Learning Management Systems – the Publishing Dilemma in K-12

Education publishers and Learning Management Systems have a long and somewhat checkered history. Open source publishing, XML, and content digitization are changing the LMS landscape rapidly. In today’s guest post Louise Dube outlines the issues facing companies creating instructional materials.

By Louise Dube

What to do? Educator Buying Trends, a recently survey by MDR reveals that Moodle has the largest installed base of Learning Management systems (LMS) in K-12. Equally interesting is that Moodle’s strongest presence is in large districts. These districts have the IT infrastructure to support the development and customization of an open source platform.

After Moodle, the floodgates open and districts use everything and anything as a “learning management system” …that is when the school understands what a learning management system is.

A cavalry of vendors to the rescue!

556619_from_out_of_the_pastDistricts increasingly need a single point of access and management for digital curriculum assignments, assessments, student work, lesson plans etc… Right now, just about every digital educational resource offers an “LMS.” They range from light versions with assignments and reports to a full blown solutions including portfolios and groupings and more.

In an informal poll I conducted last year, many elementary schools told me they use “Read 180” as an LMS by which they mean that this is how they evaluate student reading performance and progress. Given this definition, the number of LMSs numbers in the hundreds if not thousands.

With all of those resources available, case closed, or… With the proliferation of digital curricula resources teachers are overwhelmed with the information and available resources. The job of the learning management system becomes even more crucial as the gatekeeper to a digital classroom.

This proliferation of solutions brings into stark relief the fact that the edtech industry, despite its many accomplishments, has not solved the central need of the school, a simple tool that makes the life of the teacher easier and better.

Single signon and centralized reporting will not suffice. The question of how to approach the learning management system goes to the heart of the publishing dilemma in the digital age, i.e. how publishers will continue to defend their margins.

Content, Content

The proliferation of learning content is unstoppable. Khanacademy has over 1,800 free animations/videos teach anything from pre-algebra to the French revolution (notably absent is English as a discipline).

I believe the value of the publisher never lay in the presentation of basic concepts, that is required but insufficient. Open access to basic content should be welcomed by publishers who are now relieved of providing the same 3 ways to teach addition. On its own, this kind of free content will make little difference to the quality of K12 education but it is evidence of a larger movement towards an “app” world.

The digitization of the curriculum requires that the old full grade curriculum monolith be broken into individual pieces and elements for instruction customized to the learner. Elements can be individualized or combined for individual consumption by the learner. Whether the content is prescriptive or inquiry based, this “appification” of the content will require the teacher to act as orchestrator and coach/mentor. The federal government – at least under the current administration – is leading and supporting the transformation of the teaching role through Race to the Top and other funding sources.

Historically, the publishing industry built products for the realities of the classroom, and those who have tried to effect change through products have often failed. Today, change is the reality in the classroom and publishers have to contend with this change. This implies that value will shift from content toward how we support teachers in their changing role in relation to the content.

Publishers’ Dilemma

For the publisher, whether and how much to continue to invest in the development of an LMS is not clear. One option is to continue to refine a closed management system that controls the content presented and how it is measured. While many publishers would prefer to stay with this more conventional approach, the day is fast approaching when the pressure to open the system will be overwhelming.

Almost all publishers with closed systems provide a single sign-on alternative with most allowing broader customizations of their systems for large purchasers. Some publishers are concerned that opening up a system will compromise the ability to ensure fidelity to the research or the implementation model.

The reality is that schools draw on a multitude of content sources. The content used by the kids in computer lab co-exists with the project, worksheets, homework tutors and other supplemental materials in the classroom. Many schools are currently using WIKIs as partial LMS. In this model, the school “owns’ the improvement gains and the choice of the educational approach. Vendors in this model will need to support schools in building winning resource solutions to meet the educational goals.

One note of caution: as learning management systems become pervasive, sophistication will grow, and a professional class of open management systems will build ever higher barriers to entry. I note a new press release by Moodle about its Joule 2.0 platform which includes collaborative tools and social networking which exists outside of Facebook. Smaller publishers will find it hard to compete in this arena as content driven features (lesson plans) split from “management” features (assignments, groups, reporting.)

The other option is for the publisher to assume it is not in the LMS business, embrace the concept of learning modules and support a multitude of LMS. Standards adoption has always been painfully slow and continues to be insufficient. Standards lag along with business model concerns are barriers today.


Publishers will resist the commoditizing of content. Nevertheless, new products such as Sky from Learning.com understand that with the rise of self authored and free content, value will lie in integration, enhancement and ease of use. Those who will win will not only offer differentiated content but will also have real solutions for classroom implementation for individual student needs, and more than a token effort at teacher development (not just what to teach but how to teach the content). As a result, I would expect to see significant expansion of professional development integration within the content.

Louise Dube

LouisePixLouise Dube is currently consulting in product management in the educational technology industry. Louise has over 15 years of experience marketing and developing educational technology for K-12 schools, students and parents. She has worked extensively on creating market driven innovative technology solutions to close the achievement gap. Most recently, Louise was President at Pangea Tools. Previously, she served as Vice President for Product Management at Scientific Learning. Louise can be reached at louisedube at aya.yale.edu