Barnes & Noble Ed Pushing Beyond Books

The company, known mainly as a bookstore operator, scores a potentially lucrative deal with the digital education consortium Unizin that could help it make its mark in the predictive analytics market.

May 25, 2017
 

Barnes & Noble Education took another step beyond college bookstores and textbooks Wednesday, announcing a deal to bring predictive analytics services to universities in the digital education consortium Unizin.

BNED, as the company now likes to be called, operates nearly 1,500 bookstores, but has in recent years expanded beyond course materials. In March 2016, it acquired the software start-up LoudCloud, and it is through that company that BNED now will score a group of 22 potential new clients (or, in the cases where it already runs campus bookstores, form tighter connections with existing ones) that includes Indiana University, Pennsylvania State University and the State University System of Florida, among others.

“People don’t think of Barnes & Noble Education as a technology company,” Kanuj Malhotra, chief operating officer of digital, said in an interview. The deal with Unizin, he said, is “a little bit of our coming-out party.”

LoudCloud started as a learning management system provider and has earned a handful of clients in the for-profit sector, including Grand Canyon University. In 2014, the company expanded into competency-based education, which has proven to be a difficult market for vendors to establish themselves in. The start-up also offers an open educational resources platform.

The agreement with Unizin, however, focuses on its predictive analytics software. LoudCloud’s analytics platform, LoudSight, combines data from different systems on campus -- think learning management systems and student information systems -- into a dashboard that can, for example, help advisers and faculty members intervene with a student who shows warning signs of failing an important class.

Phil Hill, an education consultant, at the time of the acquisition of LoudCloud connected it to BNED’s slumping quarterly results. The company, like many of its rivals in the textbook market, faced declining sales and looked to diversify its offerings. By acquiring LoudCloud, BNED gained “the necessary platform and tools to effectively compete for digital courseware, OER content and services sales,” CEO Max Roberts said then.

In an interview Wednesday, Hill said the deal with Unizin suggests LoudCloud is focusing more intently on analytics after years of being “here, there and everywhere” in the ed-tech market.

Carolyn J. Brown, vice president of corporate communications at BNED, said in an email that “the ability to measure performance and behavior is central to all of our products,” and that Unizin is a “foundational partner” in the company’s efforts to expand that side of its business.

“We believe analytics is at early stages in higher education and is poised for significant growth,” Brown said. “Our goal is to be a leader in this space.”

The deal with Unizin doesn’t automatically bring 22 new clients to LoudCloud. Malhotra said member universities will come on board over time, and that their use cases will likely differ. Colorado State University has already piloted the software, while others have “expressed a strong desire to get going,” he said. Each university has to foot the bill for the LoudCloud services it uses.

Malhotra declined to say how many clients LoudCloud currently has but described the agreement with Unizin as a “big deal.”

Gates Bryant, a partner at the investment banking and strategy consulting firm Tyton Partners, said the Unizin deal, although interesting, doesn’t necessarily establish LoudCloud as a “major player” in the analytics market. “Their growth in this arena will as much be a reflection on Unizin’s evolving role and impact as it will be on the BNED LoudCloud offering,” he said in an email.

Another ‘Foundational Piece’ for Unizin

The agreement with LoudCloud is yet another piece of the “learning ecosystem” that Unizin is building, Chief Operating Officer Robin Littleworth said in an interview. The consortium, which launched in 2014, focuses on solving questions related to access, affordability and quality in higher education across institutional boundaries.

Since the launch, Unizin has worked on creating “relays” through which its member universities can share course content and data. Work on the relays has been gradual as the consortium has, through acquisitions and partnerships, pieced together the technology infrastructure needed to enable that sort of sharing.

Unizin CEO Amin Qazi elaborated on the consortium’s plans for data sharing in a blog post published earlier this month. In addition to sharing teaching and learning data, he wrote, the member universities are working on the Unizin Learning Laboratory, which will collect data about student engagement to benefit researchers across the consortium.

“Imagine that a system of collecting and analyzing data was created by academics for academics,” Qazi wrote. “You own your data; you don’t need to purchase reports or subscribe to a service to get that information. It won’t be sold to outside vendors, it is standardized, and you can, with relative ease, access de-identified data from other member institutions within the consortium for research purposes.”

However, Littleworth said, the “foundational pieces” for that type of data gathering and sharing are still being laid, and Unizin is “just getting started” with piecing together its learning ecosystem. (He struck a similar tone in 2015, when he said data analytics software vendors were not yet ready to deliver the product Unizin envisioned.)

The progress, Littleworth said, depends on several factors. For one, Unizin’s members are “all at different paces and places” of setting up the systems on their campuses. Some, like Ohio State University, have just completed the migration to the Canvas learning management system, which serves as the consortium’s foundational platform. Others, like Indiana University, have already collected years’ worth of student engagement data.

Unizin will also continue to work with LoudCloud to customize its software to fit member universities’ needs, whether they need help with data collection or using the data to boost student retention, Littleworth said.

“We’re poised to take the lead in learning analytics,” Littleworth said. “We want to be able to leverage each others’ insights. LoudCloud has some turnkey capabilities that will benefit all of us. It’s not a silver bullet, but it’s certainly a good start.”

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