Addition by Subtraction: Despite Recent Mergers and Acquisitions, There Are More Choices Than Ever for Learning Management Systems. Here's How to Navigate the Choice List

Article excerpt

SOMETIMES LESS IS MORE. That's the case with learning management systems. At first glance, mergers and acquisitions have led to fewer competitors in the LMS market. But a closer look reveals that established systems are now accompanied by a range of emerging LMS solutions.

Today's options include hosted applications, open source solutions, social networking platforms with LMS components, and even homegrown applications that continue to thrive in academic environments.

In fact, many colleges and universities use a mix of LMS and course management systems. Consider the situation at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In addition working with the Sakai open source environment, "MIT actually home grows most of its academic software," notes Ash Dyer, an MIT researcher.

Each spring and fall semester, MIT rolls out a new version of its LMS platform, which includes the Stellar course management system. Overall, the system enhancements are organized into six categories: content management (such as class materials), website structure (such as customized navigation), homework (assignments and submissions), access control, interaction with students (e-mail and RSS feeds), and ease-of-use enhancements. MIT has developed an easy-to-understand grid system to help users understand how Stellar has evolved since 2005 (see stellar.mit.edu/about).

The Stellar system is "cross-referenced with databases throughout MIT'S administration, so it automates a lot of tasks teachers would otherwise have to worry about, like course registrations/drops and copyright management--that's a big one," quips Dyer.

Still, MIT doesn't develop LMS systems in a vacuum. The institution also works closely with the Sakai community (htt://sakaiproject.org), an open source organization that spans multiple colleges and universities. Much like a shared set of Lego toys, Sakai members write LMS code on their own and then share these building blocks with one another. The goal is to mix and match pieces so that universities can snap together their own LMS systems relatively easily.

Of course, not all college and universities have the time or resources to develop LMS systems on their own--nor should they. While MIT has extensive in-house expertise, most colleges and universities would be better served to license prebuilt, standards-based solutions, industry pundits assert.

"This isn't a decision you want to rush into and take lightly," says Eric Elgar, founder of e2TechLabs.com, a web development and software-testing firm in East Northport, N.Y. "If your LMS system goes dark, your university goes blind."

But choose wisely. Roughly 24 percent of schools with LMS deployments wind up with buyers' remorse, according to a 2007 study by Oakland, Calif.-based research firm Bershin and Associates. In other words, one out of four colleges would likely switch LMS systems if they had the freedom, power, and budget to do so.

Know Your Options

Contrary to some concerns about industry consolidation, there's still a healthy range of LMS options from which to choose. Some offerings come from the traditional software market. Others have emerged as hosted solutions--known as Software as a Service (SaaS). There are also open-source options and even social network technologies that are gaining some (but not all) characteristics of LMS solutions (see "Ones to Watch" on this page).

Through mergers and acquisitions, the traditional LMS software market has undergone dramatic change over the past year or so. Key developments include Pearson's pending $538 million buyout of eCollege. com, which is slated for completion in the third quarter of 2007, according to a spokeswoman for Pearson.

The deal follows Blackboard's February 2006 buyout of WebCT. Blackboard continues to promote its own Blackboard Commerce Suite, and has rebranded WebCT's products under the Blackboard Academic Suite banner. …