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New Player in Course Management Software

September 9, 2009

The learning management software industry has a new competitor.

It’s Learning, Inc., a Norwegian company, is looking to take a share of the U.S. market from Blackboard and other top learning-management software providers after cornering the learning-management markets in Norway and Britain, and gaining "substantial" shares in Sweden, Denmark, and Holland.

The company caters to professors who put a special emphasis on personal attention in the classroom. Many classrooms — especially those at community colleges — include students with a broad range of capabilities, said Jonathan A. Bower, the president of the U.S. branch of It’s Learning. And while Blackboard “does a superb job of supporting the delivery of lessons in the classic fashion” — that is, to everybody at once — it is less useful for professors who wish to simultaneously challenge advanced students and reach those who may need remediation.

“Instead of creating one assignment for everybody,” Bower said, “as I get to know my students, what I can do is create supplemental assignments, remedial assignments, extra credit assignments,” and assign them to different students — or groups of students, in a large classroom — in order to “deliver a dramatically more individual, nuanced, and ultimately successful individual experience.”

All learning management systems store data that reflect how well students are doing in a class, Bower said, but rarely do professors use that information to help them do better. “If colleges are going to take responsibility for achieving outcomes, they’re going to have to start using assessment data in real time to start improving student performance,” he said.

More attention for students, however, means more work for professors. But Bower said the real advantage It’s Learning has over other learning management systems is that it is easy to use — so easy that professors will be able to apply multiple lesson plans without spending any more time than they would have to administer a single lesson plan.

“I can do in two hours what I used to be able to do in two weeks,” said Bower.

On top of that, it costs about half as much as Blackboard -- and less than free, open-source software like Moodle, when savings on technical support and training are factored in, Bower said.

Can It’s Learning actually elbow its way into the crowded marketplace of learning management providers? It is too soon to tell. Originally developed by graduate students at the Bergen Technical College in Norway, It’s Learning claims to have a 65 percent market share in Scandinavia. But as far as U.S. institutions are concerned, it is fresh off the boat, with only one client.

That client is Grace University, a small Christian university in Nebraska that serves a mixture of online and residential students numbering several hundred. According to Nathan Boeker, the director of online learning at Grace, the university abandoned Blackboard in 2005 in favor of a mishmash of other services, and was looking for something that wouldn’t require extensive training and technical support. “We knew from experience that if it’s not easy to get up and running, [professors] are not going to use it,” Boeker said. “We were doing a lot more support than we knew we had to.”

The university is running the system in six courses — which run the gamut from totally online to mostly face-to-face — as a two-semester pilot program. So far, Boeker said, it has been pleased. “What we’ve heard from professors has been very, very positive,” he said, noting that a number of the instructors are adjuncts who have experience using Blackboard, Angel, and other systems. “The reports I’m getting in is how clean the system is, how easy it is to get things done.”

Lara Oerter, vice president of product management and marketing at Blackboard, said the company is aware of It's Learning's work in Europe, and noted that the U.S. market for learning management "has historically been very healthy and competitive, especially as the importance of technology in higher education has grown over the years."

 

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