So, what is a learning management system or LMS? It's basically a place that organizes your classroom into a digital hub. You can post assignments, assessments, content, and more so students can access it digitally from anywhere. Almost everyone in education needs a space like this so that if a student gets lost, doesn't know where to go, is absent, or just generally confused they know where to start.
I think when you look at the LMS space there are four distinct categories: the big boys, the upstarts, the virtual school platforms, and the build your own with a website. From a death standpoint, I think the one that is in real danger are the upstarts, but the virtual school platforms could also be a development in the future. Let's look at each category to understand the space.
The Big Boy Group
The big boy group is the newest category, and it's the scariest for the upstarts. Basically, it's Apple, Google, and Microsoft's solutions for an LMS, and they are scary to the upstarts because they can offer total solutions that districts seem to be moving in droves.
Google started the trend with Google Apps for Education, but they soon realized they need a simple LMS type solution. This brought about Classroom. Smaller LMS companies struggle to compete against it because it integrates everything on the Google side: email, drive, and the LMS. It makes it easy to turn in assignments and deliver feedback. That ease of use is always a winner.
Microsoft soon realized Google's lead, and they began pushing out their own with the 365/One Note Universe. When you look at their LMS, it revolves around One Note. One Note is a Note taking an app that syncs across multiple devices, and teachers can also set up Class Notebooks within the system. It's adoption hinges on the fact that many schools are moving to Office 365 to provide their employees access to email and Microsoft Office in the cloud.
This is a space that Apple falls a little bit behind the others, but you are starting to see Apple have signs of life. The closest thing they have to an LMS type system is Itunes U. It gives the teacher all they need to set up an online class, but their format to switch classes can be a little different from the typical LMS. Their advantage over the little guy though goes back to their hardware. Itunes U works incredibly well on Ipad, and if that's the avenue a school goes it's likely that's what they will pick.
The Little Guys
There are lots of little guys out there, and I think with Apple, Microsoft, and Google's entrance into the game you are starting to see signs of death. When we talk little guys these are your platforms such as Edmodo, Schoology; It's Learning, Canvas, and a host of others. I think you see many schools who would much rather pick the all in one solution that also provides things like email and office rather than one that is just an LMS.
The interesting one of the bunch is Canvas. Canvas started as an answer to the problems of the others. Canvas is an open-sourced platform that is both feature packed and integrates well with other apps. Schools are seeing those integrations and jumping on board. They also market the product almost like the virtual school versions do which has allowed them to sit in a nice sweet spot between and LMS and virtual school platform.
Canvas seems to be growing, but are they soon going to be come tapped out thanks to the big boy solutions? Solutions from Microsoft and Google give you more then just the LMS, and I always wonder if schools will just use their versions to accomplish that digital hub. I think we already see the decline of some of the others because of the "Big Boy" versions. I have seen several schools in the past couple of years shift from one of these little versions of One Note or Google Classroom, and I think that trend is bound to continue. The little guys seem to be doing everything they can to hang on to their existing user base, but growth is a slow go. If you are thinking about one of the Little Guy solutions, I would proceed with caution.
The Virtual School Platforms
The Virtual School Platforms are a whole different ball game entirely. Many school districts are being virtual school programs that are fully online for students to do things like summer school and grade recovery. To do so, they need to have platforms which are not just supplements but are the full class online. This has led to a rise of feature packed platforms such as Blackboard, D2L, Edgenuity, and more. The interesting thing is watching districts try to adopt them to regular classrooms. The thought is that if we are going to spend a whole bunch of money on a virtual school platform, then why not have a uniform LMS across a district. Almost universally, this has been met with pushback from teachers, and in many instances rightfully so.
The differences between these platforms and an LMS is all about features. Most LMS platforms are meant to be supplements to class instruction, while these are supposed to be the entire class. Typically, it means these platforms have features and integrations that others don't. Things like having a virtual conference, email, and gradebooks come with these, but don't typically come with an LMS because there are usually other solutions for that. You are also starting to see some of the platforms come with pre-loaded content so that a virtual class is standardized.
While these features may be great for virtual school, they can overwhelm teachers.
They are so feature packed that teachers get lost. They also can be convoluted when it comes to students finding things within the platform.
From a leader standpoint, I think I would have to go with D2L. The interesting thing is that I might have said Blackboard less than a year ago. D2l has made inroads in the avenue by starting with Universities and expanding out. They are my graduate school platform, and now I am starting to see them move into K-12 school districts. They are gaining traction because they have easy integrations with other apps. That easy integration is the real key to making these platforms stick.
These platforms are also in an interesting place in the grand scheme of things. Lots of districts are starting virtual schools, and they see these platforms as a need. Will it continue? I don't know. I think asking these platforms to transfer over to everyday use is a major stretch, and are virtual schools going to stick to being a major district thing? I also think you might see the virtual schools switch to something like Google Classroom as it adds more features. That all in one solution may end up winning out if the features come up to the Virtual School Level
The Build Your Own
Personally, my preference to the digital hub solution is to build your own website. I think it's the most customizable, and it allows you to get the most out of learning tools by using HTML to embed them. To use websites as solutions though, you run into two major issues: 1) It's hard to standardize 2) It's not an easy entry.
The idea behind a website is that you take one of the free builders like Weebly or the New Google Sites, and you design what your digital hub looks like. You can then customize it by adding other learning apps such as Padlet, Nearpod, Touchcast and many others through the magic of HTML embed.
The issue here starts with the fact that this is a hard entry. For many teachers, asking them to build their own website is a lot. It takes planning and a deep understanding of the website platform. This typically is a project for the "techie" teachers, but I think you could implement school-wide with high expectations.
The other issue that comes with a website is that it is hard to standardize and control from a broader perspective. Many districts are so freaked out by laws relating to student digital use that they want you to be on the district level domain. Websites might be the best solution for kids, but other factors mean that you may never see a wide spread use.
The LMS question is going to be an interesting one for years. It's one that as of now looks like it's going to go similar to smart watches. Startups start the movement (like Pebble in Smart watches), but when the Big boys get in (like Apple and Google), the little guy dies. What we know more than anything though is that the need for a digital hub is just going to increase. Every school and every teacher needs to have a solution. Schools just need to have high expectations for them.