The First e-Literate Subscription Product

Not too long ago, Phil and I wrote a post about our long, slow process of realization that our blogging at e-Literate and our consulting at MindWires are not two mostly unrelated things but really two halves of a whole. And we teased the idea that these two worlds would be coming together soon.

Today we’re ready to pull back the curtain a little bit on what we’ve been working on for the short term and offer some hints about what we’re thinking about for the medium term. We have some fairly audacious ambitions for the long term, but we don’t expect to get there overnight. In fact, we are going to start with a humble and somewhat unlikely (but hopefully useful) first paid subscription offering, which we will be making available in just a couple of weeks under the e-Literate brand. It will provide information and analysis above and beyond our continuing free content here on the blog (to which we remain strongly committed).

We’re going to be releasing an LMS market dynamics report, in partnership with LISTedTECH. We’d like to explain why we’re starting there, what we hope the report will accomplish, and where we will go from there.

The Much Maligned Minivan

Phil has called the LMS “the minivan of ed tech.” I remember back around 2000, I saw a Harvard Kennedy School executive education course start with a clicker question:

Which are you more likely to buy?

  1. Minivan
  2. SUV

It turned out that there was a pretty interesting correlation between participant reactions to different case studies and their minivan/SUV split. Their car preferences provided a window into their larger views of the world and themselves.

But a lot has changed in the last sixteen years. While a Dodge Caravan is still nobody’s answer to a mid-life crisis,[1] and while there are certainly still people who wouldn’t be caught dead in a minivan, the current generation of young parents, the ones who grew up in Dodge Caravans, are often unembarassed to admit how much they like their family vehicle. It’s convenient. It solves a lot of problems. It’s not life-changing, it’s far from perfect, but it mostly works. Some of that change in attitude has been because of innovation in the product category, but we’re talking about innovation on the level of sliding doors on both sides that can close by remote control. Most of the change is really about people growing up with the product, getting used to it as a feature in the environment, and getting better at figuring out how to take advantage of what does well and work around what it doesn’t do well.

We have reached a similar stage with the LMS. We have entered the late majority phase. Most faculty that we speak to these days take the LMS for granted and, while they will often grumble about some aspect that they are unhappy with, more and more of them are making significant use of the platform—more than just posting a syllabus and some announcements. More of them will use adjectives like “useful,” unprompted, when talking about their particular LMS. I even heard one faculty member describe his school’s particular LMS as “humane” recently.

This is a more profound change than may be immediately obvious. One of the big reasons that I originally got interested in LMS design (back in 2000, around the same time as the minivan/SUV poll) was that I wanted to make it easier for more faculty to try teaching online, and the main reason I wanted to see that was that I knew from experience that moving to online teaching forces an instructor to think about pedagogy. I wanted to have that conversation with faculty. I wanted to help them think about how they could teach differently. The LMS is a kind of a gateway drug for ed tech and, to a certain degree, for course redesign. Many faculty who end up teaching on WordPress or Mediawiki started on an LMS and then got passionate enough and clear enough about what they wanted that it launched them on a quest. Slowly, more and more faculty are beginning to have those pedagogy conversations. And the LMS is very often the catalyst.

At the same time, the LMS market remains mystifying. There was a time when everybody was sure that Blackboard would buy all the major LMS vendors and become a monopoly. Then a lot people thought that the market would react against Blackboard’s looming monopoly by moving en masse to open source and staying there. Now people are wondering how long it will take for Instructure to completely own the market. And in the middle of all that, there are persistent predictions that the LMS will die any time now, either killed off by WordPress or disrupted by some startup or made free by Google or something else. We have gotten our sliding doors on both sides that close by remote control, but mainly, the LMS remains a stubbornly persistent category overall, and it has been hard to predict how people will move from one product to another—even if you follow the news obsessively and talk to a lot of people about it, like we do.

In some ways, maybe that’s OK. Maybe the old-timers and hard-liners are just going to have to make room in their hearts for the much maligned minivan. But at the same time, if we really are at a moment when change is creating new possibilities for conversations about improving teaching, then we don’t want to miss the opportunity to take maximum advantage. As Phil and I have both written about recently, there is currently a very poor connection between the real faculty and student needs that are surfacing on campuses and the ways in which those needs get translated, prioritized, and communicated to the folks who make the enabling technologies. This is one major reason that the market behavior is both hard to understand and frustratingly slow to respond sometimes. Education may not be “broken,” but the ed tech market most definitely is.

Increasing Capacity for Change

We have had an increasingly strong intuation for maybe the last six months or so, based on various bits and pieces that we have observed in the course of our daily blogging and consulting work, that the LMS landscape is far more ripe for dramatic change than it has been in a long time—maybe since the market reached saturation around 2003 or 2004. More importantly, we think this change is both partly driven by changes on campus and, depending on how the LMS market evolution goes, can either be more helpful to supporting and amplifying positive change or not. There is an opportunity to increase capacity for pedaogical sophistication on campuses, if only we can get educators and ed tech developers working together in the right ways.This is exactly the kind of problem that Phil and I most love to take on, both in our blogging and in our consulting.

We decided to start with an “outside in” look at the market data—who is moving to what, how quickly campuses are moving, and so on. There are some folks who came before us in this regard that are worth calling out. Campus Computing Project was the only source of this kind of data for a long time, and the market has benefited from its long-term analysis. Edutechnica expanded the universe of available data by building a web crawler. After much thought, we decided to work with LISTedTECH, partly because their unique collection of historic and current data allowed us to ask and answer new questions. Some of what we learned in the process of that partnership work confirmed our previous intuitions, and some of it surprised us. We’re going to hold off on sharing the details for just a couple of more weeks until the report is ready to be released, but one thing we can say now is that the process of compiling the report increased our conviction that we are at an inflection point, both for the LMS market and for the broader positive use of technology in education.

We will be issuing a new report with updated analysis every six months, with regular updates (including the same level of free coverage that we have always given on e-Literate) more frequently.

In the fall, we will take the next step by offering a more “inside out” analysis aimed at supporting colleges and universities through the often painful process of selecting an LMS. We do a lot consulting work of this type—not picking the LMS for the schools, but helping them to make better decisions for themselves by getting high-quality input from all their important campus stakeholder groups, organizing a rational process, asking good questions of the vendors, and so on. Part of this work is our analysis of what is going on with each of the LMS platforms—the development strategies, differentiators, and above all what we hear from customers—and part of it is the advising on the decision process elements that I just mentioned. We are going to boil as much of that as we can down to subscription content and tools that campuses can use either with or without our facilitation help.

We’ll have more to say about the report in the next couple of weeks as we get closer to its release, and we’ll also have more to say in the coming months about our larger ambitions, both for helping with LMS selection and for helping more broadly to improve the pace of positive educational change on campuses, supported by appropriate enabling technologies.

Stay tuned.

Update (PH): To sign up for more information on the upcoming service, go to this page.

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  1. Not even the Grand Caravan. []

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About Michael Feldstein

Michael Feldstein is co-Publisher of e-Literate, co-Producer of e-Literate TV, and Partner in MindWires Consulting. For more information, see his profile page.
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