14 October 2011

Is Google's LMS a Blackboard Killer?

The Twitterverse is quite excited about the news that Pearson and Google have teamed up to produce a free Learning Management System (thanks for the tip, Mike Krywy). OpenClass has the potential, some say, of breaking the dominance of proprietary software such as Blackboard and—well, I guess all of the ones that Blackboard has bought in the past decade—in higher ed. But with support built in by Google, there seems to be the potential as well to overtake the proliferation of open source solutions such as Moodle and Canvas (which Utah recently adopted).

I haven't looked at the features of OpenClass yet. My first impression is that this isn't big as it sounds, at least on the immediately. But there is long-term potential to change the players in the field dramatically, depending on what Google and Pearson do here.

Open-source LMSs often work from a "free software, paid support and integration" model. Canvas is a good example. Instructure developed the software, and then, rather than charging for the license, makes it freely available for users to license. But the free license is only part of the cost of the system; someone has to host, install, customize, integrate with the other systems, and maintain it. Instructure will do that for a user. For a price, of course. Customization and support are where the real money is on those kinds of things.

While OpenClass eliminates the support costs, it doesn't do away with the customization and integration aspects.Colleges and universities don't want a hodgepodge of different systems, processes, and looks for doing different things. I'm not sure that a one-size-fits-all approach will be the ideal solution for any institution.

Institutions want the LMS to be integrated to the student and personnel data and course scheduling systems, so that the LMS creates courses as soon as they are scheduled and students and faculty are populated directly into those courses. That means at the least different flavors for users of Banner and PeopleSoft, as well as customized integration for users of other systems. Some, at least, would like grade information to flow directly into such systems. They want their courses to look like the rest of the institution's online presence, to the extent possible using the school's colors, the branded typefaces and page styles, the language from their policy manual (e.g., "credits" rather than "hours").

Comparing this to doing a survey with Google Docs is useful. Student surveys are a big part of my work in institutional research, and the software for conducting them isn't cheap. Google Docs allows a user to create a form that can be used for a survey. It is possible to pass a unique URL to the form so the user's information is available to it and to skip some questions based on previous answers, two absolute requirements for my surveys. The technical features are (mostly) there. But the "docs.google.com" URL and the inability to match branded formatting keeps me from using it. I can't make the survey a Utah Valley University survey, and I need that in my survey software.

So, short-term, I'm underwhelmed. But if this is the free version that entices a paid, Google-powered enterprise version along the lines of what they do with Gmail, I think that would be a game-changer. Their skills in doing really great things on the user end would put them way ahead of virtually anyone in the LMS game, and having the Google name behind the system gives it technical credibility that no one else can match. An institutionally branded LMS that was integrated with campus systems but developed and hosted by Google would likely leave Blackboard dead in the water.

You may notice that I haven't said much about Pearson in all of this. Frankly, I think their contribution here is minimal. I don't think having this as a gateway to content alone is enough to motivate adoption. I assume that the content provided would be limited to Pearson's materials and whatever the instructor provides. That would probably work well for general education courses if I want to use a Pearson textbook. But in an upper-level course I might want to assign a textbook from another textbook publisher and a monograph from a university press. Pearson's content isn't enough to make a difference in which system I use.

If my campus is using OpenClass, then, sure, maybe I stick with the American Government text from them that I currently use (even though I think it is pretty weak, and I say that having written supplements for the last two editions). So this might drive sales of content their direction, and is probably a modestly good business move to be involved in this. Until, that is, this gets big enough that other publishers want in on the act; Google's past precedents don't suggest that they'll really embrace long-term exclusivity with any one content provider. Eventually, Pearson's first-mover advantage will disappear.

My one fear about Pearson's involvement in this is eCollege, Pearson's proprietary LMS. I had the misfortune of using it at a proprietary institution once. It sucks. There's no other way of describing it. You cannot even rearrange the order of topics in a course while you're building it, which I think shows the level of thought about the users that went into it. I think it is really designed for a proprietary environment: pop in the Pearson-built prefab course, get someone halfway competent with a bachelor's degree in a somewhat related field to walk the students through it, and collect ridiculous tuition amounts.

I hope Google pretended that eCollege never existed. If Pearson was involved because they already had an LMS on which Google could build, all bets are off. The upside of Google is that they aren't afraid to fail, and that allows them to explore really innovative things. The downside is that they fail relatively often. Hopefully OpenClass is not the next Google Wave.

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