Cross-posted at Inside Higher Ed

The Evolution of the LMS

BusIt seems as though the education world is still reeling from Monday's surprising news that Blackboard is acquiring Moodle support services Moodlerooms and Netstop, launching an open source initiative, and purportedly shifting its focus away from just its own LMS to support services for the entire ecosystem. (See Inside Higher Ed's Steve Kolowich's story for details.)

In his blog post describing the company's rationale behind the move, Blackboard Learn president Ray Henderson describes what appears to be a sudden change in the LMS giant's trajectory as "punctuated evolution." Indeed, as Kate Bowles observes in her Music for Deckchairs blog, this evolutionary biology metaphor is noteworthy -- it's meant to highlight the jump from stasis to sudden change, most assuredly, but she argues that "the issue that Henderson is tackling head on here is the important one of perception. The thing about punctuated evolution is that it creates the impression of a decisive response to the situation that you’re in."

Henderson claims that "I believe we’re now in our best position ever in fulfilling a vision of ourselves as an education solutions provider. We now possess a uniquely valuable collection of assets, skills, and an enviable record of success in delivering mission-critical education services."

Adapt or Die

There are plenty of folks, of course, who view Blackboard's position now as something else entirely. As Kolowich notes in his story, Blackboard's market share has fallen substantially in recent years: "71 percent to 50.6 percent in the last five years." And sensing blood in the water perhaps (yes, another biology metaphor), a whole new pack of LMS startups -- many of which claim to be non-LMS LMSes -- have jumped into the game, building new software solutions that look and function more or less like Blackboard (well, mostly less… a lot less).

Blackboard's decision to change its focus away from its own product to support everyone's prompted George Siemens to wonder if this doesn't represent a failure in confidence -- and marketing messaging -- on the company's part: "Why, if you’ve spent years promoting your platform as the best one for complex implementations, do you suddenly start hosting an open source alternative? It seems that they’ve acquiesced significant ground to Desire2Learn with this move. Bb looks scattered and unfocused by moving outside of their core (or even integrated) revenue model. Are they losing that many clients in their main LMS?" Commenters on his blog responded that the move was probably about customers -- gaining a toe-hold on the millions of Moodle users, at the very least.

The Data (R)evolution

But I think the value's elsewhere. Or rather the value is in the customer, but not in terms of licenses or sign-ups or enrollment numbers per se. I think the value's in the data:

What are students reading? What are they buying at the bookstore? What are they checking out of the library? How much time are they spending on course materials? How often do they interact with other students? What does that interaction entail? How often do they interact with faculty? What does that interaction entail? How do students respond to feedback? How's attendance? How are grades -- not just at the end of the term, but in an ongoing and real-time basis? What classes do students want to take? What classes should they take? What classes should the university offer? Can it build a recommendation engine to help make suggestions to students? What faculty should it hire? And what are those faculty doing?

These are the sorts of questions that big data promises to answer for universities, as well as (I'd hope) for leaners. That's both a frightening and a thrilling prospect, I think, when we consider its implications. But learning analytics is still a largely open field right now, I'd say, even though there are pockets of early incumbants: companies who've built adaptive engines, companies who hold massive amounts of user data, companies who sell products and services to universities/professors/students.

Who Holds Education's Data (Hint: Not Learners)

It's clear when described that that the LMS -- Blackboard or otherwise -- doesn't hold a monopoly on this data, despite its strong presence on campuses all over the world. Other contenders: Chegg, Google, Facebook, Amazon, Pearson for starters.

So how can the once-and-future LMS play a part in this big data push? A recent story in Inside Higher Ed about Lasell College's mandate for 100% LMS usage might be an interesting case study here. (And noteworthy: this is a college that's using the open-source Moodle, not a proprietary software.) What will Lasell College be able to glean from demanding everyone use the LMS? A lot, it hopes.

The New Product (Same as the Old Product)

But more to the question of the Blackboard "pivot": what will the LMS giant (as a software provider and service providers alike) offer universities? Insights into all of this data, clearly. Blackboard already has an Analytics platform which it launched last year. Its focus isn't on just "learning management" as the LMS has narrowly defined it in the past. Rather, it offers other modules to help universities assess institutional performance: enrollment management, learning analytics, donations, human resources, and finance.

This service was already a bright spot in Blackboard's suite of tools, according to recent quarterly reports, and with the ever-increasing buzz about data and learning analytics, it seems a fairly sure bet that it will continue to be. Even if Blackboard's LMS isn't such a popular piece of software, Blackboard could have a big head-start on a lot of other newcomers to the learning analytics market. This head-start comes, in no small part, from the data the company already has/has access too, something that always poses the "chicken and egg" problem (my final evolutionary biology metaphor) for new startups. In other words, it's hard to hone your algorithms if you don't have a substantive dataset to work with.

Blackboard does, and I think it's ready to double down on the services around it. Of course, it's not the only company that's making this move. See: Chegg, Google, Amazon, Pearson. Again.  Universities, ready to flee the Blackboard contract for the LMS, might opt to stick around if the promise is better analytics.  The response of professors and students -- arguably no fans of Blackboard -- will surely be interesting to watch if they start to feel as though they're not just the LMS users but they're the LMS product. 

Photo credits: Christine H

Audrey Watters


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