Thursday, April 26, 2012

Staying True to the Mission

The following is a post from 
Moodlerooms Chairman and CEO, Lou Pugliese. 

Rather than jump into the social media fray following my current and new Blackboard colleagues, I made a deliberate decision to delay my reflections on what’s transpired with our recent merger over the past two weeks. In expressing my off script observations, I thought it essential to get perspectives from customers, the Moodle community, partners and the education business community at large. Amidst the market ruckus, hundreds of press and social media postings and conversations, my position from the beginning has always been, let’s let the market speak.

To set the context, at Moodlerooms, the opportunity that I brought to the management team and board was based on a set of gating questions:

  • Can a merger with Blackboard accelerate and better support the successful adoption of open source and offer something of greater value that can impact student outcomes more quickly and cost effectively?
  • Can Moodlerooms be better resourced to continue to innovate and more profoundly impact the education community using Blackboard’s global presence in the market?
  • Can we preserve our current relationships with customers and continue to offer our products and services at the same value, as an independent business?
  • Can Moodlerooms maintain its brand and add value to the Moodle community in ways we couldn't as a standalone business?
  • Can we more cost efficiently operate our business by leveraging resources in both technology and human capital in ways that allow us to continue to offer economic value?
Among other options, our decision weighed heavily on the post merger impact on achieving these objectives more quickly and effectively. In the final decision, if we can pass through these gating factors and can create new value for the market, the method doesn’t matter, the outcome does. Most importantly our new owners needed to understand that our value is not measured in currency, it's measured in character and what our company brings to the market. I’ll state emphatically that we, at Moodlerooms, will continue to bring the same value we have for years. Our mission remains unchanged: to be the predominant global open source eLearning software and services business, dedicated to making enterprise open source deployment successful for institutions worldwide. After a great deal of deliberation, we felt our company and the market would be better served with this combination than if operating independently as a small growth stage business.

Market reaction and common questions

I’ve spent a majority of my time since the merger having in-depth discussions with numerous stakeholder groups all of whom have expressed a wide variety of opinions, concerns and attitudes about this merger. Among the dialogue I’ve had with customers, prospects, business partners and a handful of industry luminaries, since the announcement, the constellation of issues revolve around four themes; strategy, innovation, service and economics.

Strategy- The overall strategy for this merger revolves around the changing needs of the market and following what is emerging as a vendor neutral trend. We see this in the transformation of large fortune 100 companies; IBM has moved from a singular hardware business play to a service model business, sometimes even selling and managing what once were competing products. Dell is migrating away from a pure hardware focus to cloud and cross-sector IT consulting services. In our own market we’ve seen this in the recent merger of Datatel and Sungard, now Ellucian. In a market where numerous legacy systems, new market entrants and the growth of open source options continue to evolve the market, we believe that customers will be best served by choice, options and services to back solutions. The modular architecture of Moodle and Moodlerooms provisioning, customization and configuration capabilities, and Blackboard’s assets beyond core LMS provide a powerful combination of options that, in the end, better serves the changing needs of the market. Adding Netspot to the mix gives the combined companies truly global focus on open source products, support and services.

In our ongoing interaction with our customers and prospects, we see a continuing trend in institutions maintaining multiple LMS systems across campuses. Many continually request integration with Blackboard components such as Collaborate, Connect, Transact, and other Blackboard applications and we’re now in a position to offer a wealth of choices that in the end can help create order out of what could be chaos. Some of our own innovations we’ve developed inside and outside the Moodle core can also be advantageous to Blackboard’s product roadmap.

From a strategic view, this merger also underscores Blackboard’s commitment to open systems and interoperability. As I’ve written in the past, the hype cycle continues to escalate with vendor claims of “open source” and “open architecture.” These two concepts are very different and often get intermingled and leveraged as marketing speak. Open source is source code level application development sharing, open architecture is about platforms designed to allow third parties to make products that plug into or interoperate with other systems. The result of this merger allows us, as one company, to provide both at scale. The ability for both of these concepts to coexist provides the necessary ingredients for a highly flexible, networked platform that can be more responsive to education institutions’ unique business requirements. In an exponentially growing market of open, we now have an opportunity to invite an extensive base of Blackboard customers and developers into the open source community.

Innovation- During the process of the merger, each company gets to know each other’s businesses intimately. We get a unique opportunity to stare into the eyes of a competitor to better understand what makes them tick, but also to determine if a relationship can be formed toward a better market outcome . The discovery process revealed that Moodlerooms’ fast and nimble approach to the market and industry leading talent was an extremely good match for Blackboard’s stable eLearning solutions and the people that create and support them. The combined organization will provide the necessary union of assets and human capital needed to pioneer new innovation in the market to fulfill the still latent promise of eLearning globally. A good example of the potential of this relationship is a recent two-day product overview between both companies. As the day ran on, our meetings emerged as product innovation “meeting of the minds.” Both days were electric with new exciting ideas and charged with amazing synergies. Our initial meetings exceeded our expectations on all fronts and I believe you’ll see great new ideas emerge between our collective teams. Keep your ears to the ground for great things to come.

Service - Over a year ago at Moodlerooms, we conceived, published and launched a company-wide initiative we titled “Gold Standard Manifesto” (GSM). GSM was a pledge, starting with our Services division, to define and uphold levels of performance standards for our customers. Knowing that large scale implementations of open source LMS are nascent in the market, we invested millions in creating professional services and training programs designed to make enterprise scale transitions from proprietary LMS to Moodlerooms joule an exceptional experience. These transitions require significant proficiency in:

  • Cloud hosting configuration management that results in a scalable, secure and cost efficient delivery of enterprise scale online course environments;
  • Integration with legacy system and third party applications and other complex systems
  • Configuration to unique, individual institution requirements with features, functions and single sign-on interoperability
  • Deployment of enterprise open source LMS with a replicable business processes that include launch planning, course conversion, technical and end user training, administrative and end user support
  • Training and education programs designed to support institution administration of open source LMS and drive broad based adoption among faculty and students

I know of no other new entrant in the market that has invested in professional services at the levels Moodlerooms has. This is the post contract “heavy lifting” we’ve been able to deploy in hundreds of institutions, all of this led by many of the same staff from ANGEL Learning who built its reputation on service and quality. One of the key values that Blackboard realized was our service component and the complex requirements to create an end-to-end successful partner experience. Our pledge to our current and future customers is that we will maintain, improve and build on our Client Services operation and the high levels of satisfaction we have been able to achieve. We value now, and will continue to value our relationships with customers of all sizes and scopes. We will continue to take our relationships very seriously-you are a customer, not a commission.

Economics- Perhaps the most frequent question I received was concern over our current agreements, pricing and any changes to our current business. We will honor all our current agreements with our customers with no change in pricing or contract terms. Looking forward, one advantage of the merger is cross leveraging assets and human capital in ways that can continue to provide substantial value as we have in the past and maintain levels of product innovation and service that Moodlerooms has provided for over five years. With the backing of Blackboard, we have the tools to run our business more effectively and cost efficiently, but still remain independent and true to our mission.

Will this merger be an ideal solution to the entire changing landscape of the market? Absolutely not. While this rationale on paper is a compelling value proposition, the value creation will need to be in the execution of the original mission. Both companies in the merger realize that we will need to prove our current and future customers of the combined companies. We’re asking that you allow us to do that.

Most important, we want to hear from you during the process. Now more than ever, we need to take our direction from you, our customers and the market, on whether or not we’re fulfilling our original purpose and the course corrections needed to stay true to the mission.

The future starts now, let’s reinvent it together.
- Lou

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Acquisitions and other Financial Market Hoopla

Private Equity has long been either friend or foe to the public education market businesses that have paid steep premiums in order to gain talent, access and assets in the exponentially growing, worldwide eLearning market. As we’ve experienced in the past, financial market overzealousness and financially opportunistic mindsets often supplant the motivation for how technology innovation can change the efficiency, effectiveness and outcomes of public education. Assuming the Providence Equity transaction is completed, the real question is how educators’ best interests are served in seeking a balance between the formidable cost structure of running a proprietary software business and toward an end result of advancing eLearning in ways that address persistent challenges in public education.

Among all the noise, one thing is for certain; Providence Equity’s motivation reinforces the importance of the continued growth in eLearning and Learning Management Systems as an effective means for teaching and learning. The private equity market trends in investing in eLearning indeed track the demand side data for the explosive growth of technology applications in K-20 education. The current mindset of the industry is reinforced by the recent EDUCAUSE Top Ten IT Issues, 2011 report, where Teaching and Learning with Technology has consistently moved up in importance for the last several years across all institution types. At Moodlerooms, we witness this every day with the exponential growth occurring in the open source environment. With over 44 million Moodle users globally, an annual increase of over 25%, this type of financial market activity galvanizes the impact the open source movement has had in virtually all sectors of public and private education.

Throughout my career, I have been a staunch supporter of private equity investment in education. I applaud those forward thinking, sometimes visionary firms who have managed to strike a balance between the emphasis on “patient capital”, and the strong motivation for serving the best interests of technology innovation in education. Private equity can indeed be a strong ally in public education to the extent that the financial over-engineering and the drive for earnings does not jeopardize long term value creation for institutions, which is often the original, but overlooked intent in financial transactions.

- Lou

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

2011: The Year of "Open"

Amidst the landscape of the most popular topics, one likely in danger of reaching the top 10 overused words of 2010, is the word “open.” With every page turn, web click, Twitter snippet, blog feed and hash tag, the word seemed inexplicably inescapable. Open content, last year’s phenomena, is now this year’s reality and for all intent and purposes, it looks like it has legs. The concept of open content has been interpreted by many as an evolution from the rapid expansion of open-source learning management movement in higher education that shares many of the same concepts and values of openness and distribution of knowledge.

An open content environment offers freely accessible materials for teaching, learning and reference, standards for digital publishing of open resources and software tools that support it. By definition open content is a foundational element, the bricks and mortar, of open courseware, a growing movement centered on participatory engagement that is more like a multi-dimensional learning event. What has historically been designed as a traditional “straight line” online course, in the world of open, becomes a web of interrelated syllabi, learning materials, blog and video posts, discussions articles, tweet and tags digitally stitched together in a structured way. The open course, by design, is participatory at the core where a student makes connections between ideas, course participants and their work, not necessarily found in a central learning management system, but rather found all over the net, structured in organized pockets and clusters.

The open courseware movement is one of the few applications in online learning that knits together people who have a noted reputation for interesting skills and innovative thinking on a wide variety of topics who collaborate in a networked course. The open environment is an always-on application persistently available in the cloud, the result of which becomes more difficult to support the notion of static one-off standalone education resource contained in closed proprietary systems. The open education resource movement becomes an open “app store” only free and available for reconstitution and re-contextualization.

Perhaps one of the most interesting developments in the open courseware movement is the impact on the economics of the cost structure of formal institutional learning. The open movement gives participants access to a wide range of educational content offering a potential alternative to traditionally published material such as textbooks. Since the open courseware movement is highly customizable and cost-effective, leveraging a community of contributors creating and releasing rights to high-quality educational content at little to no cost, the balance of power now turns to consumers of learning not suppliers of information. A prime example is the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges System’s Open Course Library project. The Board seeks treasure-troves of content funded and developed with foundation grants which offer free courses in addition to lecture notes, virtual laboratories, and online "cognitive tutors" that guide students through complex problem-solving exercises. The Open Course Library connects teams of instructors, librarians, and web designers from around the state who are creating ready-to-use digital course modules for the 81 highest-enrolled courses in the system.

It’s unclear how the open course movement will impact our evolving world of formal online education. What is abundantly clear, however, is that faculty and administration will continually need to adapt to the impact of social education and the participatory web. Concurrently, next generation learning management system design will need to adapt to this sea change of networked learning. In the traditional model, courses are based on modular content management and a one-way provision of information instead of social interaction between individuals and organized collections of networked materials created in real time. In seeking learning management alternatives, it will be important to give strong consideration to systems designed for the future of eLearning where the student is at the center.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Content Tsunami: Rethinking the role of Digital Content

Back in the day of the pre-eLearning, Gutenberg-centric era, college campuses were revered, in essence, as the Royal Library of Alexandria, the first known library of its kind to gather treasured collections of books and artifacts representing communal world knowledge. Through well-funded royal mandates that involved ancient “book fairs” and literally pulling the books off every ship that came into port, the library, as the central port of knowledge, was also home to a host of international scholars. Over time the library filled its stacks with new works in mathematics, astronomy, physics, natural sciences and other subjects.

In the days before eLearning became institutionalized, we enrolled at institutions for the on-campus experience—the ability to access the campus Royal Library of Alexandria and to engage with noted professionals in their field of study. In the online world, we create a unique ability to allow faculty and learners of all walks of life and learning styles to access learning from multiple sources of course-related content at the same time within the same environment. There's a significant role for content resources—and the social tools that revolve around that content—to be fully integrated into the eLearning experience online. In today’s environment of explosive growth in open education resource (OER) repositories, free course content, online packaged curricula and pre-configured published courses that sidebar LMS businesses, there is a growing, yet, confusing array of choice and value. In this environment, more choice can naturally lead to no choice.

Ultimately, this pre-configured, add-water-and-stir, storefront model replicates the outdated model of copyright-driven publishing and it also hijacks curriculum design and compromises the overall impact and learning objective of the course of study. In an article written for Business Insider, Steve Rosenbaum points out that, “content is no longer king; today, the world has changed, curation is king." With the increasing trend toward the disaggregation of content, social tool mash-ups and crowd-sourced original material created in real time, the LMS platform can now be positioned as a critical tool to create personalized, customized, contextualized collections, as opposed to LMS as a transport vehicle for publishers.

When pre-configured courses and added value content are pushed to a captive audience, “content” becomes a blunt object, void of context, personalization and customization to the particular online teaching style of faculty. In a world where virtually everyone is a content creator, the integrity and unique application of content is determined by context. This industry is not well served with a Clayton Christensen-like disruptive path where a new Amazon model for storefronts of pre-configured courses, course materials and added value content is pushed to a captive audience.

The last decade of growth in online, digital content provides a platform for change in the way instructors craft, share, annotate and engage in context sensitive dialog not seen since the Gutenberg era. I would argue that what higher education needs is not more content; they need to solve domain specific problems with better sharing tools, rather than better buying tools.

I would argue that what higher education needs is not more content; they need “genetic material”, DNA if you will, that are uniquely configured to solve domain specific problems in understanding in order to develop mastery in a course, program and eventually practical application in the workforce. When we study open and shared standards, source, and content, we are studying a new DNA. The genetic material of shared content, social tools, and standards creates a new context for measuring interaction with content, thus learning more about student persistence and understanding.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Learning Across the Table

When I was in middle school, I didn’t understand math. My dad would come home late at night from the office to face hours of tutoring at least a few days a week. He used to say,“If you don’t get Pre-Algebra, you won’t get Algebra. If you don’t get Algebra, you won’t get Calculus. Algebra is in just about everything, so if you don't get it…you’re pretty much done for.”
I remember spending many hours talking over the dinner table where we both exchanged real world visual stories of Algebra in everyday life that really put it all in context for me. To this day I wish I had created a video archive of those stories, conversations and interactions to have at my fingertips for instant recall when I tried to explain it to my son or when at times I needed to use Algebra in everyday life. My reality was shaped by those deep social interactions with my Dad.

During the past decade, the education market has experienced unprecedented adoption of eLearning technologies. We are just beginning to experience an extraordinary adventure in discovering new social models in education, i.e., the way we create and organize thoughts and actions relative to our daily course work and learning experiences inside and outside the traditional institutional boundaries.

In his book Cognitive Surplus, author and professor of New Media at NYU, Clay Shirky, stated,“Prior to the internet , the last technology that had any real effect on the way people sat down and talked together was the table.” In reflecting on my adolescent ad hoc algebra tutoring experience, not only did I recall meaningful conversations that gave me a wider perspective, but also a table full of magazines, books and newspaper articles—all useful material that enabled me to put the onerous subject of Algebra into a contemporary and highly personalized context. Imagine, if you will, new social learning tools and technologies that enable an unlimited number of table conversations, each with their own subject specific conversations borne by the collective intellectual contributions from an unlimited number of contributors and reinforced by supplemental primary source information to enrich understanding.

In an internet dominant eLearning environment, most of our unstructured learning experiences in the future will come from engaging in networks where subject specific, like-minded people can collaborate, share knowledge and co-create intellectual capital. These guided learning experiences, while unstructured, cannot be classified as informal learning experiences. To the contrary, they are formal learning forums and exchanges that create context, relevancy, dimension and depth of understanding that form a collective IQ.

With the proliferation of social learning tools, our individual understanding is no longer as important as all that we can access in our learning networks.

Together, we are better.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Learning Impact 2010 and LMS Criticism

Moodlerooms President, Lou Pugliese, wanted to provide some more commentary after participating in the panel discussion entitled, "From Course Management to Digital Support for Learning Platforms," at the IMS Global Learning Consortium's yearly conference, Learning Impact.

The Learning Impact conference panel explored the idea of LMS criticism and whether or not existing learning management systems are really enablers of new models of teaching and learning. As a whole, I believe the LMS should be subject to massive criticism in the interest of influencing positive change. However, I also believe that the LMS is ultimately capable of championing new ways of teaching and learning. In order to provide more detail, I wanted to highlight a few different considerations to take when contemplating the overall question, such as:

• Structure vs. Unstructured Environments
• Factoring in the Consumer

• People Factors
• Access
• Analytics and Information
• The Need for Nimble and Feral systems

Structure vs. Unstructured Environments - Traditional LMSs have been designed as a transaction system. I think we do a disservice to the future of online learning in creating a “transactional system.” The LMS environment should adapt to the art of teaching. Faculty should not be in a position to have to adapt to the technology but rather have technology adapt to their individual teaching styles or course strategies, learning objectives and outcomes. “Overstructuring” (as it is appropriately called by Stephen Downes) online teaching and learning is not conducive to the type of gains in online education we’re seeking. The faculty doesn’t challenge the LMS very much, and, in turn, the LMS doesn't challenge the faculty. Using cooking as a metaphor, it’s like the difference between a cookbook vs. a “chef book” – there are thousands of cookbooks that help you through a step-by-step process of creating a meal, but chefs are chefs because of their inherent knowledge and instinct to make a dish their own – thus, they have no need for a book. Teaching is as much an art as it is a practice and we’ve constructed our LMS environments for “add water and stir.”

Factoring in the Consumer - Although the current LMS has made significant strides in improving the student experience, it should have the capability to harness an expanding list of student-centered applications that give students greater control over academic content and their options for accessing it.

People Factors - Until we see institutions investing more money in people and less money in off-the-shelf software, students and faculty are stuck with LMS/CMS packages. Creating and encouraging the effective use and proliferation of online learning is a social science. We have to spend more time, money and energy on understanding social behaviors and adopting solutions that fit those behaviors.

Access - Online education, supported by enabling tools such as LMSs, is ideally about online teaching and learning, but it’s also about access. Back before the digital revolution, access to information was an issue. The size of the library mattered. One big reason people went to college was to get access to collections of resource and materials that didn’t exist anywhere else. Today, that access is worth a lot less and the information has turned into a commodity, only to be replaced by rich and growing sources of freely available content, digital primary source research, learning object repositories and transportable “course cartridges.” We need to focus on new LMS systems to better adapt to a more open teaching and learning process, but we also have to design for a future of access.

It is also about access to people. One of the really valuable and intangible assets people take away from college are interactions with great people – great minds that are foremost in their field and non-class activities that shape them as people. The LMS needs to make the intangible asset of people tangible. Past systems and designs for asynchronous and synchronous interaction will be replaced by a more dynamic, real-time capturing of discourse within the context of learning objectives and strategies. Online education programs that will thrive in the coming years are those that come up with efficient, dynamic and flexible ways to help their students interpret and apply that content to their lives.

Analytics and Information - There was a lot of discussion at Learning Impact 2010 about post-Spellings outcomes and the LMS being a centrifugal force for all that is data. In concentrating on access to a greater depth of data, supporting architecture, business intelligence tools and enabling technologies, we lose sight of the fact that we haven’t developed systems for interpretation and inference and how that is a natural bridge to intervention. Absent a “workflow” mechanism that enables faculty to create effective intervention, we’re still operating on a one-dimensional plane.

The Need for Nimble and Feral Systems - LMS systems are static by design, not fluid as they should be. That’s why we see significant push back from institutions that are forced by negative option to upgrade to the most recent software release. What does the vendor community need to do to create seamless transitions between improvement release cycles to instill excitement, trust, competency and innovation in continuous design and functionality of LMS systems? Why is it that some software communities salivate and count the days until the next OS upgrade is available in contrast to other communities who will avoid and sometimes loath, at all costs, an OS upgrade?

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Learning Impact 2010 and the New LMS

Moodlerooms Board Member, Lou Pugliese, wanted to provide some commentary after participating on a panel at the IMS GLC's recent Learning Impact 2010 Conference:

A few weeks ago, I participated in a panel discussion entitled, "From Course Management to Digital Support for Learning Platforms," at the IMS Global Learning Consortium's yearly conference, Learning Impact.

Panel moderator, Rob Abel, IMS GLC's Chief Executive, prepared the panelists with a series of questions to contemplate in advance of the session. The responses to these questions, in my opinion, illuminate the current state of online learning and supporting learning management systems and an impending forecast how the industry is evolving.

For the next few weeks, I'll be sharing a few observations on the past and future of the LMS, which were stimulated by Abel’s questions.

Online Learning continues to be an immature market: in the approximate 400 year history of higher education, online learning has been one of the fastest-adopted technologies (save perhaps the cell phone and fax machine. Although the traditional LMS may have a 95% adoption rate, its short-life span presumes a number of ways to evolve towards different kinds of learning networks and environments. Casey Green, Campus Computing Project Director, posits that the “campus LMS market is a mature market with immature products.”

To his point, the early LMS was designed with relatively little research base and, as such, defaulted to a didactic, teacher-centric focus…not student-centric participatory tool. Additionally, learning management is still burdened by the fact that it is an administrative and utilitarian-based creation, lacking significant instructional and cognitive design.

It’s clear that “New LMS” will need to rely on a more cogent research base. In 1998, Martin Dougiamas (the author of Moodle) explored a vision of social constructivism in online teaching with his notion that,

“The social world of a learner includes the people that directly affect that person, including teachers, friends, students, administrators, and participants in all forms of activity. This takes into account the social nature of both the local processes in collaborative learning and in the discussion of wider social collaboration in a given subject, such as science.” (A Journey into Constructivism Martin Dougiamas - November, 1998)

His release of Moodle in August 2002, is one of the best examples of designing global educational software with deep collaboration from instructors, and with over 32 million educator adoptions, I think the marketplace is beginning to vote in favor of this approach.

So what will this look like? At this juncture, no one really knows for sure but in speaking with academicians around the country, it’s clear to me that New LMS will need to be designed from the demand side of the supply and demand equation, not vice versa. Designing to the “consumer” will clearly place greater emphasis on student experience and LMS as a student-centered application that gives students greater control over content and learning.

How will we know all of this will have an impact? Movement toward a competency based LMS design for the online teaching and learning I believe will be accretive to the type of gains in online education we’re seeking.

Stay tuned over the next few weeks as more thoughts begin to unfold.