Learning management systems were supposed to have died out by now, weren’t they? Swept away by a wave of 21st century platforms, mobile apps and MOOCs. In fact, in ELT, it feels like they’re only just getting going. Let’s have a look at the LMS market in general and see what the main ELT publishers are up to. In future posts, we’ll have a look at what we might expect in the future as mobile/tablet based learning continues to grow in importance and we see what I think is an inevitable blurring of the boundary between the LMS and the MOOC.
This is the fifth and final post in a series covering 5 key trends in EdTech, as identified by Edudemic a few weeks ago, but looked at from an ELT point of view:
LMS & VLE 101
You all know what an LMS is, right? If not, this snippet from Wikipedia is enough of a definition: an LMS is an online platform which handles the “administration, documentation, tracking, reporting and delivery of e-learning education courses or training programs”. So if that’s an LMS, what’s a VLE (virtual learning environment)? It’s exactly the same thing, unless anyone out there can give me a definition of the difference. ‘VLE’ is the term more commonly used in the UK higher education system, but it ELT we usually talk about LMSs. And it’s LMSs that most publishers use to deliver online courses in ELT. Even platforms that claim to be the alternative to the LMS (and that usually means they offer more ‘web 2.0’ features – social, user generated content) such as English360 do a lot of the same things as an LMS.
LMSs have been used for years in universities around the world and have, over the last few years, been working their way into all areas of education as schools look to provide online learning. The main justification for their existence is that they allow for centralised administration of online and blended learning. However, there’s been a growing tide of opinion that they are the clunky and over-complex dinosaurs of the EdTech world, as new lighter, quicker to change, cheaper and more flexible options spring up seemingly every week. But the LMS is not on the way out. At the BETT show earlier this year, one of the most striking things was the vast number of new LMS companies that are springing up. The pitch is always something along the lines of ” You know how LMSs are over-complex, expensive and clunky? Well, we’ve come up with the solution!”. Reeled in by the pitch, you’re then shown what is…. yes, just another LMS. But these companies wouldn’t be springing up if no-one was buying their products, so the LMS market seems to be in good health. In fact, it seems to be diversifying (or fragmenting, depending on how you see it) after a period when it looked like Blackboard was about the completely sow up the entire market.
The old guard
The open source old favourite, Moodle’s been around for just over 10 years. There are over 80,000 sites out there using Moodle, and it’s still very widely used in ELT. Most of the usual features are available and new ones can be added in the form of modules. If you’ve got the expertise (or can hire someone who has), you can develop your own modules to do whatever you want. There’s also a thriving commercial arm of the Moodle world, with a host of companies out there (through the Moodle Partner Network) who can set up, customise and manage a Moodle environment. Can Moodle be used for large-scale serious learning? Well, the Open University in the UK uses it to manage courses for hundreds of thousands of students, so that’ll be a yes, then. In ELT, it tends to be widely used by schools and institutions who want to set up their own online platforms, but less so by publishers who tend to want to provide something a bit slicker in order to deliver saleable online courses.
See also: Sakai.
The big beast of the LMS world has been around since the late 1990s and until recently totally dominated the commercial LMS world, partly through its strategy of buying up competitors left, right and centre. These acquisitions have brought with them customers, talent and technology – for example, the purchase of Wimba and Elluminate provided industry-leading synchronous learning and virtual classroom tools, now under the name Blackboard Collaborate.
The basic features are the same as for most other LMSs, although almost certainly more extensive. In fact, if you want to get a picture of the range of things that a big LMS can do, take the time to have a look at Blackboard Learn’s feature list. As with Moodle, it’s possible to customise and extend the platform’s features using ‘Building Blocks’.
The usual criticisms levelled at Blackboard are its excess of features (and resulting complexity) and its highly commercial nature – it’s owned by a private equity firm, after all. I imagine most of those ‘excess’ features are there because users asked for them, though.
Oh, and in 2012 Blackboard purchased Moodlerooms, a company developing Moodle-based solutions. Moodlerooms has continued to operate under its own name, and touts its own Moodle-based platform, Joule.
Finally, it’s worth saying that Blackboard has suffered some pretty terrible PR over the years, partly due to its expansionist ambitions (which just seem like sensible business to me), but also because of ill-judged attempts to try patenting the underlying concepts behind LMSs, including taking legal action against Desire2Learn.
The new wave
There’s a bit of a feeling out there that we’re witnessing a changing of the guard. Blackboard is certainly losing market share. Blackboard and Moodle are both old, even if they’re gussied up, like Joule.
“More than an LMS”, apparently. D2L’s stated USPs are that it’s open, mobile-centric and extensible. Like Blackboard, it’s massively rich in features. Unlike Blackboard, those features weren’t developed incrementally over years or by bolting together various pieces of purchased technologies. So, in theory, that means it’s leaner and meaner – but much less ‘back to basics’ than Canvas (see below). D2L is certainly now one of the ‘big beasts’ of the LMS world, and is taking market share from Blackboard.
Canvas launched in 2011, and was immediately heralded as a refreshing alternative to the feature-packed complexity of Blackboard and Moodle’s lack of polish. The key claim for Canvas is its simplicity. It’s designed to be quick and easy to get up and running. That does come at the cost of a lot of features that some people need or would expect in order to be able to run a course properly. Over time, they will be under pressure to add features, which will put the prized simplicity under strain. A more recent development is the launch of Canvas Network – Instructure’s entry into the MOOC market. Given the waves Canvas is making and the big VC investment behind it, I think it’s safe to assume it’s going to be a major player even if, right now, its hype is bigger than its user base.
What are the ELT publishers doing?
OUP – Desire2Learn
OUP signed a strategic partnership with D2L in 2011, with the aim of using the LMS for delivery of online materials. We’ve yet to see the fruits of that, and I’ve heard that it hasn’t been entirely plain sailing. One issue, I suspect, is that no major commercial LMS is designed for language learning. And big as OUP are in ELT terms, they may still be too small a client to heavily influence D2L’s development plans. Given the strength of the D2L platform, though, I presume something interesting will come of this.
Pearson have their own LMS for ELT, MyEnglishLab (built by Polish tech company IOKI), which is used to deliver online components for all of their main courses. This gives them much more flexibility and control than OUP have. And MyEnglishLab seems simple but effective, with a reasonably clean and modern design. Obviously, Pearson are able to take the platform in any direction they wish, and adapt at will to suit the needs of their products. The downside is that it’s really hard (basically impossible) to keep up with the rate of development a dedicated LMS company like D2L or Blackboard can manage.
Cambridge also have their own – eponymous – LMS, originally developed for Touchstone Blended Learning. Again, that means the ability to develop the platform according to the specific needs of their products (and for language learning – not something uppermost in the thoughts of the big LMS companies), but it’s hard to remain competitive with the feature sets of the big LMS providers. (Disclosure – I work for CUP).
Macmillan – Campus
Macmillan English Campus has been around for a long time (10 years!) – it’s both a platform and a product. Word on the street is that for their future Knewton-powered online products, something new is in the offing, so while Campus may live on as a product, I don’t think we’re going to see the platform powering their big online courses. I suspect they’ll be going down the OUP route and partnering with an LMS company, rather than rolling their own LMS, a la CUP and Pearson, but we shall see.
Questions to ponder:
Schools – use a publisher’s LMS or get published content to run in your LMS?
This is one of the big questions facing schools and universities wanting to provide online English language learning. If you already have Moodle running in your university to support courses in various subjects, do you want to run ELT content in that, or take on an integrated ELT online product which comes with its own platform? Compromises either way – stick with Moodle, and your ELT course won’t be as slick and may lose features; take the publisher’s platform and you have two platforms running which makes life complicated.
Publishers – to buy or to build?
I think the decision over whether to build your own platform or pay to use someone else’s is one of the most interesting and difficult ones for ELT course providers. There are so many pros and cons to each approach that there’s no clear right answer, as I think the ELT publisher examples above should make clear. I think different content providers will continue to try both approaches.
Will LMSs and MOOCs converge?
Instructure’s Canvas Network and recent developments by Coursera to build more LMS features into their currently fairly basic platform suggest that the LMS and MOOC may be converging. Certainly any MOOC provider will have to begin providing richer feature sets – and that means developing their own platform, or partnering with LMS tech companies – so the same choice ELT publishers are having to make.