What next for the LMS?

All of a sudden it’s LMS week* in mostly-US higher education. Nudged by the imminent Educause annual conference, there’s a whole pop-up festival of reflection on why we still have enterprise learning management systems—and why we have the ones we have.

Audrey Watters, D’Arcy NormanPhil Hill, Michael Feldstein, Jared Stein and Jonathan Rees have all contributed to this thoughtful and detailed conversation; anyone who thinks universities just woke up one day trapped inside a giant LMS dome really should read each of these at least. And Mike Caulfield has nailed one of the key problems: LMS features that don’t deliver the function associated with the name—in this case, the wiki tools in an LMS that rhymes with Borg.

As Audrey Watters rightly points out in her look over the wall at what lies beyond the LMS, the natural mode of LMS development is incremental, calibrated to the traditional operations of education institutions. The bottom line is this: content goes in, grades come out, and the whole thing can be flushed and repopulated with new learners the next time it runs. The LMS is particularly efficient at delivering sequential learning, and so it’s learner-centred in the same way that IKEA is customer-centred.

But the LMS story isn’t centrally about user experience. It’s a story about corporations, their investors, and their attention to higher education as a market. This week, George Kroner and his colleagues at the Edutechnica blog revisited their 2013 analysis of four countries in the global LMS marketplace, to see how the market share of key players has shifted over the past 12 months.

This is the state of things as a bar chart:

LMS 'global' market share data, Edutechnica blog
LMS ‘global’ market share data, edutechnica.com

It’s a flattening visualisation that distorts the dollar value of the Australian market to an extraordinary degree, and it’s triggered a rerun of last year’s polite shoving between George Kroner and Allan Christie, General Manager of Blackboard’s ANZ operations, as to what counts as the Australian higher education market.

Put simply, it is generally accepted that there are 39 universities (38 public, 1 private) in Australia. (Allan Christie)

In short, I do not consider the list of the 39 universities to be a complete representation of higher education in Australia. (George Kroner)

The thing is, the entire Australian market is a hill of beans in comparison to the US. This is why we don’t belong on this misleading chart, but it’s also why our LMS market behaves the way it does, and so strongly favours the existing near-duopoly. In all but three of our generally agreed major institutions, one well known LMS has the advantage of incumbency, and the other well known LMS has the advantage of not being the incumbent, which is unpopular with its users in the same way that politicians are: generically. In a small system where everyone knows everyone, the influence of other institutions’ decisions is direct and intense. It tethers aspiration to conformism, and cautions against risk. Look at the neighbours, we say, they bought a Kia. Or the other one. Either way.

But this year, the disputed inclusion of Australia’s non-university providers is newly significant. The constitution of higher education in Australia is the subject of a substantial reform bill currently under Senate investigation (submissions to the Senate Standing Committee on Education and Employment have just closed, and you can check them out here.) If the Higher Education and Research Reform Amendment Bill passes, it will change the relationship between the generally agreed 39, and the less well understood mix of others who can award degrees but until now have been excluded from Commonwealth funding.

No one’s sure exactly how Australia’s universities will adapt to all this, or how the non-university providers will be able to take advantage of their access to funding previously reserved for university places. But it’s likely that over the next few years LMS selection in the whole higher education sector will be sensitised to the attraction and retention of students who have grown up online, who are facing higher levels of education debt, and who will be vigorously encouraged by price signalling into comparison shopping. They will encounter a university system with more feedback mechanisms, more features, more special offers, and more personalised interventions of all kinds. Even if we’re not yet at the stage of installing lazy rivers, our online environments will become potentially distinctive campus amenities just like our libraries. Their quality, efficiency, and accessibility will become important in new ways, both to students looking to move quickly through degrees and sub-degree programs, and to university leaders looking for ways to expand and secure new markets, while keeping the overheads from teaching as low as possible.

Meanwhile many senior executive decision-makers setting the strategic direction for the use of these systems will still come from the generation whose own undergraduate experience (and perhaps whose academic careers) avoided online learning altogether. This is one reason, I think, why they have a view of LMS use that is far more utopian than most academics or students. It’s also the reason that universities underestimate by a very long way the proportion of academic staff workload that should now be reserved for LMS resource development, not just in exceptional circumstances like LMS change implementation, but all the time.

The result of this failure over many years to recognise the time needed to use an LMS well means that we end up with the situation Audrey Watters describes:

The learning management system has shaped a generation’s view of education technology, and I’d contend, shaped it for the worst. It has shaped what many people think ed-tech looks like, how it works, whose needs it suits, what it can do, and why it would do so. The learning management system reflects the technological desires of administrators — it’s right there in the phrase. “Management.” It does not reflect the needs of teachers and learners.

This is right, but it’s not the consequence of essentially bad design. The LMS is specifically good at what universities need it to do. Universities have learning management systems for the same reason they have student information systems: because their core institutional business isn’t learning itself, but the governance of the processes that assure that learning has happened in agreed ways. Universities exist to award degrees, to the right people at the right time, and to do this responsibly they have to invest in the most robust administrative processes: enrolment management at one end, and lock tight records management at the other. Actual student learning is something they outsource to their academic faculty, who still achieve this with minimal management oversight except through feedback surveys.

But as we move towards a more competitive system, with tighter budgets and higher expectations for quality, we should probably notice that the LMS is also a performance monitoring system for teaching. Minimally this is being introduced through the development of institutional threshold standards for online learning practice, while the attention of analytics tools is technically towards the evidence of student engagement with learning. As more routine teaching shifts online, there is nothing whatsoever to inhibit the development of LMS analytics for staff performance evaluation—including of casual and sessional staff.

This is why even academics who find the LMS a pretty hopeless teaching environment need to keep an eye on its strategic development, and especially to pay close attention when institutions engage in the process of selecting a new LMS. Because behind all the blither about the transformation of the student learning experience, an enterprise level management system is exactly what it says on the tin.


* LMS week: it’s like Shark Week, only longer.


Any colour you like, Australia

To the indomitable Australia, where the dynamics of change and choice cause individualism to be the force for doing, and freedom an urgent state of mind–

Art Linkletter, LinkLetter Down Under, 1968

So, there’s been a bit written about the Blackboard acquisition of NetSpot in Australia and Moodlerooms in the US, focused on the philosophical integrity of the open source project.  To a lesser extent it’s got people thinking about whether the LMS as we know it is going away, as Australia’s David Jones suggests.  Or not, which is the persuasive if discouraging argument from Tony Bates.

It’s been an exemplary demonstration of how quickly the North American edtech blogging community mobilises their expertise and their networks to provide fast, rolling specialist coverage of these kinds of events as they unfold. George Siemens has an excellent second post; and there’s serious, thorough background evaluation from K. C. Green at Inside Higher Ed here, and the second part of Michael Feldstein’s reflections here.  (Interesting that Instructure are coming out of this very well; they’re not just big in Utah.)

Australia: not always down under (image taken from Martin Dougiamas, presentation, 2010)

The problem is that all this is unfolding a bit differently in Australia, formerly a dot on the higher education world map; as it turns out, not only NetSpot but Moodle itself is an Australian thing.  So for anyone who’s booked their ticket to Austria to see what the fuss is about, here’s the map you need, with apologies to Martin Dougiamas, who was apparently thinking along the same helpful lines when he used it in a presentation in 2010.

Dougiamas has made very clear that Moodle itself wasn’t the object of the sale. This isn’t just a bit of purist fuss about who owns open.  It has additional resonance in Australia where the most iconic Australian brands (including Vegemite, Holden Cars and Tim Tam biscuits) are the property of US companies; and where there is active political debate about foreign ownership of Australian farms and major industries, not to mention the ongoing domination of Australian cultural life by foreign media producers. In 2011, for example, Australian films accounted for only 10% of the titles released in local movie theatres, and only 3.9% of local box office. So we know a thing or two about import dependence.

Our combined sensitivity to foreign ownership and monopoly can sometimes be hard to hold in a productive balance; the cruelty of market rationalisation being what it is, we end up providing government support to ensure that Australia is protected against the market failure of its local producers, who can’t leverage anything like the economies of scale of their global competitors.  So we fund the production of movies; and we create modest protective shelters in television broadcasting for local producers.  But we’re not wholly parochial in this; sometimes we also fund foreign companies to come here and make things like cars if this keeps Australians in work, and when we do this, there’s no end of PR about how gloriously Australian it all is.

And this is why it’s curious that there has been relatively little media coverage of this little fact, taken from the Australian Campus Review:

NetSpot managing director Allan Christie says there are now 17 universities using Moodle in Australia, 19 using Blackboard, two with Desire2Learn and one with Sakai.

There are 39 public universities in Australia.  This means that give or take a bit of juggling to accommodate a few other higher education players, the alternatives to Blackboard and Moodle are exceptionally few. And as Blackboard has just acquired the company predominantly associated with hosting Moodle on behalf of Australia’s universities, then it’s very hard not to see this as a situation in which modestly healthy competition (that does often come down to two dogs snarling over a bone, when the market is as small as this one) has been replaced by a kind of adroitly managed regime of choice in which a foreign company has acquired a dominant stake in shaping the future of Australian higher education: any colour you like, so long as it’s …

These are interesting challenges for Blackboard and NetSpot to negotiate, not least in relation to trust. How will they handle future LMS bake-offs?  Who will decide what it makes sense for each company to offer to the other’s clients by way of enhancements?  How will they communicate their combined or separate philosophies and roadmaps to the Australian market, and what role will our needs play in their decision about what makes business sense to them, particularly if Blackboard’s circumstances change again? Critically, how hard will it now be for a newcomer like Instructure to wedge its way into the Australian scene?  Given that higher education is so risk-averse in terms of enterprise-wide edtech, which institution will now want to break ranks with The Combine?*

Australia’s used to being managed by strategic negotiation: for years we were led by a political coalition of two conservative parties who often agreed not to run against one another in seats where the otherwise third placed candidate could slip past a divided conservative vote. But we’re also used to our own anti-monopoly investigators taking a keen interest in anything that looks like price-fixing or collusion.  Given all this, any foreign company that has acquired a controlling stake in a critical and politically sensitive Australian cultural sector like higher education would surely stay on its best party behaviour for some time; after the initial surprise, I’m not sure we’ll see any loud outbursts for a bit.

So the more interesting question is this one: what should Australia’s universities be doing about all this?  If the very large majority are now dealing with what is effectively one supplier for the campus LMS, even if it has different divisions offering marginally different products, what should be our combined approach to this interesting predicament?

There are a number of bad options, each of which will probably get a run. We could ignore the situation and its implications.  We could consider ourselves superior—after all, we’ve just discovered that it’s “our Moodle”, just like “our Nicole”, and “our Kylie”, and “our Cadel”, and all those other global celebrities who we call our own when it suits us. Or we could bet on special, and each continue to negotiate independently with our new best friends, because we’re Australian, and we do like to compete.

A much more sensible thing would be for one or other of Australia’s national higher education governing bodies to lead a new conversation about our serious, distinctive ed tech experience and our changing needs as we enter a period of considerable sector reform.  We have a deservedly good reputation for innovation and leadership in online learning, that we’ve acquired by knowing who and where we are: we’ve been overcoming the tyranny of distance in educational terms for a really long time, and we’re famously early adopters of everything that bleeps and sings.  We do have some legacy issues in relation to national infrastructure, including the cost of data, and a wide digital divide in relation to rural, remote and indigenous education, but we’re dealing with them.

What we need now is a coherent, national strategy for education for digital citizenship from K-2 right on up to grad school, that’s founded on our experience in this big country, and our educational mission—and, with respect, not just on what makes sense to the business plans of the latest north American investor to take an interest in our natural resources.

* In 1909, American theatrical entrepreneur J. D. Williams arrived in Sydney, prospecting for commercial opportunity.  As historian Jill Julius Mathews describes it, “J. D. Williams’ empire was built in a world of cutthroat competition, of constant manoeuvring to undermine rivals and to advance one’s own position. J. D. understood that the future belonged to the efficient and the consolidated: the whole film business should be in the hands of only a few well-conducted enterprises. … Emerging on top after an intricate play of mergers, takeovers and court cases, in 1913 he engineered an amalgamation with his chief competitors and became the dominant partner in what was called ‘the Combine’”—a content distribution-exhibition company that dominated the Australian cinema market for many years, with very unimpressive consequences for local producers.  Just sayin’.


Tenured Radical is asking the question that should be required reading for every CIO, CTO, LMS suitor, and higher ed tech commentator: if computers are such a blessing to higher ed, how come their use is actively extending the working lives of their users to such a damaging degree? The series of events she describes will have elicited low moans of sympathy from all of us working in writing-intensive courses online: an innovative learning task set up to use a system well, driven by good teaching principles and student-centredness and all the rest of it, all going swimmingly until, with a clunk:

Students suddenly became unable to upload the papers that they were expected to share with each other for the following day.  Since I became aware of the issue around 6 P.M., when the earliest finishers started trying to deposit their work,  I ended up spending an evening on it that I would otherwise have spent preparing the class itself (of course, given that it was long after working hours, I would have preferred catching up with Boardwalk Empire, reading a novel or staring glassily into space.) No technophobe, I opened up the settings to see what was wrong, and there went the rest of the night, with a quick break to warm up something from Trader Joe’s.  At one point, I found myself displaying the platform on three separate browsers to compare the settings that had worked to the settings that hadn’t, creating exact parallels between the settings on each browser, and testing each (as if I were a student) to see if what we were dealing with was a browser rather than a software issue.

You need to read the whole post to find out what went wrong and how it was eventually fixed, but the point that can’t be hammered home stridently enough is that this experience is … so … routine.

Something I think many university leaders find hard to grasp as they’re searching for the magical online cloud that will save them from the infrastructure costs of more buildings and services, is that clouds seem easier and quicker to establish, but they really don’t stay still for long.  That’s what makes the metaphor so effective: these clouds are moving.  Software is constantly being upgraded, and systems are constantly being patched.  Each tiny fix and patch risks causing one part of the overall structure to fall out of love with another, a situation made far more acute by the fact that higher education institutions can’t for one second guarantee browser compatibility among their thousands of users.  Meanwhile, security, storage and disaster recovery are exceptionally volatile areas of institutional risk: people who are bothering to spend their time engaged in malicious hacking aren’t going to wait for everyone to catch up calmly. It’s a jungle out there.

All this means that what looks like a stable system at the interface, both for your CEO and your average user, is in fact just how things are patched up today.  Most of the situations like the one Tenured Radical describes result from one of these tiny background fixes that has a butterfly effect somewhere else in the ecosystem. And this is so often discovered only late at night, on weekends, when students work intensively and academics really should be advised not to try to use this time to catch up on a little online reading or class preparation because this is exactly how we get caught over and over with the emails of panic about assignments that won’t upload, systems that lock out or freeze, or content that won’t download or open.

The realisation that this level of failure is so routine has added to my thinking yesterday about the lack of real competitive energy in the higher education technology market.  The leaden nature of contract timing means, frankly, that vendors have become used to being able to disappoint us.  We’re locked in and they know it.  So again, the significance of the recent wins that Phil Hill has tracked in the emerging LMS vendor market isn’t the size of the institution or the number of users, even though these are truly impressive: it’s the length of the contract, and the time it will take for that institution and its users to come back on the market. Until then, the vendor is more or less safe from the consequences of poor design, and incomplete or stalled development.

Sadly, the real cost of this is swiftly transferred onto the higher education institution trying to manage its own customer relations. Our IT departments are flat out with the running repairs, and not all of this is done in normal office hours, as the systems teams try to find the time of the week when they can take the whole thing down safely for a few hours. In too many cases, this is at 6am on a Sunday morning, but even with this effort and cost, they still can’t save the tech-friendly student-centred academic who’s up late on Sunday night trying to figure out and communicate Plan B to her frantic students.

Momentarily I’ve forgotten why it is that we have all become so used to this, and so accepting of it.  If the bricks and mortar showed a similar pattern of instability, I’m not sure we’d go back into the building on Monday, would we?