What LMS to Choose After Blackboard?

This weekend I got an email from a leading university that is planning to leave Blackboard and wanted some advice as to how Sakai might fit into their future.

For the past few years, when I get these “What LMS to choose after Blackboard/ANGEL/WebCT…?” emails from folks, I usually send a short note that effectively says, “You have my permission to go to Canvas – everybody is doing it. At least Canvas will be better than Blackboard.” (i.e. Canvas is the new Black)

But this particular morning, with a cup of fresh coffee in hand, I wrote and sent the following note that evolved into an open letter to Blackboard customers who are getting a “little nervous”. The note was to a school outside the US – so you see my focus on privacy issues.

Subject: What LMS to Choose After Blackboard?

Thanks for the note and thanks to your colleague for the reference. I have spent almost 15 years in the LMS market now and know the products and systems very well. As you might well imagine I am very excited about Sakai and believe it to be the best solution in the marketplace for the present and the future.

To me the most important dimensions of an LMS are: (a) an LMS must continuously evolve to meet the needs of on-campus, distance, and education at scale (i.e. MOOCs) as experienced by a modern world-class university, (b) for a university outside the US having 100% control over all student data is a must, and (c) over the next decade while the LMS will continue to be the backbone resource for teaching, increasingly innovation must happen outside the LMS and be seamlessly integrated into the LMS – this allows the LMS to focus on stability, scalability, and consistency while freeing local instructors, instructional designers and IT staff to explore innovative pedagogies freely without compromising the stability of the LMS.

With this context, for a leading institution that is looking forward to innovating in their approach to teaching and learning I feel that Sakai is simply the best LMS in the market. Sakai is the only “100% open source” product and that matters. In a truly open source product, we have no shareholders and no product managers – our shareholders and product managers are our adopters and community – that means you. The schools, companies, and individuals that invest time and resources are the ones that set Sakai’s direction.

Sakai is part of the Apereo Foundation and works with other open source projects that support the academic mission. Perhaps you use CAS as your single signon on your campus. Of particular interest to me is the Tsugi (www.tsugi.org) project that is an open source framework that allows the agile development of a wide range of pedagogically innovative learning tools that are easily and seamlessly integrated into LMSs like Sakai and Canvas using the latest IMS Standards like Learning Tools Interoperability, Common Cartridge, and IMS Content Item.

This is my short assessment of the vendors in the LMS marketplace:

  • Sakai is by far the best LMS for a strong institution that wants to “move forward” and sees the learning technology space as needing further innovation over the next decade. The combination of Sakai and Tsugi is simply the best solution in the marketplace of the notion of a more ecosystem-oriented “Next Generation Digital Learning Environment” (NGDLE). If you want to be part of the community who will define the NGDLE, Apereo Open Source is the answer.
  • Canvas is my second choice as an LMS as it is a leader (like Sakai) in allowing external tools to seamlessly integrate into the product. If you are a school that is interested in being a “fast follower” or have a weak IT team, Canvas is an excellent choice. Canvas is a good choice for second-tier schools or community colleges that want to be innovative but don’t want to be a core influencer in the next generation architecture. Interestingly Tsugi also works very well with Canvas because Sakai and Canvas implement the same IMS standards in very similar ways. Canvas is not “100% open source”. They release portions of their source but the intention is not to have you run your own instance of the software. That of course means that you are putting your data in the cloud in the hands of a US company. I personally think it is important to control one’s own data.
  • Moodle is a fine LMS and it is certainly Open Source – but it is not participative open source like Sakai. End-user adopters have very little influence in the direction of the product. But if you are a small school with a weak IT department, you probably don’t have that much interest in changing the features of your LMS. Moodle generally trails the market in terms of implementing the latest interoperability standards but they get there eventually. Self-hosted Moodle at a small school takes very low levels of developer resources as long as you *never* customize the code base or upgrades quickly become almost impossible. Cloud hosting Moodle with a company in your country is probably sufficient to assuage your data concerns. I would not recommend cloud-hosting *any* LMS with a US-based company at this point.
  • Blackboard has been effectively frozen for the past four years because of their grand rewrite they call “Ultra” that has not gone well. The primary reason for the failure of Ultra is some very bad architectural decisions that make it challenging to make an application as complex as an LMS highly reliable. The result of over-investment in Ultra leaves Learn as a pretty clunky piece of antique software, lagging in implementing the latest interoperability specifications, and a future that will be a very painful upgrade as the gulf between Learn and Ultra widens. I am glad to hear that you are considering leaving Blackboard.
  • Desire2Learn/BrightSpace is a clever company and their customers seem to like the product very much. My experience is that they are the best product for a heavily multi-tenant architecture. Many of their most successful customers are state K12 systems in the US that want to purchase a single product to be used by 100+ small schools. D2L has historically been a laggard in implementing interoperability standards but in the past year or so – they have realized the importance of interoperability and are working to be on par with Sakai and Canvas although it will take some time.

In summary, if you are leaving Blackboard, if you are bold and want to be part of an effort to take on the next decade of challenges in teaching and learning you should choose Sakai. If you have a weak IT organization but want to appear to be “innovative” with less risk and can tolerate the privacy consequences of cloud-hosting with a US company, choose Canvas with my blessing. If you are a smaller school with a weak IT organization, and just want something solid that will work, choose Moodle – either self host it and *never change a single line of code*, or out source hosting to a non-US company.

I use all three of these LMS’s. Sakai is amazing and working with a thriving and robust community of like-minded innovators is even more amazing. Building Tsugi in this same community is the most fun thing I have ever done. Canvas is a good workhorse – it has fewer features but does a solid job on those features and has an industry-leading interoperability strategy. When I have to install and administer my own LMS in my spare time for small-scale applications, I use Moodle. But I have changed 50 lines in my Moodle installation and so I have not upgraded my Moodle for 3 years because I don’t have time to re-debug and re-implement my changes in the latest release.

If you do choose to move from Blackboard to Sakai, there are companies that will help you through the conversion. There are local Sakai hosting companies that we can put you in touch with. There are also Sakai commercial companies that will maintain your Sakai installation on your campus using your hardware so you have 100% control of your data but leave someone else to deal with patches and upgrades. True “100% open source” leads to a diverse, international, rich and innovative commercial provider community.

I am happy to talk more and I expect to be in in your area next month and might be able to swing by your campus to give a presentation on Tsugi, Sakai, and Apereo. Even if you choose Canvas or Moodle – you should join Apereo so you can work with us on Tsugi.