In Spring 2016, faculty, support staff and administrators at Oregon State University met to candidly share their experiences with adaptive learning technology. I shared two different videos from the event at EdSurge in this article and highlighted comments on vendors over-promising here at e-Literate. This time I’d like to highlight part of a panel discussion where a faculty member relates her experiences – what worked and what didn’t work – when using adaptive learning tools.

Kathryn Becker-Blease has taught Intro to Psychology, a large lower-division lecture course, using both traditional quizzing and with adaptive quizzing with the help of Macmillan’s LearningCurve. In this part of the panel discussion Susana Rivera-Mills, Vice Provost and Dean of Undergraduate Studies, asks Becker-Blease about her experiences based on research and teaching.

It is worth noting the specific application in question – the academic discipline, course format and size, tool usage – as adaptive learning can mean different things in different contexts.

With that in mind, however, I noted in the panel discussion in response that the challenge of working with lower-performing students based on their study habits and support needs reminded me of the experience at Essex County College that we shared last year. In that case, a remedial math course was redesigned using adaptive learning tools – McGraw-Hill’s ALEX – but with an important focus on self-regulated learning. Yes, students worked in the adaptive learning platform, but they also had class time devoted to supporting them with their study and work habits. Learning how to learn, which is very important for students that do not have a history of academic success.

Most academic initiatives require holistic solutions, particularly with the complex task of reducing achievement gaps.

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Earlier this summer I wrote a blog post giving a high-level view of the OPM market landscape, including a call for feedback. Thanks to some blog post comments and some private messages and even company presentations, I am updating the graphic.

OPM providers are organizations (mostly for-profit companies, but with at least one non-profit variation) that help non-profit schools develop online programs, most often for Master’s level programs. These providers provide various services for which traditional institutions historically have not had the experience or culture to support. Some examples of the services include marketing & recruitment, enrollment management, curriculum development, online course design, student retention support, technology hosting, and student and faculty support.

It would be useful to go beyond the label and get a broader view.

On of the main enhancements since June is the addition of vendors within the growing category of the market that eschews tuition revenue sharing models and offers Fee for Service. Besides iDesign, I have added Blackboard now that I have a better understanding of the scope of services offered, and I have added Greenwood Hall. The challenge in this category is that when you go fee-for-service, the bundle of services breaks down, meaning that it is difficult to compare vendors. The three vendors listed (and there are others) do not all have the same services. For example, Greenwood Hall uses partners to handle academic technology infrastructure (LMS and other tools) as well as course and curriculum design. In a similar vein, the category of General Contractors also works off of service fees and not tuition revenue sharing.

Some other enhancements based on feedback:

  • The scope of credential offered – degrees or certificates – has been clarified for several vendors, including Wiley / Deltak and Orbis.
  • The visual representation of the two full service / revenue sharing sub-categories have been changed to show they are basically the same business model.
  • The smaller full-service revenue sharing vendors have been re-ordered to show size of revenue in higher education; this is a very rough estimate, however.
  • I have removed Udacity, as their Georgia Tech program appears to be an one-off; Udacity has made no attempt, to my knowledge, to find other institutional partners.

As before, please note that this view is intended to give a visual overview of the market landscape and is not comprehensive in terms of vendors represented.


There are a few recent articles worth reading to get a better sense of the OPM market dynamics; two on the unbundling / move to fee-for-service, and one on experience with a bundled service.

  • Ben Wallerstein[1] and Ryan Craig wrote in EdSurge about a general history of the market and concluded that most of the market would unbundle into fee-for-service.

In a few years, most colleges and universities won’t be excited about committing to long-term contracts, including hefty tuition revenue splits, in order to launch plain vanilla online programs. OPMs that enable highly differentiated programs (such as 2U) or competency-based programs may be exempt from this trend. But more and more universities will opt to partner with firms that offer unbundled services to create higher quality online programs, or take a differentiated approach to address discrete challenges like enrollment management and marketing. Look for increased moral outrage and regulatory scrutiny for fee sharing arrangements that drive growth and revenue—at the expense of questionable student outcomes.

  • Further exploring this move in a case study, Maxine Joselow at Inside Higher Ed described Schreiner University’s approach to working with one of these vendors, iDesign, and how they overcame the challenge of the school needing to invest money up front for services that would pay off down the line.

But one nagging problem remained: Schreiner didn’t have the funds to cover iDesign’s services. “We were concerned about how we were going to fund the start-up of this,” McCormick said. “We’re a small, tuition-driven institution. Identifying, let’s say, half a million dollars, would be a challenge for us.”

So to come up with the necessary funds, Schreiner turned to a familiar face: an alumnus and trustee named Royce Faulkner. In the past, Faulkner had offered to help finance several university projects, including an assessment of underground utilities. He had also advised the university on a campus construction project.

  • At the other end of the spectrum, UC Berkeley released an internal review of their Master of Information and Data Science (MIDS) program using 2U as their OPM partner. This provides an inside view (the document was written for internal usage but then released publicly after-the-fact) of one school’s view, not through a marketing lens. The entire document is worth reading, partially as they highlight the importance of capstone projects, an on-campus immersion session, and other components that are typical online experiences.

Retention in MIDS remains high, with 91% of students expected to graduate on time. The program has had a 4% attrition rate from inception to date. [snip]

We have no financial concerns. We have covered our startup costs, and scaled MIDS to a point that we have a steady stream of revenue to support the I School into the future. We have been very happy with our partnership with 2U. We could not sustain a program of this scale without their expertise in marketing, content production, student support, tech support, and operations. They earn a large share of the program revenue, but they provide significant value for the money. Their services and experience with online education have been critical to our continued success.

The OPM market is interesting and dynamic. Here we see strong arguments for both bundled revenue-sharing models and for unbundled fee-for-service models. I personally do not believe that the market is moving away from revenue sharing as much as there is pressure for additional models. There are a growing number of choices available to schools, but there is also a crowded marketplace that is becoming more difficult to understand and compare vendors.

We’ll keep updating our landscape diagram over time and look for other methods to help make sense of this market. Thanks to Bryan Alexander, Christopher Nyren, George Kroner, and many of the people providing private feedback.

  1. Disclosure: MindWires is a client of Whiteboard Advisors.

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Well these two reports will help us narrow down our estimates of the future LMS market size [emphasis added].

According to a new market research report, “Learning Management System Market by Application, Delivery Mode (Distance Learning and Instructor-Led Training), Deployment (On-Premises and Cloud), User Type (Academic and Corporate), Vertical, and Region – Global Forecast to 2021”, published by MarketsandMarkets, the LMS market size is expected to grow from USD 5.22 Billion in 2016 to USD 15.72 Billion by 2021, at a CAGR of 24.7%.

MarketsandMarkets, Jul 2016

The growth rate for Self-paced eLearning platforms is distinctly negative at -14.6% and the global platform market is in freefall. Revenues for platform will plummet by $3.8 billion over the forecast period. Essentially, the global LMS market is imploding. [snip]

The worldwide growth rate for LMS products is very negative at -14.6% and revenues will plunge to $3.2 billion by 2021, down from $7.1 billion in 2016.

Ambient Insights, Aug 2016

I’ll give this to them – I’m willing to bet that the five-year reality will lie somewhere between those two forecasts.

Of course both market analyses make a fundamental flaw in combining all things labeled LMS as a single market. As Michael pointed out in his comment to my earlier post on the MarketsandMarkets report:

Lumping higher ed, K12, and corporate LMSs into the same category is a little bit like lumping railroad cars together with automobiles because they are both called cars, have wheels, and carry things and/or people from one place to another. On top of that, nobody has decent data on the size of the global market, never mind the growth of it. MarketsandMarkets’ “analysis” effectively gives us made-up numbers about a mythical automobile/train car market.

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Our LMS Subscription Service has been out for more than three months now, and we’d like to give a quick update(see this page for details, pricing, online signup; or sign up on right column of blog site for listserv to find out more information).

The e–Literate Big Picture subscription services are designed to help you track the changing landscape in important educational technology topics and make sure that the decisions you make today will still make sense tomorrow.

Based on our joint research with LISTedTECH and market analysis, we just published an article in TechCrunch titled “The LMS Market Glacier Is Melting”.

It would be easy to look at the market trends today for higher ed and think that nothing much has changed over the last decade. Despite the success of more recent entrants like Instructure and Schoology, Blackboard has, by far, the greatest market share, with companies like D2L, Sakai and open-source alternatives like Moodle far behind. The LMS oligopoly is nothing if not resilient, historically leaving little space for competition.

But this view by itself would be misleading. Higher education moves at glacial speeds, and judging the market based on the surface issues misses some important recent dynamics.

(And welcome, TechCrunch readers – you can find more LMS analysis at e-Literate at this link.)

e-Commerce Setup

Since we understand the challenges of institutional purchasing rules, we would like to make ordering the subscription as easy as possible. With the initial release we accepted credit cards and PayPal. Due to several requests, however, we have added an option for invoices and purchase orders as well.

Omar Money

Upcoming Webinars

Now that we’re past the various LMS users conferences, we are planning a September subscribers-only webinar where Michael and I discuss what we heard in more depth and hold a live Q&A.

We are also working with NobleStream to hold a series of three webinars – open to all – in November.

The Learning Platform is becoming ever more central to supporting the educational landscape as it continues to transform. Educators must parse through vendor marketing buzz while vendors must understand institutional decision-making processes. That’s where our guides, Michael Feldstein and Phil Hill come in. In our three-part series, the brain trust at e-Literate share their journey to becoming thought leaders in the Higher Ed/EdTech space. We’ll hear from change-agent educators that understand the importance of the pedagogy beyond technology platforms. Finally Phil and Michael rationalize the Learning Platform decision, making selection and implementation easier for both institutions and the myriad vendors in the marketplace.

The webinars will be held November 2, 9, and 16th at 2:00pm ET. Sign up at NobleStream here.

Upcoming Fall Report

As part of the service, we are releasing a spring and fall report each year. The fall report will give updates on market data for the US and Canadian higher education market as well as two additional components:

  • Extension to Northern Europe – We are working with our partners at LISTedTECH to extend our coverage to different global regions, and this fall we will be have initial coverage of northern Europe. This will include regional market share data and additional coverage of regional LMS providers.
  • Initial Vendor Profiles – One request we often see in our consulting work is to address the basic profile of each of the major LMS providers. Hold old are the platforms and companies, what size is the organization, who are the major customers, etc. The fall report will include concise summaries of these profiles.

We’ve had a great start and sincerely appreciate our early subscribers and look forward to building a rich network over time. If your school or consortium or company is facing strategic decisions on LMS usage – vendor selection, external scans to keep up with market, tracking the market and competitors, or looking at investment opportunities – we would love for you to join. Order your subscription here.

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Last week I had a post in the Chronicle titled “MOOCs Are Dead. Long Live Online Higher Education.” triggered by the departure of Daphne Koller from her day-to-day role at Coursera.

Mr. Ng left Coursera in 2014 for Baidu, focusing on deep learning research. Mr. Thrun stepped down as chief executive of Udacity in April of this year to reduce his day-to-day responsibilities. He is now president of Kitty Hawk, a company focused on the development of flying cars. And Ms. Koller recently left Coursera to become chief computing officer at Calico, a company that researches human aging.

Addressing the question of business models:

So will these changes in corporate vision and leadership change the long-term trajectory of MOOCs?

I would argue that there never was a viable vision for MOOCs in higher education in the first place. The big three MOOC providers’ trial-and-error efforts to find a viable business model are what led to their shifts in strategy and ultimately the departure of their founders for fields outside of education. It may be that making meaningful changes in higher ed is more difficult or at least more frustrating than designing flying cars or tackling the complexities of aging.

With today’s announcement from Coursera, their pivot continues, building on their move over the past year to go to on-demand courses. Coursera is making a big shift to corporate workforce development as described by CEO Rick Levin on the company blog this morning.

Coursera was founded with the vision of providing life-transforming learning experiences to anyone, anywhere. We’ve come a long way since our launch in 2012; we now have over 21 million registered learners throughout the world, and we’re bringing them outstanding educational content from 145 of the world’s leading universities.

Today, we are taking yet another important step in our effort to expand the Coursera learner community. I am excited to announce Coursera for Business, our enterprise platform for workforce development at scale. We see Coursera for Business as a natural extension of our vision, and as a powerful way to help leading companies around the world address the rapidly evolving training and development needs of their employees.

I suspect, based on past behavior, that Coursera will try to maintain that this is an addition and not a pivot. For all of the faults of Udacity and founder Sebastian Thrun, he has been remarkably direct about the failure of San Jose State University’s MOOC failure and about the company’s pivot to corporate learning. I would hope that Coursera will do the same.

Why a pivot instead of an addition? Start with the subtle shift in the description of their vision. Back in early 2012:

We are committed to making the best education in the world freely available to any person who seeks it. We envision people throughout the world, in both developed and developing countries, using our platform to get access to world-leading education that has so far been available only to a tiny few. We see them using this education to improve their lives, the lives of their families, and the communities they live in.

The original vision was disrupting “education”, not “learning experiences”. The idea was that higher education needed broader access and a new approach. The result might or might not have included a degree, but the idea was to change postsecondary education.

Consider Daphne Koller’s TED talk that helped launch the company. Her setup was all about higher education.

Like many of you, I’m one of the lucky people. I was born to a family where education was pervasive. I’m a third-generation PhD, a daughter of two academics. In my childhood, I played around in my father’s university lab. So it was taken for granted that I attend some of the best universities, which in turn opened the door to a world of opportunity. [snip]

But even in parts of the world like the United States where education is available, it might not be within reach. There has been much discussed in the last few years about the rising cost of health care. What might not be quite as obvious to people is that during that same period the cost of higher education tuition has been increasing at almost twice the rate, for a total of 559 percent since 1985. This makes education unaffordable for many people.

Now the history is being subtly rewritten, and there is another historical issue in this statement from the blog post:

We’ve always known that many of our learners are housed within companies, and that many of you are using Coursera to build skills relevant to your jobs.

I believe it is more accurate to state that Coursera targeted higher ed students and discovered that many users were in companies and already had jobs. Kudos to Coursera for recognizing this and making changes to address their customers. But let’s not pretend that “we’ve always known”. Coursera may keep some of their higher education initiatives, but don’t be mistaken – corporate learning is where they see the majority of their future revenue. This is a pivot.

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In Spring 2016, faculty, support staff and administrators at Oregon State University met to candidly share their experiences with adaptive learning technology. I shared two different videos from the event at EdSurge in this article.

At one point I asked what people saw as risks or barriers to further adoption of adaptive learning courseware, and two people had very similar responses. In a nutshell, the over-active marketing claims from many vendors could be the biggest barrier. This is somewhat counter-intuitive as over-active marketing is commonly seen as the cause of technology being adopted even when it should not be. Listen to their responses (< 30 seconds).

Keep in mind that these are educators who chose to attend the adaptive learning workshop and have a general interest in the technology. These are not hard core skeptics. It’s as if we’re hearing potential advocates say Houston, we’ve had a problem[1].

We have been critical here at e-Literate when we find ed tech vendors making spurious marketing claims, and Michael in particular has parlayed this into well-deserved NPR fame. But these answers from OSU go further and suggest that marketing claims are harming the vendors themselves. Our primary concern is whether faculty and staff have accurate information to support their own decision-making, and not the financial health of vendors, but this view of self-limitation is an interesting one to consider.

I talked to George Siemens today to find out to get a broader perspective of vendors making research claims and efficacy claims that cannot be backed up. Seimens agreed that this is a broad problem, for all of ed tech. In our discussion, he brought up two interesting points.

Even before the vendors make their marketing claims, educators in general and researchers in particular “don’t have access to data that would allow us to evaluate whether they’re over-promising.” For a program such as one-to-one laptops, the educational community has the data – which students have what, the pre- and post- conditions, and general information for evaluation of the efficacy of the program. For adaptive learning and other technologies delivered remotely with proprietary applications, “we don’t own the data” and we “don’t have the avenue to evaluate claims; we have to rely on vendors to tell us.”

This situation requires a high level of trust, and that trust is just not present in the current environment. Siemens thinks that personalized and adaptive learning are provocative and exciting ideas based on real educational needs. So what would improve the current level of distrust and faulty claims? Siemens suggested that “We, the research community, should be able to see what’s happening under the hood.” Acknowledging that some vendors would consider their algorithms and data proprietary, he did not suggest completely open data. The situation would “best be served by [academic researchers] signing contracts to get data out”, allowing independent research and analysis. Note that this suggestion goes beyond independent research on program outcomes only, but getting access to internal data and even algorithms.

When I asked Siemens about the adoption question, he was not sure how over-promising affected adoption in general, but he noted the Teresa Sullivan effect (the University of Virginia president who was ousted then reinstated based on not acting early enough with MOOCs). At least for pilots, the educational community is “buying impression that you’re not falling behind” rather than buying real data and real results.

I believe these two views are consistent – that vendor over-promising is a major barrier to further adoption of adaptive learning and that pilots don’t really rely on efficacy data. The adoption in question is when schools or departments seek to move beyond pilots and get multiple courses or even entire programs to use similar technology. That is where adaptive learning is today – lots of pilots, lots of claims that cannot be backed up, and difficulty getting more faculty and programs to evaluate given unknown results.

Should we see broader adoption of adaptive learning? Maybe, maybe not. And that is the problem – we don’t know under which conditions broader adoption (and adaptation from initial pilots) makes sense or doesn’t make sense. Vendors should be very cautious about promising results and instead promise to work with schools to help them get results. And one key step towards a healthier environment would be opening access to data and algorithms for academic researchers to do independent analysis.

  1. Yes, this is the actual quote from the Apollo 13 mission. The movie changed it to the present tense, leading to the saying that most people know.

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Goldie Blumenstyk had a fascinating interview with the Depart of Education’s Ted Mitchell on Friday that is well worth reading and / or watching (they have video of the interview along with full transcript). One of Mitchell’s key points jumped off the page for me.

I think it [College Scorecard] was one of the department and the administration’s greatest victories

Really? I can see the consolidation of student loans, a strong focus on college affordability, shifting of conversation away from just elite schools, and significant push on funding public schools as worthy victories to mention. But the College Scorecard – I don’t buy it.

Blumenstyk pushed back on Mitchell, which led to this interesting exchange [emphasis added].

GOLDIE BLUMENSTYK: I’m glad you mentioned the College Scorecard. I was thinking about that a little bit. It’s probably one of the places where the department had perhaps its biggest defeat, or maybe you might consider it a retreat. We were originally envisioning the Scorecard as a tool for accountability. Obviously, a lot of colleges and a lot of other people opposed that idea. And it became a complicated process even to create the effective scorecard. What did you learn from that process?

TED MITCHELL: So I guess I would have a slightly different interpretation.

GOLDIE BLUMENSTYK: I would imagine.

TED MITCHELL: I think it was one of the department and the administration’s greatest victories in two ways. First of all, we made an ambitious goal. We worked hard to get there. And as we got closer, we realized that the goal might be the wrong one and that the kind of accountability that we had talked about at the beginning of the process isn’t the kind of accountability that we think really, actually does matter on the ground. The kind of ability — excuse me. I get so excited talking about Scorecard. The kind of accountability that matters on the ground is the kind of accountability that allows an individual user to identify what’s important to them, to get reliable information about that, and then to make decisions about it.

We decided that it’s better for students and parents and counselors and helpers to be able to ask the queries that they want to ask rather than to hear what the government thinks is rated A, B, or C. So I think we listened. We learned. And we came up with a product that’s superior than what we started with.

Let’s take this argument and see where it takes us. Just under a year ago, Russ Poulin from WCET and I wrote a series of posts calling out major flaws in the College Scorecard, culminating in a joint article in the Washington Post. In these posts, we called out the following flaws in the Scorecard:

  1. The data set is limited to Title IV schools, excluding those who don’t accept federal financial aid;
  2. (At the time) the Scorecard excluded nearly one in three 2-year colleges;
  3. Graduation rates are based on first-time full-time student cohorts that represent less than 20% of all students;
  4. Transfer rates are not included; and
  5. Average costs of attendance are based only on the roughly 50% of students taking federal financial aid.

Of these issues, nearly one year later, only problem #2 has been fixed (and kudos to ED for this fix). Problem #1 doesn’t affect that many schools, so we’ll ignore that for now.

Graduation and Transfer Rates

Earlier in the interview Mitchell acknowledged a very important point.

I think one of the things that has motivated the Obama administration from the beginning has been a recognition that in order to achieve our goals as a country and in order to support individuals in their striving for better lives, we have to understand that the college student of today is not the college student of my generation or your generation. The 18-year-old who got dropped off in the minivan at State U. is not a majority anymore. It’s the 24-year-old returning veteran. It’s the 36-year-old single mom. It’s the person who’s fully employed trying to up skill.

Then why does the ED continue to use first-time full-time student cohorts – “the 18-year-old who got dropped off in the minivan at State U” – to measure graduation rates? In this post last year I pointed out that University of Maryland University College (UMUC) has less than 2% of their students fitting this first-time full-time definition, yet the College Scorecard screams out at the user that the school has only a 4% graduation rate[1].


UMUC has the data on different cohorts that give graduation rates from 18% – 56%, yet none of this matters for the Scorecard.

There is also no acknowledgement that “success” does not always equal graduation – it can include transferring from a 2-year to a 4-year school. This data is available in a data dump from the Scorecard, but it is nowhere to be found for the consumer web page that the vast majority of prospective students and parents will use. From my post:

Consider the harm done to prospective UMUC students by seeing the flawed, over-simplified ED College Scorecard data, and consider the harm done to UMUC as they have to play defense and explain why prospects should see a different situation. Given the estimate that non-traditional students – those who would not be covered at all in IPEDS graduation rates – comprise more than 70% of all students, you can see how UMUC is not alone. Community colleges face an even bigger problem with the lack of transfer rate reporting.

Average Costs

There are similar problems when considering the average cost of attendance, since those measurements come solely from students taking federal financial aid. Glendale Community College did a study on the effects of this measure on the group of community colleges in the Los Angeles area.

Enrollment fees are set by the state legislature, so all community colleges in the state charge the same amount there. Other fees are set by the colleges, but they shouldn’t be too different, should they? Cost of living varies widely across the state, so maybe that is factored in and would cause variations.

This is the reason that the study focused just one the Los Angeles area, to minimize (but not eliminate) variations in cost of living.

California community college fees are very low compared to fees in most states, and nearly all low-income students receive state aid such as Board of Governors (BOG) fee waivers. Students who receive no federal financial aid are not included in the Scorecard cost indicator, even if they receive BOG waivers and other state aid.

The result is an enormous variation in average costs measures that bears little resemblance to reality for the majority of students. I updated Glendale’s chart to include data on six colleges that were missing as of last fall.

GCC Study Updated

Accountability Without Accuracy

I’ll go back to Mitchell’s definition of the great accountability achieved with the Scorecard.

The kind of accountability that matters on the ground is the kind of accountability that allows an individual user to identify what’s important to them, to get reliable information about that, and then to make decisions about it.

The data in the Scorecard is flawed, and I am stunned to see this listed as one of their greatest victories.

  • For the vast majority of students who are not first-time full-time students, they have no access to realistic graduation rates and the ones presented are misleading.
  • For the more than 50% of students not taking federal financial aid, they have no access to realistic average costs of attendance, and in cases where there is significant state aid, the resulting data can be non-sensical.

I’ll end with the concluding paragraphs from the Washington Post article I wrote with Russ Poulin.

We applaud the concept of a Scorecard. A consolidated, consumer-focused website with accurate, comparable data on every institution could do more to improve institutional behavior than a boatload of regulations. Just consider how colleges jockey to improve their position on the current (less reliable) rankings sites.

It is difficult for students to have a clear vision of the future, when they are looking at it through fuzzy lenses.

  1. Graduation rates measured at 150% of nominal time; thus 6-year rates for 4-year schools and 3-year rates for 2-year schools.

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As I have described to several executives at D2L, there is an interesting gap between the progress we have seen with the company’s product improvements and the reaction we hear from many of their customers. With the tighter integration with LeaP and the improved usability, particularly in content authoring, I would have expected to hear more customers react to the changes. But when talking directly to many of the institutions using the Brightspace LMS, staff describe D2L as if the company and product line had not changed in several years. What is not clear is whether this gap is due the company missing the mark (and my judgement of improvements not aligning with what colleges and universities want) or whether there is just a lag where it will take time for most customers to believe in and take advantage the new product designs and features.

2016 has been an eventful year for D2L. COO Cheryl Ainoa, a longtime veteran of Yahoo! and most recently Intuit, joined the company in April. Although this move was not advertised through press releases or even blog posts, I believe this is a significant change to how the company operates. This is not the first time that D2L has reached outside the industry for a top executive, as they employed Dennis Kavelman from RIM / Blackberry as COO from 2012 – 2014 (the period where D2L raised $165 million in two mammoth funding rounds). But I have heard that the addition of Ainoa has already seen results internally. And in the ‘keeping work in perspective’ category, founder and CEO John Baker and his wife had their first child right before the Fusion Users Conference.


On the product front, D2L has positioned itself to offer as many leading features within the LMS as possible. While the company has been quite active with IMS Global to work on interoperability standards, it appears that in their hearts D2L would prefer to have users stay within the LMS. They have added their own adaptive learning software through the acquisition of Knowillage (now known as LeaP), although LeaP still integrates with most other LMSs. They have added many features to enable Competency-Based Education, including automation of feedback and automatic triggers for next steps, to a greater degree than most of their competitors.

More recently D2L has started to introduce the Daylight Experience, meant to upgrade the user experience of faculty and students using Brightspace. Daylight has started to roll out this summer with the goals of providing a great first impression, enable responsive design, and simplifying the visual design. Below is a view of what’s next as Daylight applies to Brightspace.

D2L Daylight

From the demos I’ve seen, D2L has made the biggest usability improvements to the system in terms of course design, allowing drag-and-drop, and simplified workflows. The primary features of the Brightspace LMS (and LeaP adaptive platform) that D2L is emphasizing are those that enable personalized learning and competency-based education. For a view of Daylight changes to the LMS, see the Fusion (D2L users conference) keynote starting at 12:30; for more of the view of outcomes / CBE features in the LMS, see keynote starting at 39:56.

Market Position

On the sales front, D2L has experienced somewhat slow but steady growth in new US / Canadian higher education clients as seen below, but they have not had the big-name wins of the caliber of UMUC[1], Tennessee Board of Regents, University System of Georgia, as they had 2013 and earlier. This year, however, D2L’s Brightspace has been selected at Kaplan University for higher ed, and Florida Virtual School and the State of New Mexico for K-12. It is worth noting that for the recent wins, the client (or D2L, these are press releases after all) chose to make the personalized learning aspect of Brightspace a key differentiator.

Implementations Update June 2016

D2L has made an aggressive effort to win those schools such as Kaplan that are forced to migrate from Pearson’s LearningStudio due to that system’s end-of-life notice earlier this year. In fact, Pearson and D2L have partnered by a preferred vendor arrangement that has helped Texas Christian University, Saint Leo University and several others choose to migrate to Brightspace.

Brightspace is the recommended LMS for Pearson LearningStudio customers, who consist of institutions with full or partial online programs and who were notified of Pearson’s plan to retire the Pearson LearningStudio platform.

At the same time, D2L has long had a reputation for strong customer retention, keeping 98 – 99% of their clients each year. There have been client losses, primarily to Canvas (San Jose State University, for example), but not that many of them. See the very bottom of this chart for comparative size of D2L migrations away from their LMS.


While D2L has had some big wins this year, they also face some big losses (partially due to Unizin). The University of Iowa, Ohio State University, and Oklahoma University have already chosen to migrate to Canvas, and the University of Wisconsin Madison has joined Unizin but not formally chosen to migrate its LMS. We have not yet seen a significant change in market data in our LMS subscription service data, but these specific accounts – both wins and losses – could indicate upcoming market share changes.

And this gets back to the gap noted in the first paragraph. When I talk to people at schools migrating from D2L or considering whether to migrate, I do not hear much about the recent product changes or the new management described above. For several of these schools, the issue isn’t even whether they like or dislike the recent product and management changes, it’s as if these changes are a non issue in their decision-making. No conclusions yet, just noting the gap.

Why Second-Hand?

The reason I titled this post as a second-hand view is that D2L is the only major LMS provider (and I include Moodle and Sakai here) that discouraged our participation in their users conference (and we did not attend), citing concerns over direct conversations with attendees without getting their permission first. Other providers are happy to allow and even encourage this type of interaction. In the nature of full disclosure, we think it is important for the reader to understand this difference in access.

Michael and I value the ability to not just hear official presentations and get in-depth demos, but to also go, roam, and talk to customers. D2L staff did go out of their way to provide demos and to have knowledgeable staff available on the calls, but this is different than hearing from colleges and universities about their experience and judgement. We do have other tools at our disposal, including our consulting work for schools, but we’re limited in what we can do with that information due to confidentiality agreements. We also get unsolicited reports from LMS customers, but those tend to skew towards the negative as people are more inclined to share bad experiences than good. And of course we do a lot of online secondary research, including analysis of social media posts.

I will note that I heard that the Fusion users conference reaction seemed very positive. One source in particular noted a lot of energy in the hall and positive reception to the announced changes to the product line, to the point where they were very surprised by what they were seeing (had not expected to be impressed).

Nevertheless, while we are seeing and reporting on some positive developments with D2L, our confidence in how well those changes are actually impacting real customers is limited. General feedback from the conference seemed to be positive, but individual conversations with several schools paints a different picture. So take some of this analysis with a grain of salt. We are working with D2L to improve our ability to benefit from future conferences and get more insight in the future. In the meantime, it will be important to watch and see if D2L can extend some of the bigger higher ed wins for other LearningStudio schools and even beyond, and if D2L can avoid losing more big name accounts.

  1. Disclosure: I advised UMUC during their strategy and evaluation process in 2011-2012.

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David Bainbridge, CEO of UK-based Knowledgemotion, wrote a post on Saturday in TechCrunch titled “Edtech is the next fintech” calling out the huge, untapped potential of EdTech. Thanks to Alan Levine for sharing this one. Spoiler alert:

But this is just the tip of the iceberg. The opportunities edtech promises the world’s largest content providers, the biggest educational institutions and any investor looking for a “sure thing” are almost endless. While it might be slightly late to the “digital-first” party, edtech is poised to be the biggest and possibly most profitable digitalized sector yet.

This is exciting! Not only could EdTech be the biggest market sector yet, it is also “also the safest bet for investors”. Oh my goodness, tell me more.

First of all “FinTech” is short-hand for financial companies that are changing the financial and banking industries. Think PayPal and Intuit for old-timers, or Square, or multiple payment processing companies letting other companies accept payments over the Internet. To get an idea of this market, consider global financing to fintech from 2010 – 2015.


This gets to the TechCrunch article’s real setup, noting that investors might not keep investing in fintech at the same rates:

This presents a window of opportunity for investors trying to spot, catch and ride the wave of the next “fintech.”

Enter edtech — 2017’s big, untapped and safe investor opportunity.

Safe and huge? Let’s go.

There are a few caveats to consider first, however. Let’s call them quibbles.

Timing and Shape of Investment Waves

It turns out that if you read TechCrunch, you might have seen a 2015 article showing that edtech actually predates fintech in investment waves. There was one in 1999 – 2000 that quickly fizzled, and the currently one started in 2007 – well before the ramp up in fintech and much slower.

And unfortunately for those wanting to catch the upcoming wave, there are some strong signs that the wave has already crested. As CB Insights described in April EdTech, financing for the sector has started to slump and deals “have flatlined”.

Dollars vs. Knowledge

There is the additional detail that FinTech’s actual product is flow of dollars (or Yuan, Euros, Pounds, whatever) while EdTech’s actual product is flow of knowledge in people. If there are more efficient and useful business models to process money, individuals and companies can shift quickly and with no real change in the value of the dollar itself. If there are alternate ways to educate people, it takes a long, long time for the people to flow through a new system, and the nature of learning and knowledge gained might be completely different. Look at MOOCs, which promised new business models and new flows of people. In EdTech, there are often new models (consider coding bootcamps for a more recent example), but the typical response is not to completely replace schools or institutions, but rather for these schools to slowly (and painfully) adapt and pick up many of the same technologies and approaches.

And it is very easy to measure the results of FinTech – you can see how many dollars flow through different gateways or processing systems, and the value of the underlying unit does not change. But when student change how they are educated, it is very difficult to measure the results. How much did someone learn, and what is the efficacy of the new approach? Knowledge does not have precise definitions and assessments are nowhere close to perfect measurements. And even more, there are multiple interdependent variables that cannot be separated – course design, teaching quality, student demographics, etc, etc. As Michael described in the Chronicle after the SRI analysis of Gates Foundation-funded adaptive learning programs:

That said, the murkiness of the results are not only, or even mainly, due to the limitations of adaptive learning. This study is plagued by a fundamental and pervasive methodological problem in educational research — namely, that it is often either impossible or unethical to control variables in a way that gets empirically solid, reproducible results.

Anyone who has had at least one high-school science class will probably remember that the key to doing science is to control the variables. To measure the impact of a variable, one must make sure that the variable is the only relevant detail that changes in your experiment. In educational research, the biggest variables are often the students.

There are efforts such as competency-based education that do attempt to better define learning outcomes and shift students to new models, but there are efforts on the periphery. The point here is that students are not dollars and knowledge is not easily measurable.

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) reported inconclusive results in their worldwide study last year of the results of technology usage in schools. As the OECD education director described:

But Mr Schleicher says the findings of the report should not be used as an “excuse” not to use technology, but as a spur to finding a more effective approach.

The challenge for “scaling” in EdTech is not fundamentally about new technology. It is about finding out effective teaching practices and professional development efforts that leverage EdTech. The scaling or diffusion of innovations by the nature of education will be long and complex – not at all fast and disruptive in the same way as online payment processing or similar FinTech innovations.

Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?

Other than the EdTech wave actually starting and peaking much earlier and much slower than FinTech, and other than the underlying product being on the opposite ends of the spectrum in term of complexity and ability to measure results, and other than the lack of massive scaling for new EdTech, the author is right that EdTech is an upcoming wave to spot and ride just like FinTech. Fine article and high-quality editing.

OK, I take that back, even the play sucked. What this TechCrunch article describes is exactly what we don’t need in EdTech and really doesn’t work in EdTech. We don’t need investors looking for get-rich-quick schemes and unlimited profits from an over-simplified understanding of education, expecting quick results. There are plenty of examples of proper technology usage enhancing learning and enriching student lives. And there is a valuable role for careful investment to enable the development of EdTech. Technology does have enormous potential in education. But what we need is patient and knowledgeable capital – investors willing wait for good ideas to mature and be ready to spread without pushing companies to scale too early. We need investors who understand that the greatest opportunities in EdTech come when the technology enables new pedagogical approaches in the hands of caring and knowledgeable educators. Pure platform plays in EdTech are very rare at least in terms of providing real results. Education requires more of a services approach in combination with the technology. Working with educators, learning from them, applying different solutions in different contexts.

No, EdTech is not the next FinTech, and that is a good thing. Unlike the article.

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LMS evaluations are typically painful ordeals for not just committee members but also for the vendors. They have to provide multiple demos, have lots of Q&A, and write 100+ page proposals based on extensive feature requirements and perhaps even more painful terms and conditions. But there is one case that might be worse – not even getting to compete when your product appears to be an excellent fit. And that is the situation that Schoology finds it in for the majority of higher ed evaluations.

Schoology’s original market was aimed US-based K-12 institutions, and for paying school or district LMS selections Schoology is probably one of the two strongest competitors, along with Canvas. Schoology does have an international presence and over the past year and a half have targeted an expansion into higher ed. Michael wrote a post after the company raised $32 million in new funding last fall, largely to fund this expansion. I described the institution-wide adoption by Wheaton College in Spring 2016, following the Colorado State University Global Campus adoption in early 2015. But what I don’t see is a real acceleration in the higher ed market yet. There are a few significant LMS active evaluations that include Schoology, but the majority of higher ed LMS evaluations over the past two years have not treated Schoology as a real competitor. Based on what I’ve seen, this lack of evaluation is not based on the product itself.


Schoology is one of the new generation of learning platforms designed natively for the cloud (on Amazon Web Services, where else?) and designed with an intuitive interface both on web and mobile. From a product perspective, it is hard to find significant deficiencies as the depth of features is comparable to Blackboard, D2L and Moodle, yet the system has avoided succumbing to feature bloat. There are cases where the market terminology of K-12 embedded in the product interface needs to be altered to not confuse higher ed institutions, but this is different than having missing features or features that miss the mark.

The most notable design that is unique to the Schoology is the Facebook-style “Recent Activity Feed”. This feature can be applied at a course level, group level, or for an individual (therefore across courses and groups). Faculty members and course designers have the option of setting Updates (think of these are mini announcements with comments) as the default view for a course instead of Materials, which gives a more traditional LMS view. The result is a feed in the center column (primary viewing space of the platform, labeled as ‘2’ from this support post).

Home Screen Labeled

This feature is significant, and it is different than other LMS activity feeds that tend to list recent content and activity types (list of announcements, as can be seen with Canvas and Blackboard’s Learn Ultra). Note that there is a quick entry for Updates, Assignments and Events – this allows faculty to use the system largely based on the feed if desired. What I’ve heard from quite a few K-12 teachers (at the Schoology NEXT users conference and at ISTE) as well as higher ed instructors is a general view of “I don’t need training to use the system, it’s just like using Facebook.” Students also experience the system differently through this feature. Several of the customers I’ve talked to this summer have emphasized the greater natural usage of the LMS by teachers and faculty after adopting Schoology.

Beyond the activity feed, there is fairly robust functionality for Mastery-based pedagogies such as competency-based education (CBE). Instructors and course designers can choose from a number of options of student completion rules to create a pathway.


At ISTE and the Schoology users conference, the company announced a new Assessment Management Platform (AMP) aimed at development of assessment authoring, common test banks, and outcomes reporting at a level beyond the course – for departments, programs, or institutions. The press release and demonstrations to date have been focused on K-12 usage, but I believe there will be a secondary ‘release’ prior to EDUCAUSE for the higher ed market. From the users conference, CEO and co-founder Jeremy Friedman described how AMP is positioned.

“AMP is starting to the pave the way towards personalization,” Jeremy explained. “How it’s doing that is it allows you to create assessments outside the context of a course. And so what you’ll be able to do is build an assessment outside the context of a course. You’ll be able to push it into multiple courses. You’ll be able to make an update once and have that update push everywhere. And you’ll be able to roll up all that information. You’ll be able to see mastery and numerical results across courses, across an institution. You’ll be able to enact change.”

For the few colleges and universities that have fully evaluated Schoology at the same level as Canvas, Blackboard, D2L, Moodle or Sakai, there a sense of surprise at how well the product matches higher ed needs and how rich is the feature set.

Market Barriers

So why hasn’t Schoology made a stronger presence in higher ed yet, and will this change in the near future? While no one fully knows the answer to those questions, there are a few theories worth considering.

The most obvious one is the historical one-way valve between edtech in higher ed and K-12 markets. There are plenty of examples of tech moving from higher ed to K-12 but very few in reverse. For LMS, Canvas started out mostly in higher ed, but at this point they have more K-12 customers than higher ed and soon might have similar revenue between the markets (K-12 institutions typically pay roughly half as much per student for an LMS as would a college or university). D2L and Blackboard have long had K-12 clients, and recently D2L’s biggest client wins have been in K-12 (the state of New Mexico and Florida Virtual School in particular). The perception is that edtech developed for colleges and universities can work in K-12 as long as there are methods to reduce clutter and make the interface much simpler for both K-12 teachers and students.

Schoology, however, is attempting to go the opposite direction. From what I’ve seen and heard, the challenge is not the product itself as much as the perception of K-12 systems. R1 universities have enough trouble accepting technology that is used in community colleges, and getting them to think of K-12 technology is much more difficult. Schoology’s market presence, including press releases and web site content, reinforces the perception that this is a K-12 system. Schoology’s success in K-12 is working against them in higher ed.

At the same time, there is a question about the market’s appetite for another native-cloud highly-usable LMS in higher ed. In terms of mindshare, Canvas has that category locked up right now. While a second competitor makes sense from a general market perspective (more companies delivering what schools seem to want), it might not make as much sense in higher ed where there has been a historical tendency to accept a very small number of vendors. Institutions do not have a clear sense of why they should consider both Canvas and Schoology as options, at least until they dig deeper.

Typically edtech solutions get over this type of barrier once they have strong reference accounts. For Canvas, the selection by the Utah Education Network got people’s attention, but the Brown University selection signaled that it was safe to evaluate the new LMS back in 2011. For Schoology, they have clients that are outliers – a somewhat unique online arm of Colorado State U, several Christian colleges, and two isolated community colleges – but do not yet have more mainstream references. Beyond the pack mentality aspect of this tendency to wait for other schools to jump first, there is the risk factor to consider. Because Schoology does not have many higher ed clients, at least at the institutional level, we don’t fully know how well the company works with universities. Early schools looking at Schoology will have to take some risk and will need some deep-dive evaluations on their own.

At the NEXT conference, there was one other issue raised during the opening keynote – company maturity.

Schoology Mature

While the product seems quite mature, I believe the company is aware that they need to improve their organizational capabilities to address the market barriers described above.

Keep Watching

There are other LMSs out there with limited adoption at the institution level for higher ed, but Schoology is the one that seems most likely to have a real impact on the market. If they can figure out how to overcome the market barriers in expanding from K-12 into a higher ed market that tends to favor a small number of competitors. Schoology needs mindshare if they are to succeed in higher ed, and this challenge requires much more than strength of their product offering.

We’ll keep watching and updating on e-Literate.

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