Freer than free, opener than open: The fight for the learning management systems market is heating up (again)

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Freer than free, opener than open: The fight for the learning management systems

These are exciting times for those who use Learning Management Systems (LMS), applications that help teachers (and students) get a handle on their course materials, grading, and assignments.

Currently there are150+ different LMS companies and projects available. And as with any product on its way toward commoditization, someone's disrupting the industry.

That "someone" is textbook publisher Pearson, who announced the availability of OpenClass, an LMS designed for setting up customized courses at the teacher-level. Oh, and it's free. How free? Adrian Sannier, senior vice president of product at Pearson says it's super-duper-mega-free: "This is a freer offer than Moodle is. It’s a freer offer than any other in the space."

Moodle, you may remember, was the open source underdog for many years. Now it's gained significant marketshare, and customers are beginning to realize that it's more free-like-a-puppy than free-as-in-beer. In other words, you've got to pay for its keep (hosting) and its food (content). And when it won't roll over, you'll have to hire a trainer coder to make it learn your new trick.

All that's better than going with Blackboard, a heavyweight proprietary vendor. New features in Blackboard are dependent upon the company's willingness to add them, and you'll pay hefty licensing costs per user as well. Sensing that there might be something to this "open source" thing, last year Blackboard made its own attempts at being opener-than-open.

In the wake of the Pearson announcement, Blackboard's at it again, this time partnering with Creative Commons to enable teachers to create and share open educational resources (OERs) through its software. I don't know that I believe this is anything more than a marketing ploy, but hey, more power to 'em.

Sannier's announcement reminded me vaguely of another, way back in 2005 when Sun CEO Scott McNealy jumped into the open source ring to proclaim Sun's commitment to sharing: "We're grabbing that word and saying, of anybody, we own the word 'share.' We own that space."

Well, at least they're trying to figure this stuff out, eh?

Back to that underdog-turned-champ Moodle. It was only a few months ago that newbie Canvas LMS unveiled its flashy, Web 2.0 interface, went open source, and took aim at Moodle, calling it "kind of kludgy." (Granted, Canvas does have a fantastic UI, but really? Distro wars in the LMS space?)

Here we arrive once more at the commodity theory. As fewer and fewer compelling features distinguish one LMS from the next, some contenders have taken to building a resume of superlatives ("really really REALLY free!"). Pearson is adopting a different tactic: change the model.

Because the majority of Pearson's revenue comes from product offerings that the others lack--namely its textbook and e-content divisions--it's in a good position to change the economics of LMS. While they've pledged to keep OpenClass publisher-neutral, it's clear that Pearson will be moving deeper into the premium digital content market and using OpenClass to its full advantage. It's a rather clever setup. In the past, the biggest barrier to digital content has been that students simply don't use it. But once you have teachers and students already logged in, it's much easier to push value-added digital content. Now teachers can make these resources required course components.

I have a second hunch as to Pearson's strategy: in this age of test-obsession, I suspect they'll be developing advanced student learning analytics, which is becoming a crucial component as class sizes increase everywhere from graduate school down through kindergarten.

Where will the LMS industry go next? That's anyone's guess.

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Rebecca Fernandez is a Principal Program Manager at Red Hat, leading projects to help the company scale its open culture. She's an Open Organization Ambassador, contributed to The Open Organization book, and maintains the Open Decision Framework. She is interested in the intersection of open source principles and practices, and how they can transform organizations for the better.


Hi Rebecca

Good point about Pearson being after those learning analytics.

I blogged about this recently and said: "I think I'd stick to Moodle if I had the choice. Open-source code, supported by a paid tech support person or team, sounds preferable to cost-free but closed code, supported by a company that needs to profit from me in some other way in order to continue offering the freebies."

I'm with Gabi on this,

Having adopted Moodle for our Open Source class at RPI this year, I'm very happy with it, and although Rebecca is right in that we have to "pay for the food and do the trainer the 'Moodle puppy' ", this is part of the reason why we love the puppy...and we are very attached to it.

The food has been quite inexpensive so far, got a domain, setup an Apache server...etc. All of which in Yochia Benkler's terms, may look like a expense, but it is actually a gain, since I have to learn to do it, and therefore in economics terms is "indirect appropriation". The puppy trainer has been inexpensive too. Granted, it took me a couple of weekends to setup the server, and to make a plain installation of Moodle, but most of what I needed to know was available in the ~$20 book that I got from O'Reilly, the Moodle forums and the very complete Moodle documentation.

Probably the difference here is that we are taking care of a single puppy (a single Moodle installation for a single class, in a single server), and that it is running outside of the University network. It probably will be a different story if it was the service for hundreds of classes, maintained by a centralized organization.

Maybe the learning lesson here is that: there are things that are better done by distributing the load to many users. For example, it is better for all of us to have our own word processors in our laptops than to setup a University centralized server that host the "word processing" services for hundreds of users.

Many thanks to the Moodle community for their great work !

Luis, I think the "free as in beer" only becomes a crucial point for those on miniscule budgets (especially in the developing world). Most of us expect to have an IT budget for these sorts of things, and in fact tend to be wary of the "free lunch" offers like Pearson's.

And of course, I don't want to slight any of the other open source LMS projects out there--Moodle isn't the only one offering great options for educators, and that's how it should be.

You don't mention the underlying, and perhaps most important issue, that of the license the Pearson LMS is released under. Unless they release the project with a 'free' license, then they are not protecting the users. At some future time they, once they have given away all the free samples they are free to turn on the users and charge what ever they wish (or other similar bad behaviour).
Thanks, but I will always stick with open source. Moodle is our show puppy, which always wins best in show.

I would also like to thank the Moodle community for all of their hard work. We run our own moodle installation on our own departmental server (all by faculty, with no outside support).

Griff, that's an excellent point, though so far they are *saying* that they will not charge for it at any point, from what I'm reading. Of course, even with open source, you do run the risk of acquisitions changing the game (*cough* Sun *cough*), so there's nothing entirely fool-proof at this point except perhaps releasing things into the public domain. I am also waiting to see if they provide a simple way to get your content back out of the system, because as we all know, barriers to exit can sometimes be enormous.

We have a great article coming up in our publication calendar on Moodle Flavors that you may be interested in. Check back soon!

With an open source license, it is possible to fork the project. Acquisitions are still a risk in terms of support. But the product can be used and improved upon almost indefinitely by forking the FOSS code. It is what makes open source better, in my opinion. Learning is the price of entry.

I'm with you. All of these open source pretenders are far from open. I'd be leery of anything with an association with Pearson.
Consider some of these experiences, Add to that every BOCES in New York State uses Moodle as an LMS because it is open and scalable across large enterprises. I am a teacher, Moodle user in the Cattaraugus Allegany BOCES region of New York State and we have dozens of teachers hosting content in Moodle. I believe that most teachers are happy with that solution.

I like some of the other great free and open source solutions like Sakai and Kuali. Check some of these and other 'Open' Education alternatives at

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