History professor Jonathan Rees called it an “uncharacteristically subtle post.” When he posted an excerpt from his university’s report on its Blackboard usage, he didn’t have to say much: “I think all I want to do here is point out that all the things professors use Blackboard for here most (as well as a few of the things that not many people use Blackboard for) can be done for a lot less money than whatever our Blackboard license costs. Sometimes they can be done for no money at all.”
Rees asks a really important question: why would a school opt to spend so much money on an LMS when many of its features go unused? Why pay when you can find cheap or free alternatives elsewhere?
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I’m not sure how much the usage patterns of Rees’ university match those at other institutions. But if, indeed, people are primarily – heck, overwhelmingly – using the LMS to share documents and send announcements, then wow, we need to really look closely at what Google Apps for Education is providing campuses – a cloud-based document creation, editing, sharing, and storage tool, plus email, calendaring, and social networking – as well as what it’s positioned to provide in the future thanks to APIs and app stores.
The new Google product offers users 5 GB of file storage and syncing and effectively replaces Google Docs (which has offered file storage for a couple of years). Google Drive also replaces the editing, file-creation and file-sharing features of Google Docs. (It’s a new label for a new product, arguably.)
Old Google product. New Google product. Whatever. But new opportunities in education? Perhaps.
Unlike some features that take weeks (months?) to arrive for Apps users, Google Drive is available already at launch for Google Apps for Education. I wrote a post earlier this week with some of the details I got “on background” from Google about how the roll-out was “nuanced” in certain ways for Apps for Edu users. The most obvious thing that’s different – other than the name-change from Docs to Drive – is the addition of an SDK that allows third-party developers to build applications that integrate with Google Drive. At launch, there’s just one specifically edu-oriented app, the graphing calculator Desmos. But with some 14 million teachers and students using the platform, I wager there are lots more apps to come.
And what then?
If, as Rees’ image suggests, the usage of the LMS on campus really just involves document sharing, announcements, gradebooks, and discussion boards, then isn’t a platform like Google Apps for Education a completely viable (and free) replacement? What do you need that Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Chat, Google Docs, Blogger, Google+. and Sites don’t provide? With the extension of the Google Apps for EDU platform to third-party developers (some of which charge, some of which are free), why are schools paying for an LMS again?