Pearson OpenClass: Judge It As Disruption, Not As Status Quo

If the mantra of ‘any news is good news’ is accurate, then you’ve got to hand it to Pearson and their OpenClass announcement for dominating the public discussions leading into Educause – Inside Higher Ed, the Chronicle, Campus Technology, countless blog entries – and even NPR Marketplace – all since Thursday.  That’s quite a bit of press for a new, free LMS for higher ed.  I’ve been late to the game in posting on OpenClass, so I’ll dispense with any overview of the news.  I find it interesting to observe how the public discussions frame the issue.  It seems that quite a few discussions are trying to put OpenClass into the comfortable box of today’s LMS model, but some are starting to see the potential disruptive nature of the new service.

There is some healthy skepticism out there, probably best described by Audrey Watters, Joshua Kim and Music for Deckchairs.  I agree that we should not be convinced of the value of the service before we see more content and description of the service, are allowed to test out a course, and understand whether Pearson’s long-term business interests will support a free and open platform.  We should especially watch for whether the service remains free without hidden catches and whether it truly is content neutral.  Healthy skepticism should be the default mode for any unproven ed tech announcement.

OpenClass as Disruption

What I think is important to watch, however, is not whether OpenClass ends up being a free version of today’s LMS, but instead whether OpenClass can change the rules of the LMS game and move the market to a new model of learning platform.  If OpenClass becomes a more successful CourseSites or a even-more-free Moodle (although not open source), then I would argue that it will be a failed strategic move by Pearson.  To be successful, OpenClass must change the game, and that leads to the more interesting questions to ask, in my opinion.  Per the IHE article:

“I think that the announcement really marks another, and important, nail in the coffin of the proprietary last-generation learning management system,” says Lev Gonick, CIO of Case Western Reserve University.

As Kate from Music for Deckchairs summarizes the claims in great tongue-in-cheek fashion:

This week’s excitement has been the announcement by Pearson of their shakeup of the LMS experience.  According to the OpenClass website, where we’re told in very big letters that this is all Open, Free, Easy and Amazing, the promotional video starts with Adrian Sannier, Senior VP, making the big claim that the LMS “as you know it” is dead. Sannier brings serious university research and administrative experience to Pearson’s push into the edtech market, and I’m confident that he knows what he’s talking about when he says that the standard LMS has “only ever been an ineffective administrative tool … it’s closed, it’s clunky to use, it’s costly.”

But his claim is a bit of a heartstopper for all the institutions who’ve woken up contractually handcuffed to the corpse of one or other dead LMS, for several years to come. It’s such a bold prediction that I’ve been distracted by visions of Sannier delicately blowing the powder residue from the barrel of his Colt 45 as he enters the darkened saloon where the frightened townsfolk have been cowering.  Yup, the LMS as we knew it won’t be bothering us no more, no sir.

While this description is a setup for Kate’s real skepticism and frustration at not being able to test yet, I do think she captures the bold claims from Pearson.  And these claims are the basis for how I think we should evaluate OpenClass.  Will OpenClass prove to change the LMS market expectations and will it be materially different than the standard LMS?

As I understand the new system and its value to traditional non-online higher ed, the purpose of OpenClass is to be Open, Social, and Free.  Below are some items to watch for in these key areas.


Pearson is attempting to make it much easier for faculty to find, import and use digital content from many sources into the course.  These sources can be publisher content (promised to not be just from Pearson) and Open Education Resources (OER) content.

The “instructor choice” market that Pearson hopes to penetrate with OpenClass is characterized by the variegated tastes and loyalties of individual instructors, says Gonick. Some of them prefer McGraw-Hill’s textbooks and digital add-ons. Some trust Cengage for their course material. Some pledge allegiance to Wiley & Sons. Others are fierce advocates of open educational resources, and buy from Flat World Knowledge, or assemble textbooks a la carte through AcademicPub.

To truly be open, content must go both ways.  It should be easy to export content out of OpenClass in a standards-based format.

Questions:  Will OpenClass provide a content-neutral experience that allows faculty to easily find and use digital content?  Will OpenClass truly allow courses and digital content to be exported out of the system?


In conjunction with their deep integration with Google Apps for Education, Pearson is trying to break down the institutional and course walls around the LMS.  As described in Campus Technology:

Another feature introduced in OpenClass is “Collaborations,” which integrates with the Google Docs collection function. Both students and faculty can create collaboration spaces, which allow groups of students to share digital artifacts and work on projects together; it also provides a way for instructors to monitor the evolution and dynamics of a group project.

The program introduces Sharing, a blogging tool that lets a user write and post blog entries and bring in video content while also integrating with YouTube, photo-sharing site Flickr, and microblogging site Tumblr. What sets Sharing apart from the standard blogging tool is that Pearson intends to allow the user to share entries outside of the immediate course or campus by letting people “follow” each other and to make those entries available across institutions.

By the nature of these tools and the Google Apps integration, OpenClass is not designed around a course or even an institution.  Students, faculty or guests can even access these collaborations directly through Good Docs and not even through OpenClass itself.  Or they could do so through OpenClass.  This is a powerful concept, where cross-course and cross-institution collaboration is built into the heart of the LMS.

Questions:  Will faculty and students finds these tools useful to the educational experience, and will they really network in terms of blogging, collaborative document creation and sharing, and network ‘following’?  The power of social tools is in the network – the more people who use the tools, the more valuable the tool becomes.


The promise of a fully free enterprise LMS is more important than just the yearly cost savings an institution might achieve.  This model aims to go around the “contractual handcuffs” mentioned in Music for Deckchairs.  An oft-heard complaint of today’s LMS market is that institutions end up locked in to a solution for 3 – 5 years at a time, potentially missing useful innovations.  Furthermore, the time involved in switching LMS solutions can often take up to 2 years while the institution has to pay for 2 LMS solutions simultaneously during the transition.  This double payment is a major barrier to institutions moving from one system to another, not to mention the RFP process and vendor negotiations involved.

If OpenClass is successful, it will bypass most of these barriers.  There won’t be a problem of double payment, either while adding OpenClass as an LMS for the whole institution or even moving off of OpenClass.  I suspect that this change in switching costs could be more disruptive than just the yearly cost savings.

To realize this promise, however, OpenClass must “Convince The Community That OpenClass Is Enterprise Class LMS and a True Competitor for Existing Platforms” as Joshua Kim stated.  I would add that it needs to be free.  Pearson has stated that OpenClass will remain free.  According to the Campus Computing article, “Pearson will sell services and support for the new LMS, but, [Chadwick] added, those will represent ‘a very minor part of the overall business model.'”

Questions:  Will institutions perceive that OpenClass is a viable competitor to existing platforms?  Will OpenClass be a viable solution not requiring additional services and support for the majority of institutions?

Some Memes That Need to Go Away

Before I close, I also think there are some memes going around that distract us from the important questions to be asked.

  • OpenClass is a re-branding of LearningStudio or eCollege – Pearson LearningStudio is a separate product line (although I’m sure there are shared design elements and perhaps even shared services) targeted at for-profit institutions and both for-profit and non-profit online programs.  This is a lucrative, growing business segment where Pearson is the market leader, and it makes no sense that Pearson is leaving those customers.  OpenClass is a different approach to the traditional face-to-face segment that Pearson has not served in the past.
  • Pearson has only 1% of LMS market share – The Campus Computing market share numbers are based on US non-profit institutions – the survey does not measure the natural market of either Pearson LearningStudio or even Blackboard’s ProEd group.  If you want a good read on the for-profit LMS market, read Steve Kolowich’s excellent summary.
  • OpenClass needs to offer private cloud or self-hosting options – The OpenClass business model to provide a free service is based on low incremental costs for scaling, and the chosen approach by Pearson is multi-tenant, software as a service (SaaS).  The same is true about the model of Google Apps, iTunes U,, and even Instructure’s Canvas LMS – while they are not all free, they all are based on a multi-tenant SaaS architecture and serve higher education quite well.  We should judge OpenClass for what it is and whether it serves higher ed needs, not whether it can fit in the box we’re used to.

If Nothing Else, Thanks for Educause

I do not yet have an opinion on whether I think OpenClass will succeed in changing the market, but I do see the potential.  Pearson has the resources, and the goals of OpenClass are quite interesting.  I wouldn’t recommend anyone make their judgements based on promotional material, but rather on real experience and real results.  If nothing else, Educause this week is shaping up to be very interesting.

These are big changes going on in the LMS marketplace, and I don’t think we’ll have the answers immediately.  Some patience is required, but I believe we’ll know a lot more on the potential disruptive nature of OpenClass within a year.

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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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12 Responses to Pearson OpenClass: Judge It As Disruption, Not As Status Quo

  1. This is such a helpful summary, Phil. I’m interested in the breakdown of questions in each of your three sections. Open: what will OpenClass do? Social: what will faculty and students do? Free: what will institutions do? The challenge for edtech, I think, is to recognise that institutions and their users don’t always gravitate towards the same attractions. So everyone has to figure out how to communication with education by pitching at some vague middle between institutional decision makers (many of whom have no practical online teaching experience) and users (many of whom have already decamped to public cloud social media for their social learning).

    This next phase of online learning in higher education will have a slightly herding cats quality to it, I suspect. As you say, the dealbreaker question is whether “faculty and students finds these tools useful to the educational experience, and will they really network in terms of blogging, collaborative document creation and sharing, and network ‘following’? The power of social tools is in the network – the more people who use the tools, the more valuable the tool becomes.”


  2. Joshua Kim says:

    Phil…excellent, balanced summary. I’m looking forward to Pearson folks engaging in this discussion…..

    My thinking is that setting a price of $0 allows for all sorts of different conversations than are traditionally available for non-zero prices. I’m looking to see a different sort of company/client relationship made possible by OpenClass.

    Hope to see you at EDUCAUSE. Josh

    ps…I blogged some questions based on comments from the IHE commmunity today on OpenClass at:

  3. Glen says:

    Phil, I emailed Michael when I saw this to get his initial thoughts. We launched NIXTY with a very similar business model and focus over a year ago. I think you nailed it with your question of whether or not they’ll be able to create a neutral space. I’m betting they will not be able to create a neutral space. Also, I think the questions around eCollege are important. As you know, it is hard for companies to disrupt themselves. I think this tendency to protect eCollege will keep them from making the moves they need to make in order for this to be great. I discussed other advantages and disadvantages here:

  4. Phil Hill says:

    Josh, thanks for note and good follow-up post. I do think that Pearson has the whole traditional marketing / social discussion ratio too high. They would do well to post on blogs, and make sure their comments don’t just point to Educause, but actually are part of conversation. Good to see you being the point on directly asking questions.

  5. Phil Hill says:

    Glen, can you DM me @PhilOnEdTech your contact info? Would love to meet up at Educause if you’re there, or by phone.

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  7. Jan Zawadzki says:

    Be it courtesy of Adrian Sannier or otherwise, Pearson gets it. (original G+ post)

    The LMS market is getting commoditized by Google (and to a lesser extent, Microsoft). There is just no way that an LMS vendor can match Google’s pace of innovation and development – and it’s not just Google itself, it’s the whole Google ecosystem. You can bet that OpenClass will leverage Google Apps to the hilt.

    From a commercial perspective Pearson is making a few bets with OpenClass. They are betting on
    – popularity of Google Apps in education
    – importance of learner analytics
    – shift to a fully digital classroom
    – growth of education marketplace akin to AppStore

    These all look like pretty safe bets. And here is the best part: the lock-in will come from things you’re not doing yet. And by the time you realize how important they are, it will be too late. This is a long-term play. Kudos to Adrian for having the vision, and to Pearson for the courage to take those bets.

    The lock-in will come through learner analytics and the edu marketplace. Whatever license fees you might be willing to pay for a better Blackboard are small fries in comparison to the value of student data and a marketplace – this is the combined lesson from Google and Apple after all.

    Thanks to integration with Google Apps (student content and behaviour), Powerschool (demographics, standardized testing) and their flock of PhD’s (algorithms), Pearson will have the ability to deliver learner analytics you simply cannot get from any other source. Chances are they will be able to give you lifetime analytics that trace back to high school or earlier. And Pearson will make sure that they are relevant to the lecturer and the student, and delivered in a clean and highly usable interface. And to be sure, they will make you pay – but hey, that’s a lot of value-add, right?

    To those worried about support: rest assured that Pearson will make it as easy as possible to get you to adopt OpenClass. They will pour millions of dollars into support to get the adoption – because they are racing towards a tipping point. This will be the moment when their edu marketplace becomes ubiquitous enough and the analytics so useful in the learning process that you will have little real choice. Sure there will be alternatives, but much like Android, they will continuously have to prove they are as good (…have you ever seen hundreds of people queuing for the next HTC Android phone?)

    Open Source doesn’t matter here btw. Given an open enough platform (and there is no reason to make it otherwise), OpenClass will attract educators and commercial developers in much higher numbers (see AppStore), and let’s face it – who really wants to manage a large Moodle instance? Sure there will be institutions insisting on control and using open source, but at some point the financial realities will tip the balance towards the free, fully supported, and oh-so-shiny (and widely adopted!) OpenClass.

    Sure I’m oversimplifying things, but the bottom line is that Pearson has the vision, and the deep pockets to execute on this vision and just buy their way out of wherever stumbles along the way. Interesting times.

    Why do we care? We’ve built a platform for the K-12 market. Just without a publisher backing it.

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