This week’s excitement has been the announcement by Pearson of their shakeup of the LMS experience. On the OpenClass website, where we’re told in very big letters that this is all Open, Free, Easy and Amazing, the promotional video starts with Adrian Sannier, Senior VP, making the big claim that the LMS “as you know it” is dead. Sannier brings serious university research and administrative experience to Pearson’s push into the edtech market, and I’m confident that he knows what he’s talking about when he says that the standard LMS has “only ever been an ineffective administrative tool … it’s closed, it’s clunky to use, it’s costly.”
But his claim is a bit of a heartstopper for all the institutions who’ve woken up contractually handcuffed to the corpse of one or other dead LMS, for several years to come. It’s such a bold prediction that I’ve been distracted by visions of Sannier delicately blowing the powder residue from the barrel of his Colt 45 as he enters the darkened saloon where the frightened townsfolk have been cowering. Yup, the LMS as we knew it won’t be bothering us no more, no sir.
OK. But before we start lining up the shots at the bar, there’s one thing that seems strangely familiar about our new situation: the things that are promised in the brochure are going to take a while to arrive. So although the promotional video tells us that we can join OpenClass today, in fact most of us can’t.
If the product really is free and open, surely the hustle isn’t necessary, given the way things are across the LMS market. A genuinely free, open, amazing and scalable social LMS with strong integration with Google Apps has a good chance of selling itself. But over eager marketing is creating a problem that wasn’t there before: if you announce that something is now thrillingly and game-changingly available, and this turns out not quite to be the case, this is actually going to remind people very much of their experience in the game you’re proposing to change. As Joshua Kim puts it in his thoughtful summary of the things that could limit the disruptive potential of OpenClass:
There is no need to “sell” the LMS, only a need to get as many people as possible in the EDU community full access to the platform, and to share every detail about the technical specifications, cloud infrastructure, and product roadmap. … Where is the screencast walking me through OpenClass? If it is cloud based, why can’t I make an account now and play like I can on Blackboard’s CourseSites? Where is all the technical documentation and all the other information I’d need to start my research?
In other words, if we can’t take a look at it, there’s no need to tell us that we can. Far better just to say that beta testing continues with the pilot institutions that were under the original non-disclosure conditions, and then the first round of others that will be allowed into the lab now that the secret’s out. The original launch of Gmail and more recently Google+ have shown that users are prepared to wait in line until invited in, and understand that there are benefits to robust testing as things scale up. So why not be clearer that whatever OpenClass might be in the future, you cannot join it today? Why not say straightforwardly when the door might open? Even Disneyland tells you how long you’ll be standing in line from this point.
And the second familiar aspect is that it’s not exactly clear what the real cost of the gunslinger’s favour will prove to be. Audrey Watters has written this up very well, and says that we should be looking much more closely at the small print. Jonathan Rees is more blunt, when he says that we should beware giant publishers bearing gifts. Certainly, we’re all wary of the free lunch.
This is why I found it so helpful to read George Siemens’ explanation of the business context for “free, open, easy, amazing”, with his analysis of the rise of platforming as a way of simplifying and streamlining the need for individuals (or institutions) to pull together different tools for different little tasks. The way that platforming seems to make life easier for the consumer helps explain the pattern of competitive acquisition that has been the hallmark of edtech for a while. As Siemens says, “educators don’t want to think about the platform. They want something easy to use – simple, effective, and extensible – so they can get on with teaching and research.” Justin Bathon points out that this isn’t exclusive to OpenClass, given the way in which other LMS designers like Instructure are integrating with existing public cloud social media rather than wasting design time on their own poor copies, particularly in terms of communication and collaboration tools.
The attraction of platforming over original product development makes sense, especially in a market crowded with solutions in which institutional decision-making is still slow. This slowness means that anyone’s enterprise level opportunities to change the game are limited by the number of times an education enterprise is actually interested in changing anything at all, a point I’ve been debating recently with Phil Hill. Platforming is a good strategy in response to this sluggishness.
But the platforming model does mean that conservative educational institutions are going to need to get used to contractual LMS arrangements that might best be described as organised promiscuity. This is the really big disruption on our side, given the fact that all our planning is based on the model of serial monogamy.
Meanwhile, speaking of open, those of us who are genuinely curious to know whether the “open” of OpenClass signals anything more than an opportunistic nod in the direction of open education, will just have to wait in line.
- Freeing the LMS (downes.ca)
- architectures of control: Learning Platform Edition (bigthink.com)