The LMS giant Blackboard  unveiled a new user interface today -- one that the company describes  as "the platform's biggest shift in look and feel in years." It's a facelift that, as Inside Higher Ed  observes, sure looks like a response to the flood of new competitors in the LMS space, most of whom are quick to "cast Blackboard as aesthetically retrograde and more concerned with the needs of high-level administrators than those of individual instructors." But the difference between Blackboard and some of the new entrants can't just be described by UI or UX. The Berlin-based startup iVersity  is a great example of that.
iVersity describes itself as a "collaboration network for academia," not as a learning management system. Much like another new startup Coursekit , the emphasis is on making educational resources "social."
A free, cloud-based tool that's currently available in English, German, Spanish and Portuguese, iVersity lets professors create research groups, conferences, and courses. In other words, this isn't simply about class administration. While there is a calendaring system, the emphasis is on connecting participants to digital materials and to each other.
It is possible to make the iVersity groups private and closed, but the push is to make them open -- open to the larger academic community beyond the campus walls. As students' work and their profiles can also be made public, giving students a way to showcase their projects in a digital portfolio or online resume of sorts.
Both the organizer and the participants of an iVersity group can upload resources (PDFs, videos, and so on) to a course, something that the startup says "empower[s] students and encourage[s] peer-to-peer learning." Those text resources can be read using the site's "social reader," an e-reader that allows users to annotate PDFs together. (There's also an option coming soon to order "print-on-demand" texts.)
Spinning out of a university itself and built by students, iVersity had its official launch  only last year, after a beta-test with some 11,000 students and faculty. As such, it's definitely got a long road ahead of it as it enters the very crowded LMS market.
But iVersity has a very different approach to delivering an online learning platform than do some of the longstanding players in the market -- something that even a refreshed and updated UI change on their parts isn't going to address.