Serving Education and Training Markets Since 2006

LMS NextGen – Gilfus Education Group

At a time when the Course or Learning Management System (LMS) has become an embedded, if not indeed an essential, element of the college experience for students across all sectors of American higher education, the death of the LMS proclamation seemed, at face value, contrarian. But Lev focused his assessment primarily on the fate of proprietary systems (read Angel, Blackboard, and Desire2Learn):

There is no question that the campus community has become increasingly dependent on the LMS to support, supplement — and at times even shape — instruction. The LMS is widely deployed across all sectors of higher education. Data from 2009 indicates that 92 percent of institutions have standardized on a single LMS product for the entire campus; CIOs estimate that as of fall 2009, more than half (55 percent) of classes make some use of a LMS, up from 50 percent in 2007 and 34 percent in 2003.

These data confirm the anecdotal reports that over the past decade the LMS has become a core part of the academic experience for both students and faculty. Concurrent with the rising deployment of the LMS, some campuses have seen the kind of near-religious wars about LMS systems that occasionally rival the passion of the Mac vs. PC debates.

Using the standard metrics of a business school case study, even in 2004 the LMS market was mature, as almost campuses already had an institutional license. (Course deployment, of course, was and remains a different issue.) At the same time these were very young products in 2004. Taken together, the maturity of the market coupled with the immaturity (or, if you prefer, the rapid evolution) of the products pointed to coming transitions (if not turmoil) in the market.

Now, early in the second decade of the campus experience with the LMS, we are at one of those key transition points. Yes, as Gonick commented earlier this year, there is a slow yet clear transition under way from proprietary to open source LMS applications across all sectors of American higher education. Will the proprietary LMS providers vanish in the next five years? Unlikely. But there are clear signs that the competition in the higher education LMS market these days is less about the battle for market share among the remaining proprietary providers and more about proprietary vs. open source options.

Yet the more significant transition in the LMS arena is what could be described as the arrival of LMS focused on analytics. And over time this transition is less about code and accompanying costs – proprietary vs. open source – and more about extracting data, information, and insight from the transactional data that capture the student and faculty interactions with the LMS.

The early CMS/LMS applications — some available for individual purchase, some licensed to individual departments or across the institution — focused on a relatively simple goal task: assisting faculty post instructional resources (syllabuses, reprints, etc.) to the Web.

During the comparatively long LMS phase we saw added functionality as well as more content, accompanied by content alliances. All the major higher education publishers declared themselves to be LMS friendly. Yet some publishers were friendlier with specific LMS providers than others as they developed marketing alliances, and, at times, even financial relationships with selected LMS firms. Concurrently, content resources such as “course cartridges” that would “feed” or support the LMS often became part of the new ancillaries that publishers provided to support and supplement their textbooks. Some publishers began to offer complete Web sites to support their undergraduate titles.

The transactional data from the LMS can tell us much about the aggregated and individual student interaction with course content outside of the classroom (or in the case of online courses, away from the chat room!). The transactional data from the LMS — what students do while “in” the LMS for an individual class and how long they are “in” the LMS — are the new metrics for student engagement and time on task.

But the value of the LMS transactional data goes well beyond variables that might help to assess our investments in information technology (i.e., “does IT make a difference in student learning?”). Just as the supermarket scanner provides data about consumer behavior, so too do the transactional data from the LMS offer great potential to tell us a lot about student behavior — data that can be used as an institutional resource for program enhancement, and also data that can be used for individual student interventions.

Beyond the work of individual researchers, the market is also sending clear signals of the emergence of LMS NextGen eCollege, acquired by Pearson in May 2007, has long offered some embedded analytical tools as part of the company’s LMS offering. Blackboard, the dominant provider in the campus LMS market, launched its branded Outcomes System in January 2007. Although the number of institutional licensees is not large (just 32 campuses at year end 2008, according to public data released by Blackboard), Blackboard’s launch of an Outcomes offering reflects what we can infer was the company’s assessment of a need on the part of its campus clients — “help us with outcomes assessments” — as well as an opportunity to develop a new commercial product.

Other indicators also affirm the importance that campuses and their IT providers place on extracting value from the transactional data in the LMS. Many campuses are beginning to deploy Business Intelligence (BI) and CRM (Client/Customer Relationship Management) software as analytical resources for student outcomes and retention analyses.

Moreover, the traditional providers of administrative or ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) applications for postsecondary education, often criticized in the past for the absence of sophisticated analytical tools in their products, are now promoting their alliances with, support for, and integration of LMS and related applications.

Secretary Spellings would often cite (without attribution) W. Edwards Deming when she told education audiences that “back in Texas we like to say, ‘In God we Trust; all others bring data.’ ” Admittedly the Deming quip was a charming if disarming way to deal with critics of the testing mandates associated with the No Child Left Behind legislation. But the essential truth remains: the campus and public policy discussions about institutional effectiveness are less tolerant of opinion and epiphany, and are increasingly focused on data and evidence.

In this context LMS 3.0 also speaks to the increasingly important role of institutional IT officials in the campus conversations about evaluation, assessment, and outcomes. We now have the analytical tools (business intelligence/analytics, data mining, and data warehousing, among others) to use routine, unobtrusive institutional and transactional data (high school transcripts, students’ test scores, students’ records from ERP modules, transactional data from learning management systems, college/university transcripts, and more) to address the critical assessment and outcomes issues that affect colleges and universities.

For campus IT officials, the issue that emerges in the wake of the Spellings Commission Report about institutional effectiveness, student learning, and student outcomes concerns not if but when college and university IT leaders will assume an active role, a leadership role, in these discussions, bringing their IT resources and expertise — bringing data, information, and insight — to the critical planning and policy discussions about institutional assessment and outcomes that affect all sectors of American higher education.

The emergence of LMS’s oriented around analytics is one part of this process; LMS NextGen will be a critical component of the data that will aid and inform these efforts.

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