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IT Infrastructure & Management

Tech Advances Fuel LMS Identity Crisis

By Benjamin Herold — September 29, 2014 7 min read
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Fifteen years after its adoption by most K-12 schools, the learning management system is going through a turbulent adolescence, with technology vendors and educators alike wrestling with big questions about what an LMS actually is, where it should live, the functions it should perform, and how it can best fit into the larger ed-tech ecosystem.

Gone are the days when district technology leaders were content to let such software sit quietly on their servers while it helped teachers upload and store online instructional content, deliver assignments and quizzes, track a few aspects of student performance, and, maybe, communicate with their classes by way of a discussion board.

Now, many forward-thinking K-12 technology leaders expect their LMS to be out in the world, exchanging information directly with content providers and other software programs, incorporating social-media tools, and offering round-the-clock access to teachers, students, administrators, and parents alike—not just on their desktop computers but also on their tablets, smartphones, and other devices. The modern LMS is also expected to help teachers find and craft content and lessons, conduct complex analysis of so-called “big” learning data, recommend external content for each individual student, and make use of video and other multimedia.

The result is a crowded, confusing marketplace that has stagnated and even shrunk in recent years, said Karen Billings, the vice president of the education division for the Software & Information Industry Association, a Washington-based trade organization.

A slew of vendors—many of which eschew the “learning management system” moniker altogether in favor of terms such as “virtual learning platform"—are competing aggressively to establish their software as the best available tool to help schools offer more-personalized instruction. The legacy companies that have long dominated the K-12 LMS market are busy overhauling their products, services, and business models.

But district leaders, unsure exactly what they need and want, have often been hesitant to pull the trigger on big new purchases.

“You’ve got companies who want to be innovative, but school districts who are used to purchasing software that fits in certain categories,” Ms. Billings said.

Cost and Responsiveness

The top tier of the K-12 LMS software market has remained generally consistent for several years, according to Donald K. McIntosh, the president of Trimeritus e-Learning Solutions Inc., a consulting service based in Vancouver, British Columbia, that helps companies and school systems throughout North America select learning management systems.

LMS Skill Set

Learning management systems for K-12 schools and districts now go by many names, come from hundreds of different vendors, and perform a wide variety of functions. Key features that characterize the LMS products currently on the market include:

ADMINISTRATION: LMS software plays an increasingly broad role in e-learning administration, from hosting both online and face-to-face class information, to providing a platform for Web-based and blended learning courses, to providing email, reminder, and course registration and management services.

ASSESSMENT: K-12 LMS systems are increasingly expected to facilitate the delivery of a wide range of formal and informal assignments and assessments, to link out to third-party tests, and to allow easy grading and reporting of how students are doing.

COMMUNICATION AND COLLABORATION: Many K-12 learning management systems now allow for instant messaging, social networking, threaded discussion groups, blogs and wikis, document sharing, and more.

CONTENT MANAGEMENT AND CREATION: One of the core functions of the K-12 LMS is to catalog learning objects such as lessons, assessments, syllabi, and other instructional materials. Also increasingly important is the ability of teachers to easily craft, adapt, revise, and share instructional materials—including rich multimedia, such as videos and screencasts—within the LMS.

INTEGRATION: Many K-12 districts are looking to LMS software to integrate with other software systems in order to help break down the walls between content management, student-information systems, content publishers and services, and other major software and applications already being used by schools. This can be both a technical issue—does the LMS offer the necessary code to share information with other software?—and a service challenge, depending on vendors’ willingness to customize their solutions and work together with other companies.

PERFORMANCE TRACKING: The K-12 LMS can play a key role in mapping the skills and competencies students are expected to master, analyzing their performance on related assessments using increasingly sophisticated learning analytics, and preparing and delivering reports of student progress to a wide range of stakeholders.

SOURCE: Adapted from information provided by Trimeritus e-Learning Solutions Inc.

The dominant players are still Washington-based education software developer Blackboard Inc., which has acquired a number of other major companies in the field in recent years, and LMS-maker D2L, formerly known as Desire2Learn, based in Kitchener, Ontario. Moodle, based in Perth, Australia, is the largest open-source learning management system on the market.

But newer companies such as Instructure, an education software company based in Salt Lake City that makes the popular Canvas LMS, are quickly gaining K-12 market share, Mr. McIntosh said.

And a host of newer products—including Classroom, a free tool from Mountain View, Calif.-based online-services giant Google, and itslearning, an LMS from a Norwegian company of the same name—are also increasingly popping up on educators’ radar screens.

“One reason is cost,” Mr. McIntosh said. “Blackboard, for example, has gotten very expensive over the years.”

Another reason many educators are looking for new products, he said, is their perception that the established players are not as user-friendly as they should be, both in terms of their products’ interface and their responsiveness to individual clients.

Reliable data on the K-12 market share of learning management systems are hard to come by. But one thing is clear, according to the SIIA: The makers of LMS software are competing for slices of a shrinking overall pie.

According to the group’s most recent market survey, “U.S. Education Technology Market: PreK-12 Survey,” the amount spent by K-12 school systems in the United States on LMS software and related instructional-management tools has declined precipitously, likely due to some combination of tough economic times for districts, the emergence of free cloud-based products, and the hesitance of district officials to purchase new systems whose very identity and functioning is in such flux.

In 2010-11, the group projected a total of $400 million in revenue from sales of LMS software to K-12 schools. By 2011-12, the last year for which data are available, that figure had dropped to $182 million.

‘Legacy’ Companies Adjust

Despite the tough market, large “legacy” LMS companies, many of which also have huge footprints in higher education, insist they continue to grow.

In August, for example, D2L announced that it had raised $85 million from investors, resources the company said it intended to use to grow its workforce, ramp up research and development, and expand its integrations with other software and apps.

Blackboard also announced this summer that it would combine various disparate offerings—including its LMS, a digital content library, mobile learning apps, a parent-messaging service, and more—into a single package rather than attempt to sell each to districts as standalone products.

“Instead of saying, ‘Here’s a bunch of parts, figure out what to do with them,’ we’ve bundled them into true solutions,” said Mark Strassman, the company’s senior vice president of industry and product management, in an interview.

The company is also rolling out a public cloud-based option for its LMS—a service that is increasingly of interest to districts looking to avoid the expense and hassle of maintaining software themselves.

And Blackboard has also invested heavily in completely redesigning what users see and experience when they log in to its products. The goal, said Mr. Strassman, is a “delightful” experience that “offers access to what people want in dramatically fewer clicks"—a change that he acknowledged was driven in large part by the competitive forces at work in the crowded K-12 LMS marketplace.

“Canvas and [D2L] and those sorts of vendors drove us to have a better user interface,” Mr. Strassman said. “I think there’s a recognition that as a company with a 15-year history … we have an opportunity to reinvent how customers use [our technologies] and launch something that is completely new.”

Although many educators and industry officials consider the evolution of K-12 learning management systems to be dramatic, Mr. McIntosh of Trimeritus e-Learning Solutions described most of the changes throughout the marketplace as “old stuff with new clothes on it.”

That’s not necessarily a bad development, he said.

To begin with, he pointed out that the LMS software for the education market has for years been more advanced than similar software targeted to the corporate market when it comes to incorporating communication and collaboration tools.

Many K-12 LMS companies are also well down the road of ensuring that their systems are accessible and user-friendly on mobile devices.

And, he said, the “big data” and learning analytics features touted by many vendors are not so different from the widely underused reporting functions that learning management systems have long contained.

“The data has always been there. People just haven’t figured out how to use it,” Mr. McIntosh said. “The market is gradually developing more tools, but I think it’s still in a state of flux.”

Sharing Data

Perhaps the one legitimate game-changer on the horizon is the growing focus on making sure that LMS software can easily and automatically share and receive information—from other K-12 software, student-information systems, developers of apps, and from publishers and other educational content providers.

In June, the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, a San Mateo, Calif.-based think tank that pushes for digital, blended, and competency-based education models, released a report, “Schools and Software: What’s Now and What’s Next,” based on a survey of 30 small- to medium-sized public school districts.

The key takeaway, said report author and research fellow Julia F. Freeland, is that students and teachers are suffering because of a lack of integration among K-12 educational software programs.

In an ideal world, Ms. Freeland said, the LMS would serve as a “hub” that works to constantly update and make available to teachers, administrators, parents, and students—in real time, in a single location—a wide range of data: What courses a student is enrolled in, how well he or she performed on both standardized and informal assessments, what learning software he or she is using, and what kind of content works best to help that student master concepts.

The lingering reality, however, is that much of that work is still done manually, if at all.

Barriers range from resistance to new technology inside district bureaucracies to competition among vendors to the failure of the ed-tech marketplace to settle on a single set of technical standards that might help facilitate such integrations.

“In theory, an LMS could be this magical platform that could show you exactly what’s happening with every student in your classroom,” Ms. Freeland said. “But in many schools, there is still this big human lift that is happening.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 01, 2014 edition of Education Week as Identity Crisis for the LMS Driven by Tech Advances


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