Recommended Reading: CBE platforms represent a truly niche market

Triggered by the news that we broke here at e-Literate that “Ellucian Stops Support for Brainstorm, its CBE platform”, Carl Straumsheim at Inside Higher Ed has a valuable follow-up article today looking more broadly at the CBE platform market. In “Finding a Niche in a Niche Market”, Carl interviews chief product and strategy officer at Ellucian, and several ed tech CEOs active in the market. The lede:

Last year, Ellucian partnered with the consulting and research firm Eduventures and the American Council on Education to survey 251 colleges on their competency-based education strategies. The survey identified one major reason why the competency-based education market may be a tricky one for vendors to build a profitable business model in: most colleges aren’t ready to go all in yet. [snip]

Additionally, Ellucian’s own customers told the company that they were not prioritizing spending money on platforms specifically for competency-based education when they could use their existing learning management systems for those experiments, [chief product and strategy officer] Williams said.

It’s interesting that even the CBE advocates that Carl interviewed acknowledged the slow growth in CBE, as stated by CEO of Sagence Learning, a company that provides a CBE-based learning platform.

“The rate of acceleration … has perhaps not been as fast as people would have liked,” Roth said about the competency-based education market. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, she added — taking things slow can be more beneficial in the long run.

That reminds me of how Spinal Tap’s manager broke the news to the band about a canceled show.

Ian Faith: The Boston gig has been cancelled…
David St. Hubbins: What?
Ian Faith: Yeah. I wouldn’t worry about it though, it’s not a big college town.

There is an interesting piece of information that Carl was able to get that I had not – the size of Motivis Learning’s market (I had asked them for information on size of customer base based on their reaction to post on Ellucian dumping Brainstorm). Motivis currently serves “about 10,000 students at dozen schools and colleges”. Considering that at least half of that number comes from the SNHU / College for America after they spun out the company, that leads to 10 or 11 programs averaging ~500 students each (in rough numbers). While the resultant average of almost 1,000 per program, Motivis might be on the high side of most of the CBE programs I have seen outside Western Governors University, SNHU / College for America, Capella, and a handful of others.

500 students here, 200 students there, maybe 700 students over there. That is a difficult business to be in for a platform company, especially when there are multiple vendors competing, and when many of the schools strongly prefer to not add a new learning platform alongside the campus LMS. And remember that Motivis has a huge head start by the nature of the spin-off, with the successful and growing College for America as its anchor client.

I’m not a fan of many of the CBE-lite approaches taken by institutions. The real benefits from CBE thus far have come from a holistic rethinking of the role and structure of a college or university to support working adults. CBE-lite, while understandable, avoids much of the difficult analysis and decision-making that are important aspects of the curriculum and support redesign processes. But it’s also important to acknowledge what the market is doing in reality. And right now CBE is indeed a niche market growing much more slowly that many had hoped or predicted.

I’ll make the same offer in public that I have made privately. If any of the CBE platform companies has data you are willing to share that refutes this narrative of a truly niche market, I’ll be happy to interview and post your commentary.

Read the whole article at IHE.

Update: Changed Motivis customer description per CEO Brian Peddle comment that numbers do not include SNHU / College for America.

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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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