Waiting for disruption

This week’s excitement has been the announcement by Pearson of their shakeup of the LMS experience.  On the OpenClass website, where we’re told in very big letters that this is all Open, Free, Easy and Amazing, the promotional video starts with Adrian Sannier, Senior VP, making the big claim that the LMS “as you know it” is dead. Sannier brings serious university research and administrative experience to Pearson’s push into the edtech market, and I’m confident that he knows what he’s talking about when he says that the standard LMS has “only ever been an ineffective administrative tool … it’s closed, it’s clunky to use, it’s costly.”

But his claim is a bit of a heartstopper for all the institutions who’ve woken up contractually handcuffed to the corpse of one or other dead LMS, for several years to come. It’s such a bold prediction that I’ve been distracted by visions of Sannier delicately blowing the powder residue from the barrel of his Colt 45 as he enters the darkened saloon where the frightened townsfolk have been cowering.  Yup, the LMS as we knew it won’t be bothering us no more, no sir.

OK. But before we start lining up the shots at the bar, there’s one thing that seems strangely familiar about our new situation: the things that are promised in the brochure are going to take a while to arrive.  So although the promotional video tells us that we can join OpenClass today, in fact most of us can’t.

If the product really is free and open, surely the hustle isn’t necessary, given the way things are across the LMS market. A genuinely free, open, amazing and scalable social LMS with strong integration with Google Apps has a good chance of selling itself. But over eager marketing is creating a problem that wasn’t there before: if you announce that something is now thrillingly and game-changingly available, and this turns out not quite to be the case, this is actually going to remind people very much of their experience in the game you’re proposing to change. As Joshua Kim puts it in his thoughtful summary of the things that could limit the disruptive potential of OpenClass:

There is no need to “sell” the LMS, only a need to get as many people as possible in the EDU community full access to the platform, and to share every detail about the technical specifications, cloud infrastructure, and product roadmap. … Where is the screencast walking me through OpenClass? If it is cloud based, why can’t I make an account now and play like I can on Blackboard’s CourseSites? Where is all the technical documentation and all the other information I’d need to start my research?

In other words, if we can’t take a look at it, there’s no need to tell us that we can.  Far better just to say that beta testing continues with the pilot institutions that were under the original non-disclosure conditions, and then the first round of others that will be allowed into the lab now that the secret’s out. The original launch of Gmail and more recently Google+ have shown that users are prepared to wait in line until invited in, and understand that there are benefits to robust testing as things scale up. So why not be clearer that whatever OpenClass might be in the future, you cannot join it today? Why not say straightforwardly when the door might open?  Even Disneyland tells you how long you’ll be standing in line from this point.

And the second familiar aspect is that it’s not exactly clear what the real cost of the gunslinger’s favour will prove to be. Audrey Watters has written this up very well, and says that we should be looking much more closely at the small print.  Jonathan Rees is more blunt, when he says that we should beware giant publishers bearing gifts.  Certainly, we’re all wary of the free lunch.

This is why I found it so helpful to read George Siemens’ explanation of the business context for “free, open, easy, amazing”, with his analysis of the rise of platforming as a way of simplifying and streamlining the need for individuals (or institutions) to pull together different tools for different little tasks. The way that platforming seems to make life easier for the consumer helps explain the pattern of competitive acquisition that has been the hallmark of edtech for a while. As Siemens says, “educators don’t want to think about the platform. They want something easy to use – simple, effective, and extensible – so they can get on with teaching and research.”  Justin Bathon points out that this isn’t exclusive to OpenClass, given the way in which other LMS designers like Instructure are integrating with existing public cloud social media rather than wasting design time on their own poor copies, particularly in terms of communication and collaboration tools.

The attraction of platforming over original product development makes sense, especially in a market crowded with solutions in which institutional decision-making is still slow. This slowness means that anyone’s enterprise level opportunities to change the game are limited by the number of times an education enterprise is actually interested in changing anything at all, a point I’ve been debating recently with Phil Hill.  Platforming is a good strategy in response to this sluggishness.

But the platforming model does mean that conservative educational institutions are going to need to get used to contractual LMS arrangements that might best be described as organised promiscuity.  This is the really big disruption on our side, given the fact that all our planning is based on the model of serial monogamy.

Meanwhile, speaking of open, those of us who are genuinely curious to know whether the “open” of OpenClass signals anything more than an opportunistic nod in the direction of open education, will just have to wait in line.

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17 thoughts on “Waiting for disruption

  1. Thanks for your ideas – interesting to see this from Pearson – one of their subsidiaries – penguin did perhaps one of the great exercises in publishing openness in being the first to make mass market cheap paperbacks available. I hope they’re able to learn from that…

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  2. Interesting comparison I think — there’s perhaps a small difference between “open” and “mass market cheap”, and I think this is what’s starting to bother some of the sceptics. But on that note I really like Joshua Kim’s challenge to Pearson to recognise that having embraced “free” and therefore not particularly trying to sell something, they have an unusual opportunity to invite sceptics and critics in to the conversation. That would be more disruptive than the approach so far, which seems like a variant on the standard roadmap response to educator questions. We’ve all been peering at the horizon for so long I think we’re starting to hallucinate.

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  3. Great post, and always useful to hear your perspective. It seems that a lot of the CIO reaction to OpenClass is based on discomfort with potential promiscuity. This will be interesting to watch – how majority of CIOs perceive opportunity and risk of this promiscuity.

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  4. I agree — platforming will require a significant revision of the RFP approach taken by many institutions, and as edtech is already an area of speculation and risk and incompletion, it will take some careful thinking to make contractual promiscuity seem like a step in the direction of stability. Which it could be, funnily enough.

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  5. Powerful thoughts, I especially enjoyed the notion of “organised promiscuity”. I’m excited for educational institutions to start warming up to this idea (at least, I hope they do), though I’ll confess the term makes me think of Logan’s Run more than Web 2.0🙂.

    I think the platforming concept with be a boon going forward — especially as we look at systems being offered in multiple countries. Grading systems are decidedly not the same and — as you reminded me the other day — even student approaches to learning vary from region to region. A true platform would be able to handle these nuances gracefully, and allow for picking and choosing of extensions that mapped to the local population’s style of learning.

    I won’t say we’re there yet at Instructure, but we’re working hard to get farther down that path. I have high hopes for standards like Basic LTI as a mechanism for more reusable extensions to potentially allow multiple educational platforms to coexist (pipe dream? maybe). In addition, before we tackle any new country we plan to do a “validation tour” similar to our initial product discovery process to make sure we understand the needs of the region and can generalize components of our system correctly to handle the new use cases.

    Just like you, I hope we can find ways to better collaborate across the table and come to creative solutions that benefit everyone.

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    1. Welcome to the deckchairs, Brian. You’ve introduced an interesting suggestion here about the ways in which your sector might embrace the promiscuity model, whereas I’ve been thinking a bit more about why it would work for our sector.

      Educators most often meet LMS suitors in a kind of dating game scenario where the only deal available is to pick one to the exclusion of others, to meet all possible needs. What interests me is whether some more agile product development might be possible if LMS design could, for example, specialise to disciplines. This is a practical question about the disciplines that are quiz-dependent vs those that are looking for sensible effective means to grade, for example, the standard Humanities essay. The search for the best at everything often leads to a preference for something that is more or less slightly good at most things. So I wonder about niche development rather than institutional development.

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      1. Ah, but if LMSs become specialized then you’re going to end up with more than one on the same campus, which as we all know is out of the question🙂. I jest.

        It is very unfortunate that we initiate our relationships with a “quiet” period where we’re not actually allowed to engage come to creative solutions, we instead have to say “no we don’t do that” or (more commonly, even if it’s only true with a strong squint) “yes of course we do that”.

        I wonder if what ends up happening in the end is that the LMS becomes a hub of sorts with different types of learning offshoots for different disciplines. The offshoots wouldn’t need to be part of the LMS, just closely integrated, and probably more able to specialize and work out creative solutions than would a be-all solution like a traditional LMS. I’m loathe to give up that “hub” because I think there’s significant value in giving learners a consolidated view of their learning experience as a whole, but I definitely see value in providing more specialized solutions as well.

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  6. I was really interested in your blog post, thanks for the link. Your summary of why there’s no such thing as a free lunch is useful, but also the reminder that in the end lunch is still lunch — in other words, the model of GAE integration isn’t entirely new either.

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    1. You are right and at CourseDirector we didn’t invent the concept of GAE integration either, we just iterated on it, in our case focusing specifically on providing an LMS with a native Google Apps feel.

      Just an interesting side point we were exhibiting at the BETT Show in London last week, currently the word biggest EdTech show and although Pearson had a large presence there they were not doing any promotion of OpenClass, just their paid products. Looks like their focus has moved away from this.

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