Ok, so the campus LMS market is in transition. Blackboard’s announced plans to retire its legacy LMS applications is a major catalyst for this transition: upwards of 700 Blackboard LMS clients, primary but not exclusively colleges and universities, confront “up or out” decisions regarding their current campus implementations of retiring Angel, WebCT, and other older Blackboard-branded LMS applications.
But other factors are also at play. For example, almost three-fourths (73.4 percent) of the campuses participating in the 2010 Campus Computing Survey  report their institutions are “reviewing options for the campus standard LMS” in response to budget pressures, up from 68.5 percent in fall 2009.
On the provider front, over the past three years Desire2Learn, Moodle, and Sakai have each gained share and reached critical mass, having secured significant deployments across all sectors. Additionally, several new LMS providers (Epsilen, Instructure, and Loudcloud, among others) have entered the campus LMS market: these three new entrants, and others, are generating significant interest and are signing some interesting campus clients.
Yet “transitions” in the LMS market are not new. “Way back” in 2004, following the announcement that the Mellon Foundation would provide a significant grant (seed money? venture capital?) to help support the development of Sakai, I described the then campus LMS landscape  as a “mature market with immature products.” Explanation: even by 2004, most campuses already had a site license for a LMS, even as these applications were less than a decade old. And that combination – a mature market with immature products – has been and remains a recipe for continuing transitions in the market.
Is your institution engaged in or about to begin a LMS review? If so, below is list of ten questions about LMS transitions that may prove useful
1. Why are we considering a LMS review and possible LMS migration? What’s been the campus experience with our current LMS application and provider? How long have we been using the current LMS? When did we last conduct a formal review of the current LMS? Are we “happy” (or at least reasonably satisfied) clients? Has the current provider failed to honor the letter or spirit of the contract? Are we forced into this review because our current LMS provider will terminate support for this specific application? Are we exploring LMS options because of cost issues and budget pressures? Has new technology emerged that is (or seems) significantly better than our current LMS platform?
2. What does our current LMS do well and what do we want (need!) it to do better? What do faculty and students like about the current platform? What do we want – or really need – the LMS to do better? Will other LMS platforms address the gap between current and required performance?
3. What is the real annual cost of our current LMS? What proportion of the total operating cost involves fees to providers for code, hosting, and support services? What about the cost of technology services and support that come from various campus budgets and that are provided by campus personnel?
4. Who will be involved in the review process? Will appropriate campus constituencies – technology conversant faculty and IT support personnel as well as students – be directly and indirectly involved in the review? And what criteria will be used for the review?
5. What’s been the experience of institutions similar to ours that have undertaken a LMS review and a LMS migration? What can we learn from the experience of other institutions? Are there formal reports from other campuses that can inform – and perhaps expedite – our efforts? After implementation, did their new LMS meet initial expectations on instructional, operational, and financial issues?
6. How fast are we prepared to migrate to a new LMS, should we decide to do so? Some institutions plan for a transition year as they migrate to a new LMS; others push forward to complete the migration during the summer that affect the speed of migration to a new LMS? Can we afford to support two LMS applications if we opt for a one-year transition strategy?
7. What kind of training and support services will students and faculty need to expedite the transition to a new LMS? How will we promote and deliver training to students and faculty? What kinds of assistance will faculty require to convert course materials from the old LMS to the new one?
8. What are the benefits – instructional, operational, and financial – of migrating to a new LMS? Will a new LMS actually save us (real) money when we look at the total cost of operation and deployment? Will more faculty use it? Will faculty make better use of it? Will it provide real instructional benefits? Will it offer operational benefits (e.g., less need for user support)?
9. How will we evaluate the LMS migration process? What data do we currently have about our LMS utilization? What data do we need to collect as we begin the migration process, should it go forward? How can we leverage data from our LMS for a better understanding of retention and academic engagement issues that involve students and also curricular development and IT support issues that involve faculty?
10. How should we document the LMS migration experience? Question 10 really is about addressing the issues cited in Question 8: can we document clear (and presumably compelling) instructional, operational, and financial benefits following a change in the campus LMS? This is not an “academic” issue. A LMS transition consumes significant time, talent, and financial resources. Inquiring minds – on-campus and elsewhere in the larger higher education community – will want to know (a) if your migration met expectations, (b) what transition; (c) what you could have done better, and (d) what others might learn from your experience.
Admittedly, many of these questions seem – indeed are – obvious. Yet a steady stream of campus newspaper articles, editorials, and blogs periodically delivered to my computer via Google Alerts affirms the wise words a pragmatic professor offered in the opening moments of a graduate seminar on public policy many years ago: “implementation is the movement from cup to lip.” While many campuses to a great job of planning the transition to a new LMS, a good number do not. And the problem areas all seem to involve training and support for students and faculty.
As with so many IT issues, technology may be the easy part of a LMS transition. It’s the planning, policy, and people factors that pose the real (and continuing) challenges.
DISCLOSURE: Eight firms that provide LMS applications and support services – Blackboard, Desire2Learn, Epsilen, Instructure, The Longsight Group, Moodlerooms, Pearson, and rSmart – are corporate sponsors of The Campus Computing Project.