ANGEL LMS: Dead or Alive?

After the recent news of two significant ANGEL LMS customers leaving for other vendors – Washington State Board of Community and Technical Colleges selected Instructure’s Canvas LMS in the spring, and Michigan State University selected Desire2Learn’s Learning Suite in the summer – there is an interesting question of whether ANGEL is still a viable LMS solution, at least for current clients.

ANGEL was created at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis in 2000, and after a successful 9 years Angel Learning, the company behind ANGEL, was purchased by Blackboard in May 2009. Shortly after the purchase, Blackboard announced they would place ANGEL in end-of-life status by 2014. This decision to end ANGEL, along with a similar decision for WebCT product lines, has been fueling a large percentage of the LMS market churn over the past 2 – 3 years (more from WebCT than from ANGEL, however).

In March 2012 Blackboard changed their strategy – no longer pushing all new “acquired” customers to migrate to the Learn 9.x platform, and instead looking to support multiple LMS solutions. The least discussed part of the March announcements was the decision to cancel the end-of-life notice for ANGEL. As described in an open letter to the community from Blackboard:

The high level change is this: Blackboard is becoming a multiple learning platform company that supports both commercially developed software as well as open source solutions. [emphasis original, snip]

As we expand the range of platforms we support, we have decided that we will continue to support ANGEL, a platform chosen by over 400 institutions. We previously announced that we would support the ANGEL platform until 2014. Today we’ve clarified that at the behest of ANGEL clients that continue to find this product the best fit for their needs, we will extend our maintenance and support indefinitely. We will evaluate this decision on an ongoing basis and provide sufficient notice of any future change to plans for support. We will also continue to build ANGEL features into future releases of Blackboard Learn 9.1 and into the Moodlerooms joule product. Both represent positive future destinations for ANGEL clients who wish to upgrade to a newer product line.

This strategy relies on Blackboard maintaining a critical mass of ANGEL customers to justify the ongoing investment in maintaining the product line. It would be useful to look at a subset of ANGEL customers to understand the likelihood of such a critical mass staying together.

Luckily we still have a description of ANGEL’s key customers as determined by Angel Learning themselves – a leftover profile page that includes a nice summary of the company’s history and key milestones. In this page Angel Learning lists their most important clients, which we’ll call their Named Accounts. I have put together a table summarizing the current status of these clients’ LMS solutions [Updated to capture Penn State decision].

Taken together, as assuming that roughly half of the SUNY campuses were on ANGEL, this list represents almost 1.25 million students, not including the publisher usage. There appears to be three categories from this list.

Still on ANGEL with no current plans to change or plans migrate to Bb Learn

  • Jefferson County Public Schools appears to have no ongoing plans to change their LMS.
  • Penn State has been going through a long-running LMS evaluation, including pilots, and they have decided to stick with ANGEL as their LMS. [Updated]
  • Elsevier appears to have no ongoing plans to change their LMS.
  • Miami-Dade College started an evaluation process last year, but there have been no recent updates on when (or if) the formal selection will occur.
  • SUNY is planning to migrate ANGEL campuses to Blackboard Learn, while the SUNY Learning Network still shows ANGEL as the commercial LMS (the migration will take place over several years); some campuses have indicated they are delaying migrations from ANGEL to Learn based on the extended timeframe. [Updated to correct final recommendation]
  • Georgia Virtual Technical College appears to have no ongoing plans to change their LMS.

Already decided to migrate off ANGEL

  • Houghton Mifflin Harcourt terminated their contract with ANGEL prior to 2010 due to an ongoing lawsuit, but it is not clear (to me at least) what the replacement LMS is for HMH.
  • Washington community and technical colleges made the decision in the spring to migrate to Instructure’s Canvas LMS.
  • Michigan State University just selected Desire2Learn as their new LMS.

Started evaluations but no updates on when the formal selection will occur

  • Penn State has been going through a long-running LMS evaluation, including pilots, and they have decided to stick with ANGEL as their LMS. [Updated]
  • St Petersburg College started an LMS evaluation, but in spring 2011 decided to put off the decision at least until 2014 (see page 5).
  • Miami-Dade College started an evaluation process last year, but there have been no recent updates on when (or if) the formal selection will occur.

What does this mean?

Michael Feldstein wrote recently that Blackboard’s strategy change is not just about supporting multiple platforms, but is also about redefining the LMS and moving into the cloud.

That’s right. Blackboard has announced its intentions to peel off pieces of what have traditionally been considered core LMS functions and offer them as separate SaaS offerings. While Ray [Henderson] couldn’t comment on the details, it seems likely that these pieces will be true multi-tenant applications built on modern web technologies, and they will have some functionality that will be bundled with the core Learn product and additional functionality that will be licensed separately.

Seen in this light, the decision to cancel the end-of-life for ANGEL is an effective method to buy time and delay decisions by key customers while Blackboard’s new strategy develops. The old strategy of forcing everyone to migrate to the Learn LMS was not working, and what we now have is an intermediate stage during the strategy transition.

By looking at the named account customer list, it is apparent that there is still a critical mass of ANGEL customers, for the time being. Now that Penn State has decided to stick with ANGEL, Miami-Dade is probably the remaining bellweather that will determine the answer of how long Blackboard can maintain the ANGEL product line.

Update 8/28: Penn State has made their decision to stick with ANGEL – spreadsheet and bullet point adjusted accordingly. I’ll share documents in the comments when available.

Update 8/30: The SUNY recommendations went through several iterations, and the final report distributed to the SUNY community recommended Blackboard Learn, not Desire2Learn.

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About Phil Hill

Phil is a consultant and industry analyst covering the educational technology market primarily for higher education. He has written for e-Literate since Aug 2011. For a more complete biography, view his profile page.
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11 Responses to ANGEL LMS: Dead or Alive?

  1. Phil Hill says:

    Here is a link to the Penn State announcement: http://live.psu.edu/story/60579#nw4

  2. Rick Murch-Shafer says:

    Phil,

    Good article as usual. Bb seems to keep sending mixed signals regarding the future of ANGEL. As you point out they did say they were going to “… extend our maintenance and support indefinitely.”. At the time I assumed this was just a stop gap measure to try and keep ANGEL clients since many were choosing other systems instead of moving to Bb. But it was suggested by some that perhaps ANGEL really would stay around for a while longer; maybe even taking new clients again with Bb’s new plans of market pieces of their LMS such as discussions. Well, then there was this little tid bit in an “ANGEL Connection” email from Bb back in June.

    “Previously we had announced an end of life target for Release 8..0 of the ANGEL Edition LMS for October 2014. In order to ensure that you have sufficient time to plan and execute a move to Blackboard Learn 9.1, we are extending that end of life window beyond the previously announced EOL date. Blackboard will evaluate the decision on an ongoing basis and provide sufficient notice of any future change to plans for support. We plan to make select enhancements to ANGEL 8.0 over time to ensure that the solution is a viable platform until you are ready to plan a migration.”

    This newsletter made it very clear that Bb intends for all ANGEL clients to move to Bb and that only “select” enhancement would be done to ANGEL 8.0 in the future. So as you suggested I think it’s quite clear that the ANGEL extension is just a way for Bb to buy time and delay some school’s decisions on moving to a new LMS.

  3. Phil Hill says:

    Rick, thanks for note and sharing email. It’s interesting they added the phrase “In order to ensure that you have sufficient time to plan and execute a move to Blackboard Learn 9.1″ which was not there in the March announcements. Good catch.

  4. Brad Felix says:

    Wondering: In line with their drive to offer services in an LMS-agnostic way, would Bb consider open sourcing Angel? This would perhaps be a “Sakai-ification” in a sense, resulting in a smaller but deeply involved support community.

  5. Phil Hill says:

    Brad, interesting question. First of all, I believe that “multi-platform” is more accurate than “LMS agnostic” for their strategy. I’m not counting on their support of a Canvas or Desire2Learn implementation :}

    It’s also interesting in that ANGEL started out as quasi open source, and Penn State still has full access. Taking ANGEL open source might help them with the costs of maintenance and support of the product line.

    I would guess that the argument against such a move would involve giving up a significant portion of the license fees, which could be $10 – $15M in annual revenue.

    Good question to consider.

  6. Emilio says:

    Here’s a Charlie Rose segment with the new owner of BlackBoard:

    http://www.charlierose.com/view/interview/11017

  7. Phil Hill says:

    Emilio – interesting video. Although Providence Equity CEO Nelson doesn’t address Blackboard directly in the interview, there were some relevant points that are worth considering re. Providence.

    – Big focus on growth in China
    – Pride in long-term perspective and patience with investments
    – Big focus on value of “premium content”

  8. Phil,

    Sometimes I wish we could grab a beverage and talk about this stuff. :-) If you’re ever in DC, the offer is open. It’s impossible for one individual to know everything about everything though, so it’s good to share around what we know. There have been a few omissions in your recent posts that distract from the good analysis that you regularly provide. For example, I’m surprised that in your first go at this post you missed Penn State’s (one of the largest and oldest ANGEL clients) decision on ANGEL. SUNY is another noteworthy ANGEL client, so I’m surprised by that, too. If I saw this post sooner, I would have added my two cents. The reason this concerns me is that I work for Blackboard, and in my opinion these type of omissions introduce a slant to the analysis. I’m sure that you don’t intend this (as you do update your posts when you discover new information), but nevertheless it can be seen this way.

    Anyhow, I don’t speak for Blackboard the company (I just work here), but I’m throwing my weight behind Michael’s post that you reference. If you look at the public information available about Blackboard’s future product direction (available mainly at the Blackboard conferences), the company has laid out an extremely thoughtful forward approach, adding cloud elements where it makes sense but keeping a model that allows institutions to choose when or if they want to take advantage of new and different ways of doing things. Blackboard isn’t just throwing everything into the cloud and hoping that it works (it also has to be extremely mindful of a global client base with many regional legal and regulatory concerns to be taken into account as data traverses political and geographic boundaries). Additionally, new products are being launched in new ways – using open standards and modular coupling rather than heavyweight platform-specific development. In this way, every platform receives investment in a way that makes sense and keeps everyone moving forward together with new functionality and capabilities. From a technical perspective, it also allows Blackboard to more easily use new and transformative technologies and modern software design approaches.

    I’d like to encourage taking a glass half full (eg: new approaches to delivering product are interesting and important to consider) rather than half empty (eg: blog titles speculating about the death of an awesome product) approach on some of your posts moving forward. Sure, Blackboard loses a client now and then (I’ve also noticed that you highlight these regularly), but from personal experience and having worked here since before the WebCT merger, Blackboard’s products are in better shape than they’ve ever been, and Blackboard clients appear happier than they’ve ever been. I’m looking forward to many interesting things to come across all of the Blackboard product lines.

  9. Phil Hill says:

    George,

    I’d be happy to get together, either in DC or if you can finagle a trip to Bay Area (just say you need to visit Bb Mobile). Or maybe WCET or EDUCAUSE in the fall.

    Partially due to my paying gig as a consultant, where I have access to information that cannot be shared publicly, I anchor all of my market analysis posts off of public information. Where possible, I favor institution or news media sources rather than PR or vendor announcements. In the cases of Penn State and SUNY, I missed both of those situations due to this reliance on public sources and not having the time to make phone calls or emails to confirm all data points in the spreadsheet. Usually this method is safe, but not in this case. My apologies for the earlier misses.

    In the SUNY case, I officially requested the report and was given a version where I misinterpreted the “the recommended commercial LMS” language. SUNY people contacted me with a correction (which required a phone call to understand), which I posted. In the Penn State case, there was a decision made which did not make it into the public documents despite the previous history being public. Again, once they contacted me, I posted the correction.

    The point is simply that these two misses were caused by an over-reliance on public documents, nothing more. I appreciate you pointing out my habit of posting corrections, though.

    I stand by the emphasis on Bb client losses, as that is one of the biggest factors fueling the LMS market changes and therefore important to understand. Likewise, I do not believe that I am responsible for introducing questions on the death, or end-of-life, for ANGEL. I would like to believe that I added some clarity to the situation that has not previously been available in public discussions.

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