Selecting Learning Management Systems: Is the RFP Process Appropriate?

By Dr. Suzanne Kissel

A few weeks ago, I received an invitation to attend a WCET webcast entitled “Why the RFP Process Doesn’t Work in Today’s LMS Market.”   Pausing only to register, I forwarded the invitation to my colleagues and blocked out the requisite time on Tuesday, May 22nd.  I think that I’m going to make it back from my client meeting just in time to hear the panelists Phil Hill, Executive Vice President at Delta Initiative, and Patrick Masson, Chief Technology Officer at UMassOnline speak to the matter.  As someone involved in helping to write LMS RFP and evaluating the results, I am eager to hear these experts, but I also have my own thoughts.

While looking for an example to share with a colleague, I ran across my notes for putting together an LMS RFP and selection process.  They highlighted the creation of a selection team, identification of a key decision-maker, system & technical requirements, on-site presentations by selected vendors, surveys, and involvement by faculty and staff.  I shot the notes off to my colleague with the thought that they were probably what she wanted before I looked at the date when I wrote them.  It was 2004.

Although it’s certainly possible to argue that LMS aspects have not changed since 2004, what it means to learn and teach online is undergoing vigorous renegotiation.  The well-documented successes of open courses along with free or low-cost online learning tools are just two of many.   Technology and learning are intertwined with each other.  Change in one leads to re-application or re-definition of the other.  So, if the technology has changed or is in the process of changing, why have LMS selection processes more or less stayed the same?

Part of it is the cost and the commitment involved; selecting an LMS has been likened to a marriage.   It’s expensive to get in, but even more expensive to get out.  The stakes are high.   Instructors and administrators have to interact and depend on the LMS on a daily basis.  Glitches in the LMS have wide-reaching implications and must be resolved in a timely manner.  As a result, the RFP process has become increasingly bloated.  It’s expensive to run and even more expensive to participate in.  Smaller companies, open source alternatives, or even free-ware simply cannot compete with the larger players who can create sandboxes, make multiple site visits, and fill out RFP’s that can sometimes reach into the hundreds of pages (I know, I’ve helped create some of these).   Because of the proactive sales and marketing techniques of the larger LMS companies it is not uncommon for institutional stakeholders to have already pretty much made the decision before the RFP has already been written.   The long process often is conducted anyway.

The alternatives to the traditional LMS are out there; the difficulty is changing the RFP process from what it was back in 2004, when there were no alternatives, to select the best product for the school.

If I had to rewrite that 2004 document, how would I do it?  I’d like to share some preliminary thoughts here and hope that they’ll perhaps inspire some discussion.

  1. Evaluate Institutional Needs – Too often, institutions get hung up on features, but the need should be cast wider.  Of course, there is always cost and support.  However, what are the ultimate goals and objectives – are they to grow a distance-learning program?  Retain students? Offer mainly web-enhanced and hybrid courses?  Participate in a consortium or share courses across institutional boundaries?  Try not only to look at present institutional needs, but those that relate to the future as well.
  2. Consider Online Content – More frequently than not, institutions of higher education anticipate updating, reviewing, and considering standards for their online courses at the same time they move LMS.  With the growing demand for differentiated content and, as Phil Hill identifies, the increasing overlap between the LMS platform market and the content market, it becomes important to consider all possible alternatives to the LMS.
  3. Keep an Open Mind – This is open in all sense of the word – open-to-open source, open or Creative Commons licensed content, and open to LMS alternatives.  Of course, this is not to say that one of these should be selected, but this attribute as well as the willingness to do some research should lead to a much more streamlined RFP.

I wanted to write all of this down before the much-anticipated WCET webinar; I look forward to hearing the opinions of the panels and comparing them to my own.  This is an important conversation and I’m glad to have a part in it.

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Filed under education technology, Learning Management Systems

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