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Upcoming LMS Conferences for Blackboard and D2L (podcast)

In this episode, Phil Hill and Jeanette Wiseman look ahead to BbWorld and D2L Fusion conferences coming up within two weeks. What are the customer sentiment and roadmap hints going in?

You can access the recording here or by clicking the image below:


Phil: Welcome to MindWire’s musings serving EdTech straight up and where we throw caution to the wind and have a more relaxed conversation on the non COVID EdTech developments that are affecting higher ed. I’m Phil Hill. And with me is Jeanette Wiseman. Welcome, Jeanette.

Jeanette: Hello, Phil. How are you today?

Phil: Oh, busy. I mean, we’re both working on a proposal which is painful and especially coming from a government entity. So I guess I’m sort of glad to have this excuse to do something different, but otherwise I’m doing well.

Jeanette: Yeah, same here. Thanks for the work. So it’s been a fun today, but I’m ready for my drink. I know. I know.

Phil: So what are you having today?

Jeanette: I don’t even know if anybody wants to know. It’s pretty trashy, but I decided just to make a quickly make an aperol spritz, [00:01:00] which I know is really trendy. But right now it’s not very exciting. I would have done better, but I didn’t have time to make a nice, fancy drink because of the, you know, all the work that’s been piled on.

Phil: And if we win this bid, we want to  let our client know we love you. We love you. Just your awful process. We don’t know. I’m going back to IPA. Big shock there. But I’m drinking one from Sante Aidarius, which is a local brewery and right near a started out and just a small little office park, really small place, but they have 831, their signature IPA. And the problem with them is they keep getting rated so highly. They’re now rated the ninth best brewery in the world by beer advocate. But that means all you tourists come by and, you know, crowd up the place on us.

Jeanette: That’s not fun. But you have the beer at home.

Phil: Yes. Do have the beer at home. But it’s a great place. So [00:02:00] it’s a great IPA.

So what we wanted to talk about today is that recently we’ve covered different LMS news leading into the typical July users conferences where we find out a lot of information on roadmaps and clarifications on where the primary vendors are going. And we’ve written a blog post and a MindWires Musings recording, talking about Instructure, having their lay offs, canceling the DIG initiative, most recently called Insights, about analytics and artificial intelligence. They canceled that and how that really points the direction that the is going under their new PE ownership. We also talked about Moodle, and that was an interesting one because in our musings recording, both you and I talked about how they just don’t deal with usability or strategic level and how at the [00:03:00] November conference in Barcelona, there just was no emphasis on usability. And after that, thanks to the podcast and feedback from Martin Dougiamas, we discovered that they actually are now focusing on usability, which I found that interesting, the feedback.

Jeanette: Absolutely. And for those of the listeners that don’t know who Martin is . . .

Phil: Well, Martin is Moodle. Martin is the founder of Moodle. He’s the CEO of the Moodle HQ company that controls the product roadmap. So that’s great for them. MoodleMoot Global Online is going on this week, and that’s the biggest thing I’m looking for, to explain what’s happened or what to expect with usability.

Jeanette: Anything so far?

Phil: Well, no, partially because they’re doing their conference in Barcelona time. So that means they’re starting out about 1:00 a.m. my time. So [00:04:00] I mostly I’m relying on their recordings. So I haven’t listened to anything today, but they haven’t done the primary session that should discuss this topic.

Jeanette: Okay. Sounds good. Can’t wait.

Phil: Yes. But you know what we’ve always described, or we’ve long described, that there is sort of an oligopoly. The Big Four vendors in the LMS markets globally, which gets to Moodle, Instructure Canvas, Blackboard L,earn and D2L Brightspace, that increasingly those are the big four systems that are used in higher education across the globe. So I wanted to spend some time today trying to say, what should we look for with Blackboard and D2L leading into their users conferences which are going on two weeks from now? What are the big themes that we’re seeing? Let’s start out with Blackboard. Jeanette, you’ve been doing some research [00:05:00] and, you know, interactions. What have you found?

Jeanette: Well, I haven’t found anything really concrete on a roadmap or, to be honest, anything’s very positive from the community. And I will say that we did reach out to Blackboard themselves, and they really didn’t have anything to share at this time about the roadmap.

We also asked pretty direct questions about Collaborate, since that’s become a really important tool for video conferencing for anyone that’s using that during COVID, Collaborate. People have started really to rely on that. And because of that, the usage has gone up. It’s become a very costly solution. So direct questions to Blackboard about that was also not answered by Blackboard. They did say that, Phil, you’ve been invited to the executive session during BbWorld, and perhaps we’re going to see something on that. But the the word on the street is that it’s become [00:06:00] quite costly to operate for a system.

But Collaborate does offer accessibility features. That’s something that Zoom wouldn’t. So a lot of times it’s a product that is needed at the university level, in terms of just the LMS in that roadmap.

My goodness. I got to say, if you go to the community, they don’t get a lot of love from their users.

Phil: Well, now that’s been a long term problem for Blackboard. And if you look at the waves, I mean, they used to have furious customers, but then it seemed like for the past couple years, maybe things were improving. But you’re not seeing that right now, in customer sentiment?

Jeanette: I’m not seeing that. I’m not looking for Blackboard, people who love them and looking for that and searching for that. I’m just searching for really general terms and see what’s coming up in the community. And I [00:07:00] mean, it runs everything from a lot of how people don’t like, students really don’t like the app. I’ve seen a lot of ‘Ding Dong the witch is dead’ or countdowns to switching over to a new system, which happened, you know, a lot on June 30th, I think, where they sort of had been sunsetting out of some systems. And so there was a lot of just recent posts and then just a lot of frustration from professors who I think maybe were in the system for the first time.

And so there’s this piece of me that I was really hoping that Blackboard had some things to share about what they’re planning to do, both on the Collaborate side, but just also on their LMS. I think we both believe strongly that the LMS market should have multiple competitors. They should be serving needs of lots of different types of users and communities. And a strong Blackboard to me makes a better market and a better place [00:08:00] for teachers and learners. And I’m just not seeing it right now, not in the community.

Phil: Yeah, well . . .

Jeanette: I wanted to say something else. I would love to be like. People love it here, but I didn’t see that.

Phil: Well, it is unfortunate, but I’ve got the same sense. I don’t see much momentum from them. We’ve written about, I’ve certainly written about that. I see a lot of operational improvements – that they’re no longer having the problems that they had for so long with Learn Ultra, and other where they would make promises and they could just never deliver on what they were saying.

And they’ve really improved that, so that when they do have features coming out, they’re so much better on hitting the dates. And they certainly have focused the company on teaching and learning. And they certainly have the broadest portfolio of products and services of all the companies. So we’ve seen [00:09:00] all of these positive items. But as you’re describing, even with Learn Ultra being out there, and even with all of these operational improvement, we’re not seeing momentum with customer sentiment, nor are we seeing exciting product roadmap changes happening with the company. So I’m seeing the same thing. And we’re definitely looking for. But it’s getting pretty difficult.

Jeanette: Well, I guess what I was hoping for, two, is that the company was going to come up with something knowing that we . . .  I was very explicit in saying that we were recording this podcast.

Is there anything they would want to share? And there wasn’t anything. So there might be some things going on. There might be some things underfoot. Now at BbWorld that we need to watch out for, because it’s not even really good corporate posturing at this point.

Phil: Yes. Yes. Well, we got to remember, I mean, part of it is they are private equity [00:10:00] owned, just like Instructure is now. And the focus is on the bottom line.

I’m describing operational improvements. Part of the question is if they are improving financial metrics, even though they’re losing customers, that might take priority over making a new product enhancements or moving forward. But I think you have a great point when BbWorld happens in two weeks. We need to see what they’re announcing. It’s possible that they’re just keeping things under wraps and they want to be able to control the messaging as it goes out. But leading into it, we’re just not seeing exciting stuff to follow up on. That’s sort of what I’m what I’m seeing.

But I would like to go back to your first point, however, and that is on Blackboard Collaborate to be more specific. This gets down to the cost of operating videoconferencing. And as the usage has shot up for video conferencing [00:11:00] more than LMSs, that means you have greater usage. That means that these companies have to pay, typically, Amazon for AWS more so it becomes more expensive. And Blackboard seems to be one of the companies who is pushing to see – can they pass those cost increases onto customers, and they’re getting pushback from what we’ve heard from customers in this, partially because it’s sort of a usage charge. I think it originally came out as if you used more, then ‘you need more terabytes of data. Here’s the fee for it.’ I think there was a lot of pushback there because customers could go look at AWS and see what a terabyte cost, and make their own judgment. And then they think they changed that to where it’s now much more based on total minutes used a video conferencing. But that’s a risky move to me because Zoom is taking [00:12:00] this market, and Zoom is not putting these limitations on, once you’re paid. You don’t have this type of limitation. So it seems to me to just be the wrong time to try to introduce this if you want long term market share in video conferencing.

Jeanette: I think it is part of, you know, issues that Blackboard has had in the past in terms of lack of transparency. I think moving to minutes rather than, you know, the terabyte and doing that pretty obviously for these customers are like, hey, wait, you know, I smell a rat type thing.

The problem with Collaborate and talking to some of these customers, though, are not really the problem. Maybe the benefits in Collaborate that if they were really able to position this a little bit better is that many schools have to go through security audits and privacy audits. And Zoom hasn’t been holding up to those audits. And really one of the main market leading solutions is Collaborate. So [00:13:00] there are a lot of schools that have been forced to use collaborate, even if they look at Zoom, and they see their peer schools using Zoom, they have to use Collaborate because of what the audits have said, and that it’s a more secure platform. And so I think there’s a lot of schools that are maybe looking to change that, and changing some of those regulations that they have to follow. And again, Blackboard can maybe capitalize on this need and figure out a way to really service the users in a way Zoom could. I mean, it’s a platform that’s been built for education, but they haven’t yet. Yeah, it’s an opportunity for them. And let’s see if they can they can capitalize on it.

Phil: Well, it’s an opportunity. But if you’re first messaging, particularly during the pandemic, is, hey, we’ve got to affect our bottom line first and then we’ll deal with other things. That’s not the right message to send out. No, I’ll be very interested during the conference [00:14:00] to see what the buzz is.

The downside is, obviously, it’s a virtual conference. So it’s going to be very difficult to be able to get the same sort of sense of what all their customers are saying just by walking the hallways, hanging out in the bar, or having conversations. So we’re certainly going to try to find to help more of this sentiment and road map and how these issues are addressed. But we have to admit it’s not going to be as usable as a face to face conference, unfortunately.

Jeanette: You know, I think that’s true. It could be, though. I do believe that’s true because I think that people are willing to share things just as a side in the hallways or at the bar that they aren’t. When you know, when you can’t see them face to face.

But they need to be careful because the flip to that is the people that have already been really vocal about things that they don’t like or are just fed up with the way that the system has been working are going to be vocally [00:15:00] upset about it. Where it’s going to be searchable, which isn’t necessarily what they’ve had in the past, or might be a handful or a little quorum of people that are complaining about it, but not publicly, not necessarily a large group.

Phil: I’d say that’s a risk for all of the vendors with these virtual conferences. But for what we’re currently hearing, I think Blackboard’s got a bigger issue. I’m not really seeing that in Moodle this week so far. But I need to spend more time watching the sessions and working in the chats and discussions. But I miss the days of being able to do face to face conferences, partially because it is the interactions and the connections outside the sessions that are so valuable.

Jeanette: Absolutely.

Phil: So we’ll watch it. Happening concurrently with Blackboard World is D2L Fusion, where D2L and their Brightspace LMS there. That’s when they have their virtual conference. [00:16:00] And I find it somewhat ironic that it’s happening at the exact same time, although I will note for my own purposes, but also to think about how these virtual conferences are held, Blackboard is starting at 9 a.m. Eastern. This would certainly put west coast people at a disadvantage. And New Mexico, and somewhat Texas. But they didn’t seem to think through optimizing the time zone. D2L Fusion – they seem to be starting at Noion Eastern Time. So it will be a lot easier for me to participate live in that event.

But let’s start out the same way. And just to set the context. We’ve written quite a bit about D2L and how they’ve really improved their products. And we’re hearing from their customers and their prospects. More people are impressed with the company. So we’ve pointed out a lot of positive about D2L. And [00:17:00] it’s part of what Jeanette you’ve been looking at, is not just neutrally seeing what you can find out, but I think sort of challenging our own assumptions to see if you can find negative things going on right now. Is it? How would you describe your searches that have been going on and putting you in a bad position to start?

Jeanette: I think maybe people … For Blackboard, just the general searching on nothing came out positive. And so I ended up having to start digging, trying to find some positive things. And it didn’t happen. And so with D2L, wow. I mean, we’re not, I’m not trying to pick favorites here, but we did searches on social media searches, trying to find some, trying to find any information, we were really looking for users. And here is a really big difference actually, that doing general searches on the two companies in multiple different social media platforms when you just do general [00:18:00] things, Blackboard – it was mostly users comments that came up. With D2L the very general searches, there was so much from D2L itself. Anything from how they were supporting teachers and learners, different, you know, webinars. They were doing things from, employees talking about what a great company they had. And I was trying to dig more, obviously wanted user comments, but that was just a big difference. Blackboard on the other hand, there was nothing there from the corporate space that I could find.

For D2L digging into the user comments, it was almost all positive. I mean, there is there is some funny things that were said from students, but for the most part it was it was positive, and digging to try to find negative didn’t really come up with much.

Phil: I’ve certainly been trying to look for myself for the same reason. And part of it is we always have to challenge the things that we think we’re seeing or hearing. This is part of the reason we’re doing [00:19:00] MindWires Musings, to lay out some of our thoughts and how we work. But in this case, we’re challenging ourselves. We’d like to see what we can find negative. Are we actually missing something with how D2L is currently operating? I have to admit that probably the thing – I’m not hearing people talk about – but I plan on looking at, is the impact of management changes, and specifically that their chief operating officer, Cheryl Ainoa, has left the company to take a big job at Wal-Mart. And from what I had seen, Cheryl had a major role in the turnaround that D2L’s had over the past four or five years, and building up a team that she’s brought together to do a lot of the product work. And obviously she is not the only one. But she seemed crucial to their turnaround. So part of my question is . . . She’s gone. What is the risk that D2L will fall [00:20:00] back on old habits that were happening in the early, 2010 through 2014, where they didn’t have the same success in putting out product updates and servicing customers in a way that was really working.

So are they going to slide back at all if they’re listening to the podcast, that’s part of what we’ll be checking out for the conference. I haven’t seen that yet. But just be honest that that’s one thing that I’m looking for.

Let me go back. You had said that D2L was involved so much in the discussion in the community, social channels, if you will. I’ve seen companies who are too marketing focused in their engagement, and they actually harm natural discussions from happening, because they’re always jumping in and making comments. Is there a negative side to this, or are you just seeing that you’re seeing a positive, and there’s a lot of natural organic participation [00:21:00] from D2L staff? Does it feel authentic to you?

Jeanette: The participation from the D2L staff definitely did. They were private accounts. The people were just sort of mentioning how lucky they were to work at D2L. It didn’t seem company-focused or anything like that. The general D2L posts that I saw, they were somewhat marketing driven, but I think they were service based. But obviously, it’s a for profit company. It was trying to be helpful in the community. The juxtaposition was between that and just nothing from Blackboard. Nothing. So that was the difference. There just wasn’t anyone actually jumping in on the Blackboard case, which probably would have been helpful. It’s like, ‘hey, contact customer service. We’re here to help you.’

Phil: I know that you’ve done additional searching leading into this podcast, both talking, [00:22:00] trying to get information from the companies, and doing your own searching. But I have to say, it sort of matches what we’re hearing from customers and from sales prospects on how they’re viewing the companies. So I haven’t heard you describe anything that differs from what I think we’re hearing from schools directly. Have you learned anything new?

Jeanette: Nothing new. No, it’s just reinforcing what we’ve been hearing. And we’re looking for those assumptions to be shaken, right? So we’re looking to find things. We want to be somewhat proven wrong in some of these cases. And I can’t find it right now.

Phil: Ok, well, that’s good. So going back to D2L you get a sense from the company that they’re enjoying this moment, that they seem to be the main company in the LMS space who’s actually investing, hiring new people there. They’re continuing what they’re doing.

So on one hand, I [00:23:00] haven’t seen anything from a product roadmap like a central theme of, ‘wow, this makes a huge difference.’ I’m just seeing a continuation of what they’ve been working on. But that sort of captures what I think the company is doing. They’re just keep on keeping on. As is the sense I get from them. I don’t see major changes.

Jeanette: Right. So I think there is there’s the difference, too, is that we also sent an email to the contactswe have at D2L and asked some if there’s anything on their roadmap, that they would like us to share. We’re talking about this. Can they give us any insight prior to fusion? And we got a lot of information about what they’re working on. So, I mean, it was a very stark difference from the Blackboard response, which is ‘we don’t really have anything to share at this time. We’ll talk to you in a couple of weeks.’ You know, D2L is proud. They’re really proud of what they’re doing right now. And they want to share it.

Phil: So there’s one specific case I [00:24:00] want to discuss that we’re reading about, and that’s Lourdes University, a small school in Ohio. They switched from Sakai to Canvas in 2018, but they just announced that they’re using D2L Brightspace for their competency based education (CBE) program, which I think I read maybe up to 1000 students. I have to go get the details, but this just got an out within the past week or two. That one is interesting to me, and it probably captures what I want to look for at the conference, because on one hand, they pick a new LMS – canvas in 2018. They had to know at that point that they wanted to get into competency based education, I would assume. What happened? Did they always intend to handle their main campus LMS one way and do their competency with a separate decision? Or did they find out that Canvas couldn’t [00:25:00] do the job that they expected? Did they need to have a different approach for CBE . . .

Jeanette: Was it a committee decision, like a compromise that was made during the decision making process as well?

Phil: Exactly. So that was an interesting case and I’m not sure that we’ll find out the details on that, although we might start calling around and seeing if we can get the real scoop on it. However, it points out the situation. It’s a big win for D2L, particularly coming from CBE, where they’ve had a real strength in the market supporting CBE programs as an LMS.

In particular, a school that’s already using Canvas, which we’ve noted many times, has not lost a customer yet in higher education. But if you take a step back and you say who’s really winning at that university? Because Canvas still has the main university system, far greater number of students and presumably [00:26:00] a far bigger contract than the CBE program. But the D2L, it’s sort of a nice feather in the cap. But how meaningful is it from a business standpoint? What is their momentum really like from a business perspective? Is this moment going to change the nature of the market?

Jeanette: I think that’s going to take time, because I think right now the big difference is within the Canvas community is seeing if there’s going to be a big change, either in pricing, services or product roadmap from Canvas on the next year. Now under PE ownership, if that’s going to start faltering. And if that starts faltering, will D2L be there to pick it up?

Phil: I agree with that somewhat. But we’ve also been pointing out it’s been a good year and a half where Canvas is, really Instructure has, been changing as a company. Some of these changes, you [00:27:00] and I have already seen them directly at a large university. So some of this momentum, I think, is already happening. I guess the question is how much of it is early indications of changes versus a significant market trend moving forward? And maybe that’s a good way to think of it.

Jeanette: Absolutely. I mean, if you think about it, the the layoffs are just, probably going to start affecting the actual customers, I would say in the next six months. If in the next six months Canvas also decides to raise prices, that’s where I think there’s going to be major market change.

Phil: Well, there’s another side of that. To be fair Instructure, and I know that we’ve written quite a bit about their missteps lately. Their new executive team, or certainly with the new CEO in place, the new ownership, they seem to be going back to a certain degree, at least from a transparent, open company perspective. They’ve really made improvements there. Now, [00:28:00] how much of that affects analysts and people who are trying to understand their direction, and how much it actually affects how schools evaluate them? That’s the part that we need to get a better understanding of. On one hand, you’ve got the PE ownership and the lay offs and potential price increases. On the other hand, they have resolved some of their management mistakes and particularly the CEO level. So is that going to improve things as well? And to be fair, their new CEO just started on July 1st. So that’s going to take some time to see to see how that shakes out as well. So there is quite a bit to watch on this market.

Jeanette: Yes. Always. Always exciting.

Phil: Always exciting? I don’t think everybody describes the LMS market as exciting.

Jeanette: But gosh, what are they missing? Last year was a soap opera.

Phil: OK. Yes. Soap operas are not always happy. But yes, we’re [00:29:00] seeing a lot of new market dynamics.

Jeanette: So it’s not always it’s always happy, but it’s usually entertaining.

Phil: Ok. Entertaining. Not always happy. That’s a great point.

That’s what we’re going to be looking for heading into the conferences. And we’ll certainly report as we find out new information, either the virtual conferences or from talking to customers or additional research that we have. We’ll also be putting out our mid-year market report on the LMS market that should be coming out by early August. That will include these updates. But it’s great talking to you, Jeanette. And it’s great to share with you, our subscribers and people working with market analysis on what we’ll be looking for. But thanks a lot, Jeanette. Appreciate your time. And now we can get back to the proposal.

Jeanette: Yay! After a drink, maybe the words will start flowing.

Phil: It might go quicker. OK. Well, thank you.

Jeanette: Thanks. Bye.

We wish you the best as you deal with planning for Fall 2020 and beyond. Stay well and please don’t hesitate to reach out if you have questions or comments. We’d love to hear from you directly.


Phil on behalf of The MindWires Team