LMS vendor Schoology just raised $32 million in Series D venture capital funding, bringing the total that they’ve raised to just over $57 million. If you’ve never heard of them, that’s because they have mostly been focused on K12, where they are doing very well. But they have turned their attention to US higher ed recently. They had a surprisingly big presence at EDUCAUSE, where CEO Jeremy Friedman told me that they are prepared to make an aggressive push. Their ability to get major funding was probably helped by Instructure going to market, and possibly by the leak that Blackboard is putting itself on the block as well. I don’t generally take money guys too seriously in their ability to predict ed tech, but they may be lucky on this one. I think there may be an opening the US higher ed LMS market for a new entrant.
LMS selection for schools often works a little like the selection process that high school students typically go through when picking a college. Students looking at colleges usually have a favorite going in. Maybe their friends are going there. Or their big brother or sister. Or maybe they just heard that it’s cool. But they don’t apply to just one college, in case it doesn’t work out for one reason or another. So they have a second tier of schools that might be OK too. Generally, they don’t know much about your favorite school going in and they know even less about the “might be OK” schools. Depending on how cautious they are, they might throw in one or two “safety” schools that they really don’t want to go to but that they feel (or their parents feel) should be included for the sake of completeness.
Likewise, colleges and universities frequently go into an LMS evaluation process with a favorite. Because the selection is generally done by a committee of stakeholders rather than just one person, there might be conflicting opinions on what the favorite is. But more often than not, there is a nascent majority or a consensus opinion about the likely winner, at least among the core selection committee. Back in the early to mid-aughts, the default favorite was usually Blackboard because it was considered to be the safe alternative that everybody was using. When Blackboard faltered, the favorite began to split between D2L and Moodle—and occasionally Sakai, particularly for larger public universities—with type of school and geography having a big influence on which one was likely to be the frontrunner. These days, the schools that Phil and I talk to report Instructure as the starting frontrunner at least four times out of five, across school types or geographies.
But LMS selection processes still need their “might be OK” candidates. For one thing, most of them are mandated by policy or by law to do a real multi-vendor evaluation. And most evaluation committees genuinely do want to look at alternatives. Just because they have a sense going in of which alternative is most likely to be the best doesn’t mean that they are closed-minded. The trouble is that there aren’t many alternatives that selection committees feel hopeful about these days. Increasingly, Sakai and Moodle aren’t even making it to the serious evaluation stage in US higher ed evaluations; and even when they do, they are often treated like safety schools. Blackboard never fully recovered from reputational damage done under Michael Chasen and their failure to deliver on Ultra this year was a huge setback. At the moment, they are being treated like a safety school as often as not. If Ultra slips further—and maybe even if it doesn’t—they could start losing significant numbers of customers again. And we haven’t run into many schools that are particularly excited about D2L either. Probably the best I can say for them is that they are the least likely of the LMS companies that are not Instructure to be dismissed out-of-hand.
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I think there’s an opportunity for a new entrant to get a fair hearing from selection committees that want a real horse race but aren’t excited about any of the incumbents. Ironically, the rise and success of Instructure has probably reduced risk aversion among schools to go with a scrappy start-up. I don’t know if Schoology is going to be the one that gets a foothold in the market because of this opening, but their timing is definitely good.