Why I'm Not That Excited About the New LMS Instructure

1. A Rant About Ed-Tech Stories in Tech Blogs

The news hit Techcrunch first last night. I'm not sure it was an exclusive, per se, as Arrington's story on Instructure was followed this morning by stories in The Chronicle, Inside Higher Ed, and Campus Technology. But the news hit Techcrunch first, and as I read it, I had to laugh, as it really echoed an argument I've made before: if you are giving an exclusive to Techcrunch as an ed-tech startup, you're doing it wrong.

The reasons are obvious, as the poverty of Arrington's analysis is striking. Why should we care about this new learning management system? Why will this new company succeed? According to Techcrunch, CEO John Coates has
been helping Nepalese refugees integrate into American society, and he's a big WWII buff. He purchased and restored a M18 Hellcat Tank Destroyer. You can see the restoration process here (he keeps it in his garage). And here's a video of his wife blowing the crap out of the side of a gravel pit. I like how Coates rolls. The guy has a fully operational M18 Hellcat Tank Destroyer in his garage."
Of course!

I spent the weekend with educators, and I can't tell you how many times I heard them say, "What we're really looking for as we rethink educational technologies is someone who is really into WWII tanks.

Oh wait, yes I can tell you how many times: exactly zero.

Actually, the number of times I heard the LMS discussed as an pressing issue for us to tackle as we rethink education and education technology was also zero. I'll come back to that in a minute.

Even more than this silly fascination with the CEO's big gun, Arrington's article completely misses the mark. It fails to explain the lay-of-the-land of what the contemporary LMS space is like. It doesn't address the challenges that schools face when they move from Blackboard -- even if it it's something the students and professors want. It fails to refer to the numerous other companies that are already working to unseat Blackboard. And it neglects to mention that, with or without Instructure's "disruption," that Blackboard's share of the LMS market is already on the decline.

But Techcrunch also seems to get the story quite wrong in terms of what Instructure actually announced. Instructure didn't launch last night. It launched in 2010 and has already run into legal battles with another LMS competitor Desire2Learn, who filed a lawsuit that the startup had been unfairly rewarded Utah university contracts.

What the other major news stories in education blogs point out -- this isn't about a launch but about the release of Instructure's source code.

It is the latter that makes Instructure somewhat intriguing as there are already several other open source learning management systems -- most notably Moodle and Sakai. Wired Campus cites Coates' description of these competitors: "Moodle is 'kind of kludgy'; Sakai is 'off in left field a little bit.'"

What will Instructure mean for open source LMSs? Will it further fragment the developer community? And will that make Blackboard seem like the better solution? That's interesting and important. WWII tanks? Sorry, not so much.

2. A Rant About the LMS as the Only Ed-Tech Game in Town

At Educon, I heard no mention of the LMS. Of course, I wasn't privy to every conversation. Perhaps there were sessions in which the LMS -- as a concept, as an implementation -- was vociferously debated.

And when I say it wasn't really a topic for discussion, I don't mean to suggest that folks aren't frustrated with their school's LMS solution. I'm perfectly happy to add my voice to those who disliked Blackboard when I was a user. And I'm glad to see people trying to innovate in this space.

But it's not the only area -- or even the most interesting area -- that we need to tackle as we rethink education technology. And yet it's consistently one of the ones I hear most talk about -- in terms of new projects, new funding, new acquisitions.

I have no idea how well these statistics translate into the broader industry, but I was struck with a recent report from the education accelerator Startl that 60% of the companies at their recent Venture Fair were dealing with administrative issues.

I want to see more companies working on improving teaching and learning with technology, not just improving schools' course administration.

Now, I don't mean to suggest that the entrepreneurs that are working in this space aren't doing some pretty interesting and innovative things, in terms of the user interface (see Schoology, for example) and in terms of the back-end (like LearnBoost).

But in the rush to build and fund new administrative tools, I fear that some of the smartest minds and money are going to a rather dull problem.

3. Instructure: The Good, The Bad, and the Mystery

This is all a very long-winded rant that may reflect unfairly on Instructure. After all, the company appears to be doing a number of things right: the focus of Canvas, its LMS tool, is clean and simple. It's a browser-based system, rather than a download. The company says it integrates with other campus resources -- Google Docs, Facebook. The company touts collaboration and communication, not just the ability to check your grades and sign up for classes online.

And yesterday's announcement from Instructure was about the release of its source code. As a huge proponent of open source in ed-tech, I am hesitant to criticize a startup that's taken that path.

The code is up on GitHub (note to Instructure: put a link on your website so that you can point developers to it, perhaps, if that's supposed to be your big new selling point). It's too early to make any judgments that the project only has 2 followers. (By way of comparison, LearnBoost has over three thousand). But that's the number I'll be watching (among other things) to help gauge what we really have here. After all, Coates said to The Chronicle, I don't consider what we've done at Instructure like rocket science.

And see, I wouldn't mind seeing a little more rocket science (and a little less WWII tankage) when it comes to disrupting ed-tech.

Photo credits: Flickr user Chris Willis


Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,