This year, more than in any previous year of this study, the yearly LMS benchmarking data produced by Client Stat shows an increasing consolidation of the US higher education LMS market space. Legacy LMSs are being retired at a quickening pace, and at least one major player has decided to exit the market. During this same time, only one new entrant has exhibited promise as a sustainable LMS contender. While past historical consolidation of the LMS market resulted in aggressive behavior by incumbent vendors – and some would also argue the emergence of the open source Sakai LMS to counter-balance commercial LMS forces – this time, it is unlikely that history will repeat. In fact, there may very well be some upsides to this trend.
Fewer LMSs may result in vendors investing more resources in their own products instead of addressing competition
LMS providers for many years have been locked in an arms race of matching each other function-for-function in order to win RFPs with lengthy checklists of must-have features. Staying on top of the competition and allocating resources to build these features (and subsequently maintain them) costs a significant amount of money and time. With fewer LMSs to keep track of, LMS developers may turn their focus inward to identify and invest in truly differentiating features as opposed to keeping up with their neighbors.
Brokering consortium or pre-negotiated agreements may become easier for institutions
One of the most significant costs incurred by LMS providers occurs during the initial sales cycle, and the price and terms of each contract are complicated to negotiate individually. With fewer LMS vendors, universities (and in particular university systems) may gain an upper hand by negotiating blanket terms for multiple schools at once with each vendor. This may result in more standardized agreements that could lower the transaction costs of procuring LMSs for both universities and LMS providers.
Integrations with 3rd party learning apps may become better
Though helpful standards like IMS LTI exist to connect learning tools to LMSs, each version of each LMS is subtly different in nature. As a result, plugging the same learning tool into D2L Brightspace versus Instructure Canvas often provides very different, and often sub-par, end user and system administrator experiences. Most LMSs also provide APIs for partners to integrate with the LMS in a more robust way than LTI provides. Similarly to how most mobile apps only feature Android and iOS variants, developers are constrained in how many LMS integrations they can reasonably support. With fewer integrations to develop and maintain, learning app providers can spend more time improving these tightly-integrated experiences.
A reduction in migration paths may make switching LMSs easier
Migrating from a given LMS to any other LMS is a challenge, particularly when moving course content is in scope for the project. While open content standards such as Common Cartridge exist, these are merely lowest common denominator solutions. For example, they may import certain only types of quiz questions resulting in tests that appear broken or incomplete in the new LMS. Using the native LMS import/export formats unique to each LMS tend to have far more fidelity. Fewer variations in migration paths could make switching LMS an easier and more predictable process if vendors could focus more effort into developing fewer, but higher-quality, migration utilities.
It shows that a dominant design has reached maturity
Blackboard’s recent data analysis of almost 1000 institutions confirms my suspicions that there are generally only a few features that are used in most LMSs. With the remaining LMSs largely being functionally equivalent, the LMS vendors would be wise to compete on other factors such as usability, support, and customer satisfaction.
Having a dominant design may also put institutions in a collectively better position to follow subsequent evolutionary paths of learning technology platforms. In other words, it will become easier to switch to what comes next. The yearly Centre for Learning and Performance Technologies survey of top learning tools this year shows a dip in popularity across all LMS platforms (Blackboard from 91->99, Canvas from 37->67, Edmodo from 39->86, Moodle from 15->27, and Schoology from 61->150) – with other technologies identified as making a more impactful contribution to learning success.
One caution: Beware paradigm lock-in
As the LMS market consolidates, we should think hard about the mindset and existing constructs within which today’s LMSs have been designed. Implementations are specific to institutions. Courses are delivered by individual instructors in sections of a certain number of students and bound by specific lengths of time. Grades indicate success or failure. Students eventually graduate and lose system access. We should be careful to consider how these aspects of most LMSs reinforce existing paradigms. Perhaps we should start thinking about this particular type of “lock-in” as we consider our future educational technology choices.
This is a guest post authored by George Kroner