Pearson's "Free" LMS

I'd like to think that, as consumers, we're getting a little better at questioning some of the healthful promises made on food labels. We know that candy that's "made with real fruit," for example, is still candy. We know that even if a label boasts "whole grain nutrition," that bleached white flour is still probably the main ingredient. These labels are marketing spin from companies that know we want to make good, smart decisions when it comes to our diet.

While, true, The New York Times recently challenged some of the claims of "revolutionary results" on educational software, I don't see as vocal or widespread a questioning of educational marketing tactics like I do about the claims of food labels.

But it sure seems like we need it.

Take today's news that Pearson is releasing a new learning management system, OpenClass. It's "free." It's "open to everyone." It's easy to use. It has "deep integration" with Google Apps. It's "Amazing." How do I know? The website says so.

Of course, Pearson isn't a new player in the LMS and SIS (student information system) space. It has long offered its services at both the K-12 and the higher ed levels. But, as last year's Campus Computing Project survey revealed, its share of the higher ed LMS market is a mere 1%. "This year," says Inside Higher Ed, "Pearson is taking aim at the other 99 percent."

Adrian Sannier, senior vice president of product at Pearson, told Inside Higher Ed that the new OpenClass can be used absolutely for free. No licensing costs, no costs for maintenance, and no costs for hosting. So this is a freer offer than Moodle is. It's a freer offer than any other in the space. And from the email I received from the PR firm handling the announcement, I give you these gems: "Pearson Launches First Truly Free and Open Learning Platform for Higher Ed." The tool "Provides Open Access."

And this is where we need to stop and scrutinize what's happening here and look past the invocations of "free" and "open."

Why would Pearson offer a free LMS?

For one thing, Pearson doesn't need to sell OpenClass. Its emphasis -- indeed, its strategy -- lies elsewhere. Pearson is the largest education company in the world -- with or without success in the LMS market -- with profits of £208 million for the first half of this year alone. Its educational sales are up 9%; it's educational profits are up 31%. Much those sales and profits come from educational content: textbooks -- both print and digital -- as well as other curriculum offerings. (Much of the profits come from assessment products and services too -- Pearson sells the textbooks and the standardized tests. That's pretty damn lucrative, clearly.)

Pearson can give away OpenClass in the hopes that schools will go for the "up-sell" and buy the company's other offerings. Many schools are rethinking the LMS, not just because these tools have cost them a pretty penny, but because they're looking for ways that can further student collaboration and that can emphasize content and learning and not just administration.

That could put Pearson in a good position to be a go-to tool for schools, particularly if the focus becomes content, something Pearson does hold market control over. As the Delta Initiative's Phil Hill told Inside Higher Ed, Pearson "wants to change the perception of an LMS to [make colleges] say: ‘Hey, that's a commodity, that's a delivery system — and really education, and the education system, needs to be about the content itself and how students interact with that content.'"

For its part, Pearson says that it's not going to lock users in to using just its content. But I can't help but wonder if that's true. After all, I think we need to question its usage of adjectives like "free" and "open" here. Furthermore when a company touts Google's involvement when really, what we have here is just a fairly simple and straight-forward integration with Google Apps, we should be a little suspicious about the labeling and the marketing and our consumption habits.


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