35 responses

  1. Glen Moriarty
    October 23, 2011

    Michael, great post. I agree with much of your analysis, but think there are some considerable challenges. The greatest is that their business model assumes this will help them sell enough of their closed content to cover the costs of openclass. What happens if this does not occur? Another is that they are simply not a neutral provider, so other publishing companies will be very hesitant to put their content in Pearson’s ecosystem. If they do and the competitor’s content or, increasingly likely, open content outperforms Pearson’s content, will Pearson not try to slow or stop that process? Do we really think that they won’t privilege their own content? This would create an unfair marketplace and ultimately be a disservice to students, educators, and colleges. I’ve written more in-depth on our blog: http://www.blog.nixty.com.

    Clearly, I’m biased as we’ve been implementing a similar model with an international and open ed focus, but still, even with this bias, I don’t think their business model stands up. I don’t think it’ll ultimately be sustainable. I’m curious to hear your thoughts

  2. EzraSF
    October 23, 2011

    Something to keep in mind: As expensive as LMSes are, they are nothing compared content costs. Students spend over $600 a year on textbooks. Universities spend $2-8 a year licensing the LMS per student. Textbook publishers lose way more than that on used textbooks.

    Anything they can do to drive instructors (and ultimately students) away from the paper textbooks into digital content, where used no longer exists, is better for their overall profit margins. The first moves were getting instructors to adopt publisher courses requiring the students to purchase codes to activate the course. The next moves were single course sites such as myMathLab. Going after the whole LMS makes sense. Anything that encourages the adoption of their paid-for digital content is good for Pearson in the long run.

  3. X
    October 23, 2011

    As a Pearson math/science rep I find the announcement of OpenClass thrilling. I am a textbook salesman only in name–I am in fact selling digital homework services. These are much easier to control and charge for. The dead tree stuff is on a course toward zero value (and after it’s bought once and sold back it already has zero value for Pearson–negative value as it kills new sales). I think Pearson is making great moves and already I approach my adoptions as though the text is essentially a liability (again because the more I ship one semester the less ill ship the next) while the homework systems–my labs, mastering–are an actual sale. if I get a professor to use my book for 5,000 students it means less to me financially than getting him to use my software for 200.

    We all look forward to digital books with homework systems as the standard. We can throw in dead trees for about a dollar more if you want them…

  4. Stephen
    October 23, 2011

    I went to a pearson presentation a month ago that hinted at openclass. There was a lot of discussion around data and personallisation services. In exchange for an institution using openclass pearson get a lot of very personal information about it’s students. E.g.
    > Who’s likely to fail and who’s likely to pass
    > What sort of literacy skills does each student have
    > How compelling and successful are the various pearson elearning products in the course.

    With this data they can
    > Advertise very relevant courses from other institutions to your students. E.g. remedial or advanced.
    > Improve/change their elearning products and check if their changes are successful
    > More stuff I can’t even think of.

    I expect their next step will be an e-portfolio which will let them get even more useful data about each student.

  5. Joshua Kim
    October 23, 2011

    Michael….great article and discussion. One thing I’d like to see Pearson do is put up an OpenClass open site that aggregates links to all the blog posts, articles and discussions around OpenClass.

    This would server 3 purposes:

    a) Dogfooding OpenClass – giving us all a chance to play with the platform.

    b) Bringing all the discussion around OpenClass to one place – aggregation.

    c) Pushing Pearson to respond to all the questions and feedback about OpenClass.

    I think that it is awesome that you are participating in this discussion from your role at Cengage…..look forward to more analysis. Josh

  6. Michael Feldstein
    October 23, 2011

    Joshua, to be clear, I’m not participating “from my role at Cengage.” I am participating, as always, from my role as an independent blogger who is interested in educational technology. I have happen to have new interest and perspective because of my new job, but e-Literate is strictly a personal effort.

    Stephen, what you’re describing is exactly the sort of thing that I expect will make OpenClass attractive. eCollege has long had a reputation for providing rich analytics (although they don’t talk a lot about the details in public, probably for competitive reasons). I expect they will be able to bring some interesting analytics to OpenClass sooner rather than later.

    Ezra and X, you are both right about the economics of going digital. The challenge is the transition. Investors like companies to have smooth quarter-to-quarter financial numbers. Accelerating the transition to digital brings some long-term benefits to publishers at a cost of losing some predictability in earnings in the short term, as well as opening up competition for new entrants who no longer have printing and distribution infrastructure to face as barriers to entry.

  7. Music for Deckchairs
    October 23, 2011


    This is a great post, thanks so much for sharing your experiences in the demo and the one-to-one, especially for those of us who are a long way away!

    The thing that’s starting to make me most uneasy about the OpenClass approach is the reduction of really complex learning practices to the generation of data. I think we need to be careful about the risk that the social element in learning, that’s being promoted so heavily by Pearson, boils down to “Students will hang out with each other while they’re getting their homework done so you won’t need to manage them at all”. This is such a misunderstanding of the complex potential of sociable learning, and it’s exactly what antagonises those who are hostile to elearning, because it reduces teachers to data analysts.

    I’m interested that you also gained the impression that OpenClass is differentiated by being aimed at “the vast majority of on-campus Faculty”, because the situation is still that only on-campus Faculty who are attached to institutions that have GAE buy-in can see the product at all. This is that continuing problem of faculty as institutionally harnessed free agent — it’s a complicated position to be in.

  8. Charles Severance
    October 23, 2011

    Michael, great post. I also felt (like Google) that the initial press coverage of OpenClass bordered on the misleading. Clearly in the Pearson press release it was not overstated – http://www.pearson.com/media-1/announcements/?i=1487 – somehow the misleading hype came in the conversations with the press or the interpretation form the press. I am glad that is cleared up with the recent Google clarifications.

    I agree that OpenClass is a big deal. I got a demo of it and was pretty pleased. I liked the Google integration and the user interface was pretty clean – clearly a lot of work has gone into not reinventing things the Google platform already does well. This will feel very natural to folks used to Google’s user interfaces.

    I think that the first place that this will have impact is on the low-end in K12 and Community college where they really are not particularly passionate about an LMS as a strategic purchase. They want something to work, be well integrated into publisher content and have low cost. This will definitely invade the Moodle/MoodleRooms marketplace right away and will swoop in right behind Google as their convert another campus every few days.

    In terms of the “free” and the costs, first to be a Clayton Christensen disruptive innovator – you cannot think of profit as your first priority – getting mindshare and product validation and customer alignment is far more important than a plan to immediately monetize something. Pearson can afford to invest in this for a while and let the financial details work themselves out in time. I would be concerned if they had a plan to make money at this early point. This is the time to sprint to the front and build a great product.

    I think that one of the benefits of the current marketplace is that we have a pretty solid understanding of the core capabilities of an LMS – knowing the requirements and industry standards up front makes it really easy to fire up a development team to make a relevant product relatively quickly and with no legacy – they can even be more agile.

    I think that this is going to be a ver interesting year. I really look forward to Phil Hill’s squid diagram in a year or two and see the extent to which OpenClass expands the market overall by giving more schools LMS systems or takes business away from other LMS vendors. Lots of fun. I am glad I work in interchange and interoperability standards :)

  9. Jan Zawadzki
    October 24, 2011

    I think there is a much larger play here… (below from G+ post)

    Be it courtesy of Adrian Sannier or otherwise, Pearson gets it. Release of OpenClass puts the cards on the table for the industry.

    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 focusing on 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 money into support to get the adoption – because they are racing towards a tipping point. This will be the moment when their edu AppStore becomes ubiquitous enough and the analytics so inseparable from 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 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 it 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 they stumble along the way. Interesting times.

  10. Michael Feldstein
    October 24, 2011

    Jan, I agree that there is much that is compelling about the OpenClass vision. The platform approach that OpenClass represents can offer real and important benefits to teachers and students that would be difficult to achieve any other way. My main points are that (1) as you put it, they are “racing towards a tipping point,” which means their marketing message is tuned to emphasize the disruptive aspects of the product (ironically at the expense of highlighting some of the innovation), and (2) the kind of relationship with its customers that Pearson is reaching for with OpenClass is a very different one than schools have with their LMS vendors today and schools should therefore make sure that they understand the details of the new covenant that Pearson is (perhaps implicitly) offering.

  11. Rob Abel
    October 24, 2011

    Great thread – thanks Michael for getting it started.

    I’m not enthusiastic over OpenClass as getting it right out of the gate – even though I do think it potentially addresses some deficits that students and faculty are seeing in their LMS’s.

    I think that the issue of commoditization here is pretty clear, but not in the way discussed above. Faculty and students do not see the LMS as a commodity. They are largely in agreement that the LMS has been a major step forward and improves the educational experience. They also agree that there are some deficits that need to be improved. It “sounds like” OpenClass may be addressing some of those – but it does not sound like it is addressing many of the most important ones (which are kind of outside the boundary of the current course management system). I do not see any indication that the current course management systems need to be greatly simplified per the concept of disruptive innovation. The simplification that users are looking for is easier/seamless integration with other software – which is of course what interoperability from IMS gives you ☺ If Adrian is saying that most faculty/students want a radically simpler LMS – well, he just has that wrong – that is an IT guy’s perspective on what faculty and students want – not what they actually want.

    On the other hand, the is great agreement among students and now even faculty that the textbook is a commodity item that is way too complex and expensive for the value it delivers. Publishers are doing a lot of great digital innovation. But, my sense is that this is not getting through to the users. I am not sure if this is the “channel conflict” that publishers have in needing to compete against their own cash cow (textbooks) or whether the digital materials have still just not quite gotten to the point of being as good or better than a textbook. I think the later is getting very close. So, I tend to think it’s probably the former. A couple of weeks ago I moderated a Learning Management Summit – panels of faculty and students – at Montgomery County Community College. I was pretty shocked to find out that the faculty’s perception was that all publishers could provide them were “PDF versions of books” and, as a result, had a very negative perception of publishers. I know that publishers can do better than that – but the fact that their primary customers – the faculty – didn’t know this – really says that something is wrong in the publishing houses.

    So, the commodity issue can cut both ways. It will be interesting to see how it goes. I would say that the financial gain and opportunity for disruptive innovation plays more against publishers than it does for them. The prescription for this is twofold: First, embrace the digital side and get aggressive on eating your own young. Second, rather than trying to control the LMS platform, open it up via IMS interoperability to make it a fairer playing field than it is today (where the LMS’s dominate as the conduit to faculty and students). I think it is in this later point that OpenClass could play a role. But, it was extremely disappointing that there was no discussion of open IMS interoperability until directly forced to address the issue. The answer has been a positive one in terms of implementing the open interoperability – but there are continued grumblings among potential partners that I talked to that it’s not at all clear this is a fair playing field for third parties.

    So, my overall sense is that Pearson did not quite get the OpenClass right. It does not radically change the thing that needs to be radically changed. And, it does not encourage the type of aggressive action or ecosystem that could change it. We’ll see.

  12. Jan Zawadzki
    October 24, 2011

    Michael – agree regarding the need to understand the covenant as you put it. Some of the key questions and concerns that are arising (or that I’m hearing from schools anyway) are easy to guess at:

    1) Openness: there is every reason for Pearson to keep it as open as possible through open API’s and funding the development of import/export tools. Openness drives adoption.

    2) Level playing field for publishers: this one might be hard to avoid but I’m guessing they’ll try for the same reason. I believe that the goal here is not to own every publishing category; the goal is to extract 30% from everyone else. So Pearson should be quite motivated to do what they can to attract other publishers to OpenClass.

    3) Support: same argument. The revenue will come from analytics and the appstore, and if Pearson executes well on this strategy, the schools should see a lot of love from them.

    It will be very interesting to see the reaction of the other publishers and the rest of the industry. We’re looking at the first beta product and there is obviously a lot of room for improvement, and statements from Pearson about OpenClass being eCollege “light” suggest that internal pressure to avoid cannibalizing eCollege revenues might be a stumbling block for them. Interesting times. :)

    (These are all guesses obviously and the 30% figure is just a number)

  13. Luke Fernandez
    October 24, 2011

    “Everything that worries you about what Facebook and Google know about you and everything that worries you about the control that Apple exerts over the iTunes and App stores should worry you about Pearson’s ambitions. If ClassConnect succeeds in massively disrupting the LMS market, then Pearson potentially controls the center of the chess board for ePortfolios, digital educational content, transcripts—possibly even schools themselves.”

    In other words a potential “master switch” for education? Following Tim Wu, Pearson’s ‘disruptive innovation’ could make things more open. But the cycle eventually leads back to something that might even be more closed (dystopic?) than a simple monopoly over the LMS market.

  14. Reuben
    October 26, 2011

    I think Rob hit the nail here – Pearson put a CIO in as the product manager? Really? Not an LMS support person, an LMS Manger, someone who has done the nuts and bolts work of helping faculty learn to use an LMS, but a CIO? A system level CIO, no less. Does Pearson have any idea how far removed system level Higher Ed. CIOs are from the day to day of how the LMS is actually used by teachers and students?

    I think Pearson is heading toward a tripping point here and this will be no more disruptive than Epsilen was. PS the secret sauce Pearson LS has is full on call support, at a very high price. They should have grabbed their best support people and put them in as the head of the product, that would have been disruptive.

  15. Patrick Laughran
    October 26, 2011

    Michael, I really like the way you write and how you present topics for consideration and continued deliberation. It invites discussion. But I also wonder sometimes whether solutions like OpenClass would be better understood if the end-user value proposition were more clearly articulated. For example, who is the customer and what unmet or anticipated need does this solution (and others like it) address? If the value proposition is that it’s “free” like outsourcing e-mail to Google or Microsoft then that misses the mark. E-mail is not core to delivering academic programs. Interactive learning environments are. Once you cross over into a product or service offering that is core to the enterprise then a slew of questions that go beyond whether or not the offering is “free” come into play; support for IMS interoperability standards, characteristics of the overall user experience, characteristics of the enabling technology, identity management, total cost of support, information management, information security and compliance. (See http://laughran.wordpress.com/2011/04/18/open-standards/)

    The emerging opportunity textbook publishers and software providers are struggling with requires moving from a product (whether the product be software or educational “content”) to a service where the interaction with the software + content is what generates the value. Software features and functionality and educational content is becoming a commodity. The question then becomes what information is generated from these interactions that is worth paying for – and who is willing to pay how much for it. Would “built-in” accreditation data management and tiered views of learning outcomes across courses, programs and institutions be something a university would pay for? Would academic departments and individual faculty be willing to pay for information that helps them “flip” the curriculum so that “homework” is done in class and information from student interactions with lectures and educational content outside the classroom is used by the faculty member to then inform how they interact with students and adjust their instruction as the course of study unfolds? Would students pay for more interactive content that allows them to flag areas where they don’t fully comprehend subject matter, aggregate feedback from instructors, or compile a portfolio of work over time? Who’s unmet or anticipated needs (and wants) are being addressed? Is it the textbook publisher, the software provider or the consumer of the technology based educational solutions?

  16. Michael Feldstein
    October 26, 2011

    Patrick, your question about the end user value proposition is a good one, but complicated, for several reasons. First, the end users are not the purchasers of an LMS. And while Pearson talks about enabling faculty choice with OpenClass, it remains to be seen whether that model will take hold in this product category. Second, there is very little information available about the product right now. So I am forced, for the moment, to analyze the marketing message. I think this has value in and of itself, though. If “free” is what Pearson thinks is the most important differentiator, that tells you something about what they think the value proposition is and who they think of as their customers (if not their end users).

  17. Music for Deckchairs
    October 27, 2011

    I think I’ve figured out, although it took two goes, that my job falls into the category of “consumer of the technology based educational solutions”. Well, that’s one way of looking at it.

    In any promotion driven by the interests of publishing it makes sense that we would see the rise and rise (and rise) of content, but the problem for us is that educational theory and practice in many disciplines is going the other way: towards supporting students to develop the skills to discover information for themselves, often through public domain and open sources, or via field research. The second step is for students to learn through communicating and discussion this material.

    So in terms of end-user value, there is not only a long-standing practical gap between the LMS purchasing authority and the individual who may run a course on it, but I now think there may be some more significant and newer divisions emerging within the educational system itself, between the disciplines that do still focus on textbook use, and the disciplines that don’t. For these latter disciplines, a suite of collaboration and social learning tools may be more important than the content management and learner measurement features of any LMS. So this is the reason why the campus-wide content driven LMS makes less sense than it used to, but a two-cultures model of LMS+social cloud does also potentially weaken the campus-wide useability of learner tracking and analytics.

    I think the OpenClass conversation has often been a little silent on what it is that teachers actually do, which is why your post, Michael, on enlightenment and scale is so timely. Thank you!

  18. X
    October 27, 2011

    “Would academic departments and individual faculty be willing to pay for information that helps them “flip” the curriculum so that “homework” is done in class and information from student interactions with lectures and educational content outside the classroom is used by the faculty member to then inform how they interact with students and adjust their instruction as the course of study unfolds? Would students pay for more interactive content that allows them to flag areas where they don’t fully comprehend subject matter, aggregate feedback from instructors, or compile a portfolio of work over time?”

    Spent an hour a day for the past two days with a professor at a major research university doing exactly this–he flipped his pedagogy so all lectures are received in isolation and class is group work. This is for physics. The students are paying less because they are only purchasing software licenses with digital e books. At Pearson, for example, our software that provides pretty solid analytical info to the prof based on how students did on homework or pre lecture quizzes costs maybe $100 (or text + a few bucks of students buy a new text from us) for 24 months of access. So no one is really paying more.

  19. Flavia
    November 21, 2011

    Hi all,

    I’m currently researching free e-learning platforms and I have narrowed down the choice to Moodle and OpenClass.
    As you are experts in the field, I would like to ask for advice: which platform would you choose for a 40 people class in performative arts?

    Thank you for all the above ideas. Food for thought.

  20. Michael Feldstein
    November 21, 2011

    Flavia, I try to stay out of the “which is better” sorts of discussions for a lot of reasons, one of which is that it depends a lot on the specifics of the situation. In your case, the first thing I would do is make sure you can access both of the platforms you have mentioned. OpenClass in particular is currently only available to teachers at schools that are Google Apps customers, so if you are not in that situation then it is not an option for you (yet).

  21. Flavia
    November 21, 2011

    Thank you Michael, I appreciate it.

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