A while back here on e-Literate, Phil wrote a post called Farewell to the Enterprise LMS, Greetings to the Learning Platform. In it, he wrote,
In my opinion, when we look back on market changes, 2011 will stand out as the year when the LMS market passed the point of no return and changed forever. What we are now seeing are some real signs of what the future market will look like, and the actual definition of the market is changing. We are going from an enterprise LMS market to a learning platform market.
What I mean by ‘enterprise LMS’ is the legacy model of the LMS as a smaller, academically-facing version of the ERP. This model was based on monolithic, full-featured software systems that could be hosted on-site or by a managed hosting provider. A ‘learning platform’, by contrast, does not contain all the features in itself and is based on cloud computing – multi-tenant, software as a service (SaaS).
There tends to be a pendulum swings in technology. In the old days, there were dumb terminals, with all the business logic residing on the mainframe. Then came the PC revolution, pushing functionality out to the edges of the network. Next came the internet, driving functionality back to the server. And now we have apps. Similarly, in educational technology, we started with a few tools, moved to an all-in-one, all-you-can-eat LMS model, and now are moving back toward more specialized systems. And one of the questions platform developers and teachers a like are asking is how much functionality do you really need? Is it just WordPress? Is it WordPress plus Google Docs? Is it WordPress, Google Docs, and grade book? Is it a simple LMS with only a handful of tools and an app store? There are lots of different models.
Enter GoodSemester, which has its own take on...well...just about everything. I had a chance to talk to company founder Jason Rappaport a while back about both the product and the company.
Jason doesn't know what to call the product category the GoodSemester falls into, but he is emphatic that it is not an LMS. He describes it as "Evernote meets Google Docs meets Dropbox." One thing those three products have in common is that they approach collaboration from the perspective of the utility for an individual. I may invite you to work on a Google Doc with me, but it's my doc, and I will hold onto it for as long as I want to---by default, forever. Similarly, GoodSemester has a consumer-focused model, both in the sense that it's intended to be a personal productivity tool for classes. For example, taking, storing, and sharing notes is a central feature of the platform. The GoodSemester team has started by focusing on the student rather than the teacher. And your content is yours forever. Your courses don't disappear at the end of the semester. They are still accessible to you. Also like Evernote and Dropbox, it has a freemium model, where the idea is to hook individuals on usage and then have them pay a monthly subscription as their usage increases. (They are working on a more traditional model where the institution pays as well.) Will students pay for this kind of thing? I have no idea. But it's definitely a novel approach.
Since I have been thinking a lot about how to get more young entrepreneurial talent into educational technology lately, it seemed natural to think about Jason and his approach in comparison to Brian Whitmer and Devlin Daley, the co-founders of Instructure. They couldn't be more different. When you sit down with Brian and Devlin to talk about product that's still in development, you almost feel as if you are being interviewed by a couple of anthropologists. They study you, in an extremely focused and disciplined way. This discipline produces outputs like the Canvas Speed Grader functionality:
This is exactly what an instructor would ask for. It is, in my opinion, the most highly polished grading workflow in any LMS. It just works. (I'll have much more to say about Instructure's approach to product development in an upcoming post.)
In contrast, Jason is just bursting with ideas that he wants to tell you about. He uses a lot of superlatives. This feature is the "first on the planet." That one is "revolutionary." That's not just youthful exuberance (although it is that too). Jason takes pride in re-imagining. As a result, GoodSemester has a grading system like this:
This isn't just an improved grade book. It's a complete rethink of the application category.
The classic LMS grade book is all about tabular data. It basically re-implements Microsoft Excel---badly. But Excel is an extremely poor model. Teachers don't want to manipulate category weightings and write formulas. They want to use their assessments of students' performance on individual assignments to derive an overall progress indicator (in the form of a course grade) through a formula that is fair to all the students in the class. GoodSemester starts from that goal and achieves it through a completely novel set of visualization tools.
A few of the details are worth calling out:
- Categories: It is literally impossible in this system for a teacher to create category weightings that add up to anything other than exactly 100% because it's all manipulated via a pie chart.
- Curving and grade cutoffs: The reason that teachers futz with curves and cutoffs between letter grades is because they have an intuitive sense of what the grade distribution could be. In GoodSemester, they adjust those things visually and see the changing grade distribution instantly.
- Grade dropping: It's non-destructive. Again, teachers futz with grading schemes when they believe that the scheme they have isn't accurately reflecting student performance. This happens partly because most teachers don't have a strong grasp of how the math is working in their grading schemes to produce final grades (particularly when those schemes are complicated). By letting them play with changes non-destructively, they can find the approach that best reflects their sense of how the students are doing.
I'm frankly not sure what to think about GoodSemester. Their product model is so different from the conventional LMS business that there are no clear precedents for how well it might work even in principle. It's uncharted territory. And I have trouble connecting the dots for some aspects of their product strategy. For example, they talk a lot about open courses on their website, but it's not entirely clear to me exactly where they are going with open education and, maybe more importantly, how they think they can get there. But there is no question that they are doing some original thinking, and some of it---like the grade book---is really outstanding. And you have to admire their determination both as aspiring entrepreneurs and as aspiring educational reformers. I asked Jason how GoodSemester is funded. He said, "It's completely self-funded. I graduated from college a year early and used the money I saved to start the company. My only regret is that I didn't drop out a year earlier. GoodSemester would be a lot further along. That's how expensive college is."
I asked, "Can I quote you on that?"
He replied, "I wish you would."