies from the University of North Texas, a Master of Education in Educational Technology from UT Brownsville, and a Bachelors of Science in Education from Baylor University. His research interests include instructional design, learning pathways, sociocultural theory, heutagogy, virtual reality, and open networked learning. He has a background in instructional design and teaching at both the secondary and university levels and has been an active blogger and conference presenter. He also enjoys networking and collaborative efforts involving faculty, students, administration, and anyone involved in the education process.