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Pearson and Google Jump Into Learning Management With a New, Free System

One of the world’s biggest education publishers has joined with one of the most dominant and iconic software companies on the planet to bring colleges a new—and free—learning-management system with the hopes of upending services that affect just about every instructor, student, and college in the country.

Today Pearson, the publishing and learning technology group, has teamed up with the software giant Google to launch OpenClass, a free LMS that combines standard course-management tools with advanced social networking and community-building, and an open architecture that allows instructors to import whatever material they want, from e-books to YouTube videos. The program will launch through Google Apps for Education, a very popular e-mail, calendar, and document-sharing service that has more than 1,000 higher-education customers, and it will be hosted by Pearson with the intent of freeing institutions from the burden of providing resources to run it. It enters a market that has been dominated by costly institution-anchored services like Blackboard, and open-source but labor-intensive systems like Moodle.

“Anytime Pearson and Google are used in the same sentence, it’s going to get people’s attention,” says Don Smithmier, chief executive and founder of Sophia, another community-based learning system that is backed by Capella Education, the corporation behind the online educator Capella University. “I believe the world will be shifting away from a classic LMS approach defined by the institution. Openness and social education is a very powerful idea.”

Though nobody expects Pearson to take over the marketplace—Blackboard, Moodle and a few others had over 80 percent of it last year, according to the Campus Computing Survey, and Blackboard officials argue that OpenClass can’t integrate with university systems the way their product can—the few colleges that have been piloting it seem intrigued while noting that it could exist alongside other systems. “We run both Blackboard and Moodle currently,” says David Kim, CIO of Central Piedmont Community College. His institution has been using OpenClass in two history courses since the summer. “Are we crazy for considering a third LMS? Well, consumers are demanding choice and change in education, and the ease of use of OpenClass makes it simple for instructors and students to customize it. Plus, Pearson doing the hosting takes much of the headache away from me.”

But the crucial thing, he says, “is that OpenClass can open doors for community college students. We have high school grads and senior citizens. They have different needs, and different fears about learning and about technology.” OpenClass has a Facebook-like news stream that captures activity and comments for each class, and a page that highlights different people taking a course, along with the questions, troubles, and solutions that they post online. “So it’s easy for you to find someone like you and interact with them, kind of like sitting with your friends in class,” Mr. Kim says. “It provides a comfort zone.”

It also provides opportunities for traditional college students, says Kay Reeves, the executive director of information technology at Abilene Christian University, which has been trying out OpenClass in a psychology course, an art course, and an English course. “Not only do students share resources, but faculty have the ability to collaborate across institutions, sharing pedagogy tips. Someone at my college could contact someone in the network at, say, Harvard, and say ‘Hey, how are you handling this topic in your course?’”

Connecting to the system through Google—it will be available through the Google Apps Marketplace—adds to the ease of use and comfort factor, officials say. People will sign on to their Google Mail accounts and see OpenClass as one of their available products at the top of their Web browser. They will also be able to use Gmail and Google Docs from within the program.

There have been a few bumps in the road during the pilot phase. Adrian Sannier, senior vice president of learning technologies at Pearson, says that people with multiple Google accounts could log into one that’s not linked to OpenClass through their institution, which can be confusing. “But Google has been very good about working with us to smooth those problems out,” he says. And none of the college officials reported this to be a significant problem.

There are others, though, who contend that OpenClass is really a bump in the road if a college wants a true LMS. Matthew Small, Blackboard’s chief business officer, points out that this cloud-based service can’t be deeply integrated into a university the way his products can. “Most faculty want an LMS that connects to the student-information system, the calendar, and conform to college-specific privacy and legal policies,” he says, and he doesn’t think OpenClass can do this. “It’s really something that’s being offered to the faculty, not as something that’s connected to the enterprise,” he says. Blackboard itself has a cloud-based offering, CourseSites, that was launched this year and is also free, he adds, but it doesn’t compare with its main learning management product, Blackboard Learn.

Mr. Small also says Blackboard uses an industry standard that allows instructors to import outside material from publishers like McGraw-Hill, and has even worked with Pearson itself on some of its offerings.

Comparing Pearson’s new system to existing products, Kevin Roberts, CIO at Abilene Christian, pointed to two things, and neither was deep integration into university systems. First, he says, “it’s free. Being free is certainly an attention getter for any CIO.” That contrasts with Blackboard Learn, which institutions have to buy a license for. And like Mr. Kim, he says that Moodle—which doesn’t charge—still has back-end costs as the technology department has to support it and fix bugs that crop up themselves.

Still, Mr. Roberts is proceeding cautiously. “We don’t know yet how our wider college community is going to react to it. So next semester we’ll try it in several more classes. And maybe in the middle of next semester we’ll make a decision whether to replace Blackboard—we’re primarily a Blackboard campus—with this, or perhaps we’ll run them simultaneously and let instructors decide.”

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