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Year in Review: Top LMS Developments of 2014

As a continuation of the tradition we began last year, for your reading pleasure here are our picks for the top LMS developments of 2014.

11) New and improved LMS concepts take root

It depends on what the definition of LMS is, but 2014 saw renewed vigor surrounding the product category.  Some of our favorite new or different takes on LMSs in 2014 include…

NoteBowl was first featured at the EDUCAUSE conference’s Startup Alley and is designed with a focus on the student’s holistic college experience instead of “just” teaching and learning. Its combination of mobile and student life features in addition to its Facebook-like abilities to comment and collaborate give a fresh perspective on the more rigid and utilitarian enterprise LMS.

Built on Open edX, EdCast focuses on facilitating collaboration and co-teaching among instructors at different institutions as its primary differentiator.

Acatar differentiates itself by not only incorporating aspects of learning science into its design but also by pairing instructors with instructional design experts to think through how best to deliver a course effectively online as their course is built out.

LoudCloud announced a number of innovations this year including support for a competency-based delivery approach, improvements to adaptive learning tool capabilities, and while not exactly new (but new to us) we’re impressed with the ability to deliver course materials through an e-reader application that offers annotation, collaboration, discussion, and reflection directly in-line with the course materials instead of via separate disjointed tools.

Blackboard began working on a new user interface called Ultra that rethinks the LMS UI. While it’s far from fully-developed, and original delivery date expectations have shifted into the future, the preliminary screenshots are promising. Here’s hoping both for Blackboard’s sake and for the sake of setting the overall user experience benchmark of the industry higher that they succeed.

Google Classroom and Edvelop launched LMSs that integrate into Google’s Apps for Education and Microsoft’s Office 365 web-based productivity suites.

10) Non-LMS concepts gain traction

This year, the approach of not using an LMS to build course materials gained traction. Audrey Watter’s keynote, Beyond the LMS, eloquently captures the thinking behind this, and this year there is more bite to the rhetoric of the concept. Fork my Course by P2PU allows course materials to be stored and versioned in GitHub for delivery on the open web outside of an LMS. Reclaim Hosting gained good traction as a new technology services company that “provides educators and institutions with an easy way to offer their students domains and web hosting that they own and control.”

Separately, we’re strong advocates of separating learning content delivery from activities surrounding the content from assessment of those activities. By separating your learning content “concerns” in this manner, you’ll position yourself to experience less pain through any technology innovations or transitions coming in the near future. Instructure’s Canvas Commons, Blackboard’s xpLor, SoftChalk, and Pearson’s EQUELLA offer solutions that can help with the nuances of content creation, management, versioning, and syndication outside of the usual course-centric LMS context – but at the same time plug into various LMSs.

Lynn University also made a significant decision early in the year to forego an LMS entirely and move towards using tablet apps and iTunesU for managing course materials. While this effort was scheduled to begin this fall, they’re still running Blackboard Learn in tandem.

9) Larger schools stabilize on the latest versions of the major LMSs; Smaller schools stick with Moodle but continue to experiment with other LMSs

While schools of all shapes and sizes continue to migrate from LMS to LMS, medium and large schools with more than 2000 students are becoming more concentrated than ever on Blackboard, Instructure, D2L, Moodle, and to a lesser-extent Sakai. Smaller schools remain more diversified in their LMS choices, but Moodle remains the most popular choice.

8) One LMS passes away, another reaches retirement age; Fewer universities roll their own LMS

During 2014, the last of those institutions in our data set using WebCT as a primary/live LMS switched to using more-modern LMSs. Blackboard also scheduled a revised end of life of ANGEL for roughly 22 months from now (October 2016). There are 178 institutions still using ANGEL in our data set, 85% of whom do not show any indication of actively piloting or evaluating any other LMS solution.

Despite significant, recent improvements, 2014 showed a weakening installed base of the community-developed Sakai CLE/LMS, and even fewer institutions now develop their own LMS solution in-house. The emergence of Unizin marks a shift in thinking from owning the source code to the LMS towards using open technologies and a shared content approach to “own” online course delivery.

7) A mobile-native LMS takes off and is promptly sold

Powered by the open source version of Instructure Canvas, EmpoweredU provided content development services and technology to deliver courses in a mobile-native/mobile-first manner.  Pilots began with a handful of universities in the spring, and the company was acquired by Qualcomm in July. Their product was subsequently rebranded as QLearn.

6) Instructure overtakes D2L in terms of market share; Blackboard continues to lead in users

In 2014, Instructure overtook D2L in terms of market share in the US. To clarify, D2L is not losing customers, but rather Instructure has been very successful at converting a disproportionate number of Moodle, Sakai, and Blackboard institutions to Canvas. Blackboard, however, remains well ahead of any other single LMS in terms of its number of student users.

5) Fewer start-of-semester disruptions but almost as many end-of-semester ones

While largely anecdotal in nature, we noticed this year that social media sentiment during the time period between mid-August and mid-September did not seem to indicate significant “uptime challenges” for any of the major LMS products.  The same unfortunately cannot yet be said for the end-of-semester time period during the last month. Kudos to Blackboard for launching its openly-accessible Services Status page this year to mirror Instructure’s launched in 2012. Any word from D2L on something similar?

4) A focus on “intelligent” content capabilities inside of the LMS takes root

While legacy LMSs struggle to incorporate adaptive and “intelligent” content capabilities, there are two products in particular that in our opinion are taking things to the next level. The key differentiator in these systems is that they are able to use intelligent recommender systems rather than relying on crowd-sourced curation or manual searches alone to suggest additional materials.

LoudCloud is capable of making automated, curated recommendations of additional supplementary course content and makes it easy for instructors to add or incorporate such content embedded within a course.

D2L LeaP takes this concept a little bit further and is able to automatedly suggest remedial openly-licensed materials to reinforce or augment concepts relating to a given course’s core learning materials.

3) Competency Based Education challenges the course-based nature of the LMS

Simplified greatly, Competency Based Education is an approach to delivering learning materials sequentially to build on mastered concepts instead of in the traditional semester/course-based manner (think a combination of “jump into a program of study where the materials match my current experience and skill set” and  “pick up my program of study where I last dropped off”). While most legacy LMSs have made efforts to begin supporting competency-based delivery of learning materials, products like Helix were designed to natively support this approach. Learning tools such as CogBooks and RealizeIt  offer a suitable alternative bridge to supporting CBE within the LMS. Nevertheless, all major LMSs were designed around the construct of “the course” which may prove a limiting factor in their ability to support a new way of delivering learning that is gaining significant traction.

2) LMSs are suddenly cool to talk about again

In the second half of 2014, for whatever reason, the number of blog posts relating to the LMS exploded. It’s exciting to see such vigor and passion incorporated into the ongoing debate, and it’s clear that the LMS isn’t dead yet though it may be facing some variant of a mid-life or identify crisis. Here are some of our favorites:

LMS vs. Open Discussion | On the False Binary of LMS vs. Open | Living with the VLE dictator | The VLE vs ‘Whatever’… | Why VLEs aren’t evil | LMS and Open: The false binary is based on past, not future markets | The Nuances of LMS vs. Open | The LMS in Historical Perspective | Dammit, the LMS | LMSing around | An LMS for Traditional Revolutionaries | LMS Futures: Revolutionary Change via Student-Centered LMS (and actually the entire LMS Futures series from this blog, seriously – go read it)

1) A shift in thinking about the LMS towards an ecosystem approach

Educause’s Next Generation Digital Learning Environment Initiative does a good job of highlighting and explaining what we believe is the most significant LMS development of 2014 – a shift in thinking about the LMS that positions it as only one part of a combination of technologies used to deliver online learning experiences. “Ecosystem” seemed to be a buzzword of 2014, and while LMSs will likely remain somewhat central to the delivery of online learning, its becoming more important than ever for LMSs to play nice with or even take a back seat to other educational technology solutions. We see this trend continuing well into the future, empowered primarily by the creation, adoption, and refinement of open standards and open approaches which will become increasingly important for educational technologies to succeed.

Bonus points: What about that hyper-growth?

According to multiple industry reports including (LMS) Market Worth $7.83 Billion by 2018 and E-Learning Market Trends & Forecast 2014 – 2016, the LMS industry should be growing by billions of dollars. While we have not seen this money going directly into LMSs, we are encouraged to see more investment in technologies that play a role in improving educational experiences or ongoing professional development. We just hope that continued investments go towards actual learning and instructional delivery rather than solely into the technology itself.

Agree or disagree? Tweet your own ideas using #lms2014

This post provided by George Kroner