Category Archives: Learning Management Systems
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
I admit, with the acquisitions that Blackboard has made over the years, I could not resist the Star Trek reference. However, the ramifications for this latest move by the LMS heavyweight are quite far reaching, especially in terms of the impact it could have on the open source marketplace for learning management systems. Realize, that as large as Blackboard’s market share is, even after the acquisitions of WebCT and Angel, their market share as been decreasing–slowly, but decreasing still. This is the type of move that could be considered a game-changer, as long as there is a commitment on the part of Bb leadership to leverage Moodleroom expertise rather than bury it.
(Does anyone remember the story of Quark and mTropolis?)
From our perspective here at Learning Through Play & Technology, there are some definite upsides as well as some potential bad news from this move. We’ll take a few days to survey the education landscape and present our analysis. In the mean time, we encourage you to take a look at what Ray Henderson has to say on the topic.
I can’t believe that it’s been as long as a month since I was invited to join GoodSemester. The email has been sitting in my inbox since February 15th, waiting for me to make the time to attend to it properly. On March 15th, however, the folks at GoodSemester announced that anyone could sign up for an account, for free, no invite required.
So much for exclusivity.
But exclusivity is not really the point of platforms like GoodSemester. The platform is designed to take advantage of connections between people and materials to generate knowledge. For instance, the primary means of sharing content in GoodSemester is through Notes. Although the types of content supported by this feature are fairly standard, the sharing capabilities inherent in the system are not. Authors can keep notes private, restrict them to course participants, or make them globally available. If the later is selected, notes are licensed under Creative Commons, meaning that others can use them with proper attribution. Under ideal conditions, therefore, the note becomes a collaborative item with the initial author able to see changes that others have made and participate in the conversation. In GoodSemester, the function most commonly seen as analogous to the classroom lecture is made collaborative; however, any attempt to compare GoodSemester’s notes and notepad to LMS content functionality soon falls apart. It is like comparing apples and oranges; there just isn’t enough in common to make a worthwhile comparison.
This sparks questions about how we can categorize GoodSemester. Is it an LMS? I don’t think so and the folks who created the platform agree with me. In a recent interview with the company founder Jason Rappaport, Michael Feldstein acknowledges the difficulty of categorizing the product. He also identifies this as an issue typical of today’s marketplace:
And one of the questions platform developers and teachers alike are asking is how much functionality do you really need? Is it just WordPress? Is it WordPress plus Google Docs? Is it WordPress, Google Docs, and grade book? Is it a simple LMS with only a handful of tools and an app store? There are lots of different models.
He’s right, of course. It seems that most of the new technologies that I’ve evaluated for teaching are designed to do a few things in a near revolutionary fashion rather than all things as expected. They pit openness, collaboration, and an individual focus again products that define themselves as system. If there’s one thing that I know about all of the products that I use to facilitate instruction is that they are not systems.
But the question is that whether all of these products that-are-not-systems relate to the systematic mindset that so pervades how institutions of higher education approach technology. This is never more evident than in LMS selection process. Since 2002, I’ve participated in these sometimes very long, very drawn out activity that seems to question everything, other than whether the institution really needs an LMS at all. The fact that an institution needs a system to take on the complex and increasingly vital operations associated with hybrid and online learning almost goes without saying.
I’m not going to quibble with whether the institution needs a system or not, but the burgeoning of tools reinventing how we teach online begs the question of why schools can’t create their own system? Rather than embarking on a process to select an LMS, it would be so much more cost effective and efficient to pour that energy into building an LMS from all of the pieces and parts abounding in the marketplace.
It is becoming increasingly clear that institutions need to step away from the apparent safety of buying an all-in-one solution and start exploring the possibilities of building what they really need.
In today’s issue of The New Yorker online, James Surowiecki has an article titled, “BlackBerry Season,” that is a very interesting take on the decline of the Research In Motion smartphone that dominated the marketplace–before the arrival of the iPhone and then Android phones in the consumer marketplace. Surowiecki writes:
“The easy explanation for what happened to R.I.M. is that, like so many other companies, it got run over by Apple. But the real problem is that the technology world changed, and R.I.M. didn’t. The BlackBerry was designed for businesses. Its true customers weren’t its users but the people who run corporate information-technology departments. The BlackBerry gave them what they wanted most: reliability and security. It was a closed system, running on its own network. The phone’s settings couldn’t easily be tinkered with by ordinary users. So businesses loved it, and R.I.M.’s assumption was that, once companies embraced the technology, consumers would, too.”
I have made similar statements regarding education technology in various entries in this blog (such as Prediction: Commercial Applications Will Drive Education Use… Yet Again), and based on Surowiecki’s article, the sentiment that consumers can drive what was widely considered to be enterprise software systems spans across industry verticals. Let’s parse the above passage from the context of education technology solutions, such as the learning management system, and note the situational similarities:
- The BlackBerry was designed for business.
- The learning management system was designed for education.
- Its true customers weren’t its users but the people who run corporate information-technology departments.
- Its true customers weren’t students but the faculty and administrators who run higher education institutions.
- The BlackBerry gave them what they wanted most: reliability and security.
- The learning management system gave them what they wanted most: control over the institution-student interaction.
- It was a closed system running on its own network.
- It was a closed system running on its own network.
- The phone’s settings couldn’t easily be tinkered with by ordinary users.
- The learning management system’s layout and configuration couldn’t easily be tinkered with by students.
- So businesses loved it, and R.I.M.’s assumption was that, once companies embraced the technology, consumers would, too.
- So education institutions loved it, and the learning management system’s developers assumption was that, once institutions embraced the technology, students would too.
Does anyone else see what I’m seeing? The point I’m making is that so many of the tools that pass for technological innovation within the higher education landscape (and not just learning management systems) are simply solutions developed for the wrong customer. Ultimately, the technology adopted and used effectively in higher education will be the innovations that students bring with them from their own personal lives and empower them to take control of their own education. Clickers, for example, have no place in the classroom when students can easily find clicker apps for their smartphones. Technology only has the power to transform if it is actually embraced–and not forced upon the user for reasons of convenience of management.
Surowiecki concludes his article in this way:
“Companies have quickly come to love consumerization, too: a recent study by the consulting firm Avanade found that executives like the way it keeps workers plugged in all day long. And since workers often end up paying for their own devices, it can also help businesses cut costs. One way or another, consumers are going to have more and more say over what technologies businesses adopt. It’s a brave new world. It’s just not the one that the BlackBerry was built for.”
Breaking this passage down, we understand that higher education institutions should come to love the consumerization of technology in the teaching and learning space, as educators will like the way it keeps students plugged in all day long. And if students end up paying for their own devices, we could see reductions in the cost of resources and materials that institutions need to purchase. It’s clear that students are going to have more say in what technologies higher education institutions adopt. The question is, what companies are built to take advantage of this dynamic?