Year in Review: Top LMS Developments of 2015

As has now become a tradition, the Edutechnica team has compiled what we believe are some of the coolest developments and biggest challenges related to LMSs in 2015.

New and evolving takes on what a LMS should be and do

Each year, many LMS and LMS-like software packages push the limits or attempt to reinvent what we think of as today’s LMS. This year some of the interesting concepts we’ve seen include the following.

The ELMS Learning Network project is an open source learning platform which can, upon creation of a course, auto-wire different sets of learning tools together to support specific user experiences or online pedagogies. ELMLN gained traction this year and is rapidly working towards the capability of storing course content in GitHub where it can be shared and revisioned outside of the LMS.

CourseNetworking is a product concept which is trying to connect courses, content, and users from multiple universities into shared global learning spaces.

Beyond LMS provides tools and a framework for breaking free of the LMS but retaining some of the same functional capabilities to enable new pedagogies and teaching practices. The project’s Connected Learning Analytics Toolkit collects and aggregates learning analytics from across non-LMS systems using the Experience API (xAPI).

The Flipped LMS which is one instructor’s attempt to create an “open platform, in the control of instructors and students, that serves as an alternative front-end to the institutional LMS.” See is in action, running as a UI layer on top of Canvas, here.

EdCast which is attempting to bridge formal and informal learning by including guest speakers and enabling bite-sized lessons.

Cornerstone OnDemand (a corporate training LMS) announced a new product capability to “enable peer-to-peer knowledge capture and discussions that can extend the learning impact of TED Talks” in professional learning settings.

EDUCAUSE’s Next Generation Digital Learning Environment (NGDLE) project which, while not a specific product initiative, is attempting to establish the defining characteristics of future best-of-breed online learning environments.

OpenEdX which started as a MOOC platform but is increasingly being talked about as a new, more modern open source LMS. OpenEdX is neat to us because it has a novel plugin framework and includes a robust course authoring tool as part of its solution.

Kannu describes itself as a purpose-built LMS for courses that use immersive and media-rich content such as for enabling online classes in the arts and humanities.

TEx is “a first-of-its-kind mobile learning platform that offers a highly personalized education experience…that not only gives students the ability to access all course content on the iPad, but also allows faculty and coaches to track students’ progress in real-time.” It is currently in use by the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.

New entrants and indirect competition

Schoology has set its sights on using a recent round of funding to expand into higher ed. While most dominant LMSs started in higher ed and expanded into K12, Schoology could become the first major player to get its start in K12 and then evolve to meet higher ed-specific needs.

LinkedIn acquired Lynda this year which, given its previous acquisition of SlideShare in 2012, raises speculation in our minds of their longer-term intentions. Could LinkedIn one day expand to add LMS capabilities and support lifelong learning and skills mastery (and tie these to verified credentials and a professional portfolio)?

Workday also launched a LMS this year. While many speculate that it will (initially) be focused on corporate learning, Workday has also been expanding more aggressively into higher ed for its administrative software products.

A growing realization that course design is more important than the LMS

While last year the conversation seemed to change from debating specific technology choices to how to use specific technology products more effectively, this year the conversation seemed to evolve from how to use technology more effectively to how to evolve pedagogy and practice to better support new online learning approaches. This is encouraging and shows continued maturation in the space. In our opinion, instructional and functional needs should inform and drive technology design, not the other way around.

At the same time as we realize that course design and pedagogy are more important than the LMS used, other schools are finding that home-grown LMSs do not offer as significant a competitive advantage as was once thought and are switching to commercial off the shelf solutions. Apollo Group, the large operator of several for-profit universities, abandoned its efforts to build the ultimate home-grown LMS this year. The University of Auckland is also moving from a home-grown LMS to Canvas. And when a more custom or tailored LMS solution is desired, similar to SNHU’s decision to spin off Motivis Learning last year as a separate company to build its LMS, other schools are actively exploring new models for collaborating with software companies to achieve this goal.

Moodle maneuver mania

With the acquisitions of Remote Learner UK, X-Ray Analytics, and Nivel Siete, Blackboard established itself as the largest single commercial Moodle powerhouse this year. Because Moodle development is funded through partner revenue streams, these acquisitions in combination with Blackboard’s previous ones of Moodlerooms and NetSpot have prompted growing concern over the risk related to this continued concentration.

Also in the commercial Moodle space Totara, a LMS built on top of Moodle, announced this year that is has decided to fork its product to give the organization more flexibility over future direction without the constraint of having to remain in lock-step with the Moodle organization.  Remote Learner US and Canada also decided to leave the Moodle Partner program this year.

In an attempt to diversify from its historical reliance on partners for revenue, the Moodle Users Association was founded this year to accept resources (ie: mainly financial contributions) from schools, departments, individuals, and non-partner organizations who want to influence and contribute to ongoing and future Moodle development efforts.

Instructure continues its positive momentum

In addition to significant sustained growth in new US clients , Instructure also went public this year on the NYSE.  The company continues to exhibit exemplary decision-making abilities with how it manages its client relationships and product expectations.

A first institution publicly commits to Blackboard Learn SaaS/Ultra

While Blackboard has been talking about it’s SaaS/Ultra solution for a while, it wasn’t until very recently that we knew of even one institution that was openly committed to using it. We now know that University of Phoenix (of the for-profit Apollo Group) plans to move from a home-grown LMS to Blackboard’s newest solution.

From Blackboard’s perspective, this is a huge and significant win – both financially and psychologically. From Apollo’s perspective, they are moving from their risky strategy of building their own LMS to the risky strategy of choosing a new and unproven technology, but at least they will likely gain significant, early influence over the product roadmap.

Early productization of CBE LMSs

Institutions continue to struggle to define exactly how Competency Based Education will work, but it is clear that the impact of CBE is going to affect not only the LMS but many other systems, processes, and practices as well.

Ellucian acquired Helix, a CBE LMS, early in the year and then launched Brainstorm as its CBE-capable LMS later in the year. They are smart  to realize that the success of CBE programs will rely heavily on advancements not only to the LMS but also to SIS functions including financial/billing systems, registration, financial aid, and transcripts.

Cengage acquired Learning Objects this year. Learning Objects has received early traction with their Difference Engine CBE-capable learning platform.

Motivis Learning also continues to make progress with its CBE-capable learning platform as well. Built on top of Salesforce, the solution differentiates itself primarily with how it supports Learning Relationship Management, borrowing concepts from Customer Relationship Management (CRM) to improve student outcomes.

Keep in mind that there is still a lot of non-LMS-related modernization that needs to occur in higher education to make productization of CBE in the LMS a reality. Though many vendors are making claims that their products support CBE, LMS technology is only part of the solution.

Continued LMS consolidation

The spread of LMSs that institutions actively use in production continues to narrow suggesting a consolidation in the marketplace. Most institutions are standardizing on 6 major LMS platforms: Blackboard Learn 9.1, D2L Brightspace, Instructure Canvas, Moodle, Pearson’s Learning Studio, and Sakai – and fewer large schools are using “other” or alternative LMSs. With a dominant design now generally agreed upon, we believe that 2016 will see even more new takes on what a LMS should be.

Analytics and the LMS

Though version 1.0 of the Experience API was released in 2013 and is in use by over 140 adopters, it continues to be most popular in the corporate learning space. In higher education, another learning analytics standard launched in 2015 – IMS Caliper.

D2L was the first to announce support for Caliper in its Insights product that complements its Brightspace LMS in June.  Two days later, Instructure mentions Caliper support in their announcement for the Canvas Data product. Blackboard, however, a month later claimed to be the first LMS to comply with the specification (but only in its new SaaS product, not its Learn 9.1 product). Strangely, neither Instructure nor D2L appear on the official IMS Caliper certification chart (as of Dec 6). And no one is known to be using Blackboard’s new Learn SaaS product in production.

In our opinion, the increasing adoption of learning analytics will spur the creation of specialized data warehouse-like products that capture data for further analysis outside of the LMS. With the Experience API, this solution is referred to as a Learning Record Store (LRS). Caliper, however, “does not formally include an open, standards based event store/LRS in its initial scope.”

Increasing pain of plugged-in learning tools and “courseware vs LMS”

While standards like LTI have enabled massive improvements to technical interoperability, many schools are beginning to struggle with the management and policy of implementing new learning tools both piecemeal and at scale. Most apparently, plugging multiple tools into a LMS impacts usability. Different learning tools when linked from the uniform UI of a LMS look visibly different. The student and faculty experience across courses and across tools can often appear disjointed using different colors, terminology, navigation structures, and menu options. Faculty are often left to support these integrations independently as they are assumed by external vendors and internal IT support to “just work.”

There is also continued debate as to which open standards LMSs should support and how they should do so. Says Jon Dron, “we just have to be really careful about what we standardize and where we celebrate diversity” while avoiding standardizing at the wrong level – or mandating “standards built for horses and carriages when we have already invented helicopters.”

The way in which learning tools plug into the LMS also opens up licensing questions about digital content and courseware such as – is the plugin a technology purchase or a content purchase (which often have very different academic freedom and procurement implications) and who pays (the individual student, faculty member, department, or institution)? The LMS may not be at fault for these items, but it is certainly easy to blame. 2016 will be the year to get ahead of these challenges.

While there will always be challenges, we look forward to the solutions and new opportunities that 2016 brings. Wishing everyone a happy and restful end of the year.