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

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

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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.

About the author

Rebecca Fernandez - 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.