Disruptive Innovation Comes to the LMS

I never cease to be amazed that academic librarians are still churning out articles and conference presentations about the now countless variations on how library services and resources are being integrated in learning courseware. To my knowledge, the earliest article on this topic was David Cohen’s EDUCAUSE Review piece titled “Course Management Software: Where’s the Library?” published back in 2002. Here we are nearly ten years later and librarians are still pumping out articles about how they leverage courseware for distributing library resources, research instruction, and more.

Not that there’s any harm in sharing news or related research about the benefits of integrating the library into the courseware. In 2011, to me, this is just something we all should be doing as a standard part of academic library operations. I guess you could also say that about reference, circulation, instruction, and the myriad other things we do where there’s no end to new variations on a theme—and the literature we generate to spread the word.

For sure there are still a handful of institutions yet to adopt courseware, which also continues to amaze me give its ubiquity and the platform options, but most every academic library has access to a courseware system, commercial, open source, or even homegrown.

New competitors as Blackboard goes on the market
In the last six months there’s been a fair amount of action in the courseware market. Blackboard and Desire2Learn are still fiercely competing. In 2009, Blackboard had an 83% market share, but it’s dropped to 57%.

The learning management software (LMS) trend capturing attention currently is the number of mom-and-pop style courseware systems emerging as potential replacements for the big players in the field. For example, a team of students at the University of Pennsylvania came up with something called Coursekit because the founder said he was “fed up” with Blackboard. Another potential competitor is Instructure, and it’s in the same space as Moodle and Sakai, being offered as another open source software product. If you like your courseware on the basic side, OERGlue is a possible Blackboard replacement.

Competition is always healthy for an industry, but what has all the educational technologists and higher education investors in a state of uncertainty is the news that Blackboard is now in play as an acquisition target. There is always speculation about Blackboard being swallowed by bigger technology firm, but it looks like the rumors are proving true now that Blackboard has announced it’s reviewing some proposals. No one knows for sure what will happen, but Michael Feldstein stated that no matter what happens to Blackboard the next two years could be full of turmoil for the courseware market.

Disruption could be good for us
Many large institutions with a significant investment in Blackboard, such as my own where we have many Blackboard products and thousands of courses, would face difficulty in migrating to a new system. Those of us tied to Blackboard could only hope that new ownership would lead to improvements. For many others, it might open up great opportunities to move off of Blackboard to a newer system. It will definitely be interesting to see what happens.

Disruption can be a good thing. For courseware it could help to bring new innovations to the marketplace, and potentially some new players who would be far more receptive to the needs of academic librarians. One of my greatest frustrations with Blackboard over the years I’ve dealt with its system is its almost complete lack of interest in working more closely with database aggregators and other vendors we deal with to directly link those products into Blackboard—or to provide ways for us to do it more easily. I recall multiple conversations with database reps who told me that when they went knocking on Blackboard’s door no one came to answer—or that getting through the door would require a wide open wallet. It would be nice to see the emergence of courseware providers who would want to help us to integrate our resources into their systems with greater ease, and provide us with the tools we need to promote use of the library in students’ learning space.

Time to be proactive
While there’s no way of knowing what will happen or when it will all go down, academic librarians should pay more attention to the LMS market for news of developments. It’s not so much about how we work with courseware to extend the library into learning spaces, but rather what decisions our institutions might make about their future direction with courseware and how that might impact our ability to leverage courseware to achieve our goals. Granted, the first priority should always be how well any courseware supports faculty in achieving student learning outcomes. We have learning outcomes to achieve as well, and increasingly our campus courseware is a significant tool in accomplishing those outcomes.

Courseware is also emerging as a primary avenue by which we connect and collaborate with faculty and students. So whatever you think is the big issue of the day, be it discovery tools, open access publishing, digital textbooks, or revolutions in public service models, keep the current disruption in courseware on your radar screen as well. The lessons of the past remind us that being absent from the table when the important decisions are being made comes at a great cost to our ability to create our vision of a preferred future for academic librarianship.