Changes in the Australian Higher Ed LMS landscape – a wave, or just a ripple?

DSC_7098 This week, the University of Sydney announced that it was migrating from Blackboard Learn to Canvas, joining RMIT, UC and the University of Adelaide who have also announced similar moves in the last twelve months. No doubt this is sending one or two quivers through the camps of the ‘Big Three’ LMS platforms which until recently made up the entirety of the incumbent LMS landscape in Australian Higher Ed – Blackboard Learn (21 Universities), Moodle (15) and Brightspace by D2L (3)*.

But are we about to see a wave of change in the LMS landscape across Australia, or will it be more like a ripple?

Firstly, let’s put the rate of change into perspective.

Putting a lifespan on an LMS within a University is tricky – almost as difficult as establishing the ROI for migrating from one LMS platform to another. One thing which is fairly self-evident is that, like any large-scale technology change, migrating LMS platforms isn’t a cheap activity. Starting off with the obvious ‘hard’ costs of the software, hardware/hosting, integration, configuration, content migration, customisation (for those who permit it), training, communication, project management and the cost of running two systems in parallel, there are also the many ‘soft’ costs – unfunded time and effort spent by students and staff learning the new platform, unfunded course re-work efforts, and the general effort by everyone involved (technical and pedagogical) to build out a new support model. This level of switching cost for Universities has meant that, historically, the expected lifespan of an LMS has been at a minimum five years, more commonly ten, and in some cases closer to fifteen. In fact, I suspect there are some Universities in Australia who have been using Blackboard Learn since its arrival on our shores in the late 1990s (but I’d need an LMS historian like Allan Christie to verify that one).

If we work on, say, ten years as an ‘average’ lifespan for an institution-wide LMS, then between our 39 Universities we would expect around four Universities each year to be announcing an LMS migration**. Adding this to the mix makes it apparent that the last couple of years have actually been very quiet in terms of large-scale LMS change in Universities around the country. Note that I am only talking here about wholesale changes of platform – not upgrades – and I am only talking about whole-of-institution changes – not the augmentation of the ‘mothership’ LMS with other platforms such as MOOC environments like edX. Adding to the four aforementioned Unis, since the start of 2015 only the University of Western Australia has announced a full-scale LMS migration (interestingly enough, and just to mess up my lifespan argument, they only lasted three years on their previous platform), making it a relatively glacial period of change (five in three years – noting that 2017 isn’t over yet) in comparison to the 2009 – 2011 period, where by my reckoning fifteen Universities*** underwent whole-of-institution LMS migrations.

So are the four aforementioned Universities moving to Canvas part of a relatively ‘normal’ cycle of LMS renewal, or is it the start of another far more significant shift across the landscape?

My prediction: unless we see another ‘seismic’ event occur, then we won’t see the magnitude of change we saw in 2009-11 in the next few years – at least. 

To explain what I mean by ‘seismic’, the 2009-2011 period coincided with the end-of-life of one of the major LMS platforms in the market at the time – WebCT. Faced with the inevitability of change to a new platform one way or another, Universities had no choice but to go through some pain, and hence most of them took the opportunity to test the market for potential new platforms. The rest is history.

The landscape now is different. The Federal budget has not been particularly kind to Higher Education, and will put more financial pressure on Universities to ‘live within their means’, meaning more scrutiny being applied to investments in technology. Whilst migrating to a new LMS might deliver some benefits, the quantification of these benefits will continue to be difficult to predict or measure at a holistic level, particularly in an LMS landscape where the very nature of the tool typically leads to convergence and uniformity. In my mind, the only things which could trigger another large-scale shift to the same degree we saw seven years ago would be if one of the three incumbent platforms were to no longer be supported (unlikely – unless one was acquired and end-of-lifed), or were to lag too far behind its competitors to be at least passable (more likely, but still a stretch), or for a new player (including Canvas) to discover the ‘killer feature’ that will make it a must-have solution (hint: that killer feature probably doesn’t exist). No doubt we will still see a gradual migration between LMS platforms that will occur as a natural process of technology renewal, but unless one of the conditions above changes then I can’t see Canvas – or anyone else for that matter – turning the Australian Higher Education LMS landscape on its head to the same extent we saw at the turn of the last decade in the foreseeable future.

Perhaps a more interesting conversation is whether or not this stabilisation of the LMS market could signal the reduction of the LMS to a far more generic commodity, as interoperability standards like LTI become the norm, the LMS becomes no more than an operating system for far more interesting online education tools, and the focus finally shifts to what a post-LMS world will truly look like.

Only time will tell.

* Note that I’ve left out Torrens and Carnegie-Mellon from their list on the assumption that their choice of LMS is dictated by their foreign masters – please do correct me if this is a bad assumption.

** Assuming that an LMS transition takes one year, which from my experience is about right in most cases.

*** Deakin, Flinders, UniSA, UTAS, WSU, Monash, UNE, ANU, UC, CQU, FedU, Deakin, La Trobe, ACU and Club Mac (in no particular order).

2 thoughts on “Changes in the Australian Higher Ed LMS landscape – a wave, or just a ripple?

  1. Hi Mark

    You may be right about this not signalling a wave of change, however it is significant that 4 universities have chosen to migrate to Canvas within a relatively short period. It’s not clear how many other universities have undertaken an internal LMS review (of any scale) and decided to stay with the existing platform, however we can assume at least a few. This also needs to be understood in the context of the US market changes as analysed and reported by the e-Literate team –

    I think it is also significant that 3 of the 4 universities that have or will be migrating to Canvas were also long term Blackboard Learn clients. It is probably necessary to talk with some of those close to the review to understand the nuances of the decision-making process.

    I agree strongly with your finishing point, although would add to it with the ever growing emphasis on the need for a more holistic and seamless environment for students through their entire journey with the university. The focus on identification of at-risk students and learning analytics comes to mind, as does the emergence of personal agents.

    Thanks for the analysis and hope to catch up sometime!


    • G’day Mike!

      Thanks for your comments. I agree that it would be an interesting conversation to understand the motivations for change, but I’d actually be more interested in the UC change, given that (1) they are currently on Moodle, and (2) they haven’t been on Moodle as long (I suspect) as those other three have been on Learn. It would be interesting to know if anyone in CAUDIT has attempted to quantify the ROI on a LMS migration project – it would make for a fascinating read!

      As for whether this will signal a larger change, I wonder if this year will be the peak for migrations to Canvas, or if that peak is still to come. In the 2009-11 period it was 2011 which saw the peak of the change, so it may be that I am wrong and we’ll see a bigger swathe announce/move next year. I’m still predicting it won’t happen at a rate greater than 3 – 4 migrations per year (compared to, I believe, seven in 2011), but I have been wrong in the past – come visit South Australia some time next year and if I’m wrong then the beers are on me!


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