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Blackboard has Learn, Instructure has Canvas, and now, Desire2Learn has Brightspace. With Desire2Learn's announcement, the three leading learning management system providers have all finally put a name to their products, but analysts say vendors may be on the verge of tearing down those silos in favor of an open ecosystem.

When Blackboard CEO Jay Bhatt took the stage at the Venetian & Palazzo Resort in Las Vegas on Wednesday to unveil the latest updates to Learn, his appearance capped another summer of user and research conferences across the U.S. In the last six weeks, community members of the Sakai and Moodle projects flocked to Miami and Los Angeles, Canvas faithful convened in Park City, Utah, and Desire2Learn supporters gathered in Nashville.

As expected, the commercial vendor conferences mixed product announcements with hype.

Blackboard discussed “what an LMS means in a post-LMS world,” as one executive put it -- a theme that included offering a software-as-a-service version of Learn and renovating the user experience, among other announcements. Instructure emphasized “lossless learning,” introducing tools for capturing data in Canvas from face-to-face courses. Desire2Learn touted its rebranding, with CEO John Baker writing it represented the “next era of innovation” for the company.

But to people such as Chuck Severance, chair of the Sakai Project Management Committee, this has been “a summer of non-announcements.”

“I think we’re in a weird place right now in the marketplace -- partly because there’s a lot of parity between the systems,” Severance said. “You can almost throw a dart at a dartboard and pick an LMS, and it won’t be that bad.”

He added, “Everyone is struggling to figure out what the next steps are.”

But according to Severance and others following the market, there are early signs that learning management systems are changing. Instead of bloating their products with as many new features as they can develop, vendors are increasingly letting other ed-tech companies do the work for them, opening their systems to outside developers.

The result, should the trend continue, might not be a learning management system, but what analysts call a “learning ecosystem.” Not a black hole where content is dumped at one end of the semester and grades at the other, but an open platform where faculty members are free to browse and embed the tools they want to use -- for example quizzes from Khan Academy, plagiarism detection from Turnitin or a homegrown solution -- regardless of whether they logged into Learn or Sakai, and regardless of whether their system has its own, similar tool.

"It definitely is a change in mindset,” said George Kroner, a former Blackboard engineer who now works at the University of Maryland University College. “I think people need to start thinking of the LMS in terms of that this is not just a single product from a single vendor -- it’s a lot of products that happen to work together well under a single roof.”

More Apps, More Content

The shift can be seen in how the five largest learning management system providers -- Blackboard, Desire2Learn. Instructure, Moodle and Sakai -- have coalesced around some common standards. For example, they all support interoperability standards developed by the IMS Global Learning Consortium, which enable developers to create tools that work with any learning management system (last year, three providers put a bounty on new open tools). Another standard, known as Caliper, aims to standardize how learning analytics are tracked.

Interoperability can lead to some unusual pairings. Want to run Blackboard Collaborate or Desire2Learn’s adaptive learning tool, LeaP, in your Moodle course? There are, as they say, apps for that.

With access to a marketplace of add-ons, vendors can focus on the core features of a learning management system, such as a gradebook, a calendar and a place to communicate with students, Severance said. "The ecosystem is not going to eliminate the five or six core features that the learning management systems have, but it’s going to limit that list from going to 100," he said.

That doesn’t mean the systems are going to become indistinguishable from one another, said Kenneth C. Green, founding director of the Campus Computing Project. “I think it’s going to be more like a European Union,” he said. “There are going to be noticeable countries that are going to be providers of different types.”

The vendors are also changing how they talk about their products -- beyond resorting to euphemisms for “learning management system.”

“No more point solutions,” Baker said in a recent interview. Similarly, Blackboard’s Mark Strassman, senior vice president of industry and product management, said the company is moving away from being a “company of best-of-breed products” to “looking at one integrated solution.”

Strassman pointed to Blackboard's acquisition of the college and career planning service MyEdu as an example. The deal was announced in January, and less than five months later, the product appeared as a feature within Learn.

Instructure may be the furthest along. Last year, the company introduced the educational tool app store EduAppCenter, and this June, it rounded 100 partnerships with developers.

Vendors are pursuing similar arrangements with publishers and other content providers. Blackboard has its own store, although for course content, and Desire2Learn this week signed agreements with five publishers to let students buy and rent textbooks through its Binder platform. With every new partnership, it becomes a little easier for students to move between assignments, textbooks and third-party apps while never leaving their learning management systems.

“You’re just starting to see that concept of, ‘Here is your Amazon of learning tools and content to choose from within your LMS -- use what you like,’ ” Kroner said. “Certainly it’s not mature yet, but at the very least it’s beginning to get there.... To remain competitive, you have to integrate with solutions like that. No one vendor can do it all.”

The Role of Open Source

The idea of a learning ecosystem was a hot topic at ed-tech conferences years ago, Severance said, but instead “everything fell back to ‘let’s all stay inside our silos.’”

“Everyone wants to make proprietary ecosystems,” Severance said. “That’s not what a learning ecosystem is.”

Severance still predicted that the current market will give way to an open ecosystem within five years, but getting there, he said, requires vendors to cooperate where they now compete.

Blackboard commands the largest share of the market, but as institutions have looked to retire their aging systems, they have opened the door for companies such as Desire2Learn and Instructure, which was founded in 2008. As a result, Blackboard’s market share has fallen in recent years.

Asked to summarize this summer’s news, Green said, “The most interesting announcement that Blackboard could make is that they got five campuses to come back. That, more than anything else, would capture attention.”

Sakai, too, has lost ground. In an updated snapshot of the learning management system market, Kroner found that one-fifth of institutions running Sakai were actively looking to switch to a different system. Many of the project’s founding universities have also transitioned away. Severance has said the project has never been about capturing market share, and that Sakai “no longer depends on the founding schools to move the project forward.”

Such market conditions don’t exactly promote cooperation, but Severance said supporters of open-source projects could ally themselves with the commercial vendors to move the market toward an ecosystem model.

“Higher education needs to be present with real participation to ensure that the right things happen, and that it doesn’t just go to the quickest, dirtiest solution it can possibly be,” Severance said. “The sad thing is that if an open ecosystem does not get built, a closed ecosystem will. If the open-source people don’t stand up and actually get involved ..., then we’ll just wait for the vendors to tell us how much it costs.”

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