Here’s a graph from a recent presentation by Anya Kamenetz:
The word that comes to mind is “Yikes!”
Here’s the full preso:
Here’s a graph from a recent presentation by Anya Kamenetz:
The word that comes to mind is “Yikes!”
Here’s the full preso:
After four and a half really interesting years at Oracle, I am moving on. As of Monday, April 4th, I will have a new job in a different company. I’d like to tell you a bit about what I’ll be doing next and how it will—and won’t—affect my blogging.
But first, I would be remiss if I didn’t say a few words in praise of my soon-to-be-former employer. When I started there in December of 2006, I thought there was a good chance that I would become bored and cynical within a few years. That didn’t happen. For starters, there always seemed to be another hard and important problem to work on. Higher education still faces some daunting cyberinfrastructure challenges that need to be solved in order to get educational technology to live up to its potential as a change catalyst. I’m talking about things like making it easy for students and teachers to save, share, find, and re-use work (a.k.a. content management), making it easy for students and teachers to move seamlessly across disparate bits of functionality, possibly hosted in different places by different organizations (a.k.a. identity management), and being able to see what kinds of technology-enabled practices actually improve learning (a.k.a. analytics). These are all hard problems that Oracle actually knows a lot about. When it comes to me and my attitude about my job, it’s all about Archimedes. I’m looking for a large enough lever to move the world. And there is no shortage of really big levers at Oracle.
On top of that, the team that I have worked with is truly remarkable. The reason that there was even a place for me to come to at Oracle is that my manager Cary Brown and my colleague Linda Feng went to management and said that Oracle needed to do more to support higher education’s core mission of teaching and learning. And VP of Development Mark Armstrong had the foresight to agree with them and to find the resources necessary to create the team. These people, the rest of the people on the Academic Enterprise Services team, the people on the strategy team—really almost everybody I have had the privilege of working with directly in the higher education development business unit—are good, smart people. Many of them come from university backgrounds, and all are passionate about education. That shows in some of the investments that the company has made. I am very proud of the work we did (and are still doing) on the IMS Learning Information Services standard. It hasn’t been sexy or glamourous, but it’s important. And Oracle has made a much larger commitment to it than probably most people realize. We’ve put hundreds of thousands of person/hours into herding cats on the working group, building the first working implementation and a test harness to go with it, recruiting new participants, and driving adoption. I wouldn’t be surprised if Oracle’s total investment in just the standards development piece has approached a million dollars by some measures. Yes, this was an investment of enlightened self-interest. But I don’t see very many companies in educational technology who are both willing and capable of making such a large investment in cultivating an open standard with such a long time horizon for payback. It’s a big deal, and Oracle deserves more credit than it gets for this commitment.
Don’t get me wrong. Working at Oracle is not without its share of frustrations. Nor was working at the State University of New York. Nor is any job. One of the particular problems at a place like Oracle is that you’re working inside a ponderous global enterprise with over a hundred thousand employees. An enterprise that tends to think in billion-dollar increments. When the machine is that large, a squeaky wheel does not always get the grease. Because there are a lot of freakin’ wheels. But even in this regard, I have been surprised. Thanks to Mark Armstrong and to former VP of Strategy Curtiss Barnes, I was lucky to be able to get my proposals heard very high up in the organization. I didn’t always get the answer that I wanted to hear, but I always felt like I got a smart answer, I always felt like I got a fair hearing, and I always felt like the door was open for me to come back with my best stuff. At the end of the day—or, at least, at the end of most days—I felt pretty good working at Oracle. Win or lose.
So I wasn’t actively looking around for another job. This opportunity found me. And it was one that I couldn’t pass up.
Probably those of you who were perplexed at my decision to go work for Oracle will also be perplexed at my decision to go work for Cengage. But the textbook industry is at a really interesting moment. It is one of the last media businesses in which the traditional players still have pricing power due to their control over the sales and distribution channels of physical assets (in this case, textbooks). But that is changing at an astonishing rate. The textbook industry is not immune to the same forces that have reshaped the music industry, the newspaper industry, the movie industry, the trade book industry, and really just about any other media industry I can think of. And the tablet is about to turbocharge that change. The last walls blocking the all-digital learning content economy have been the walls of the classroom. Those walls are falling.
So what do you have in a textbook company today? You have a lot of really smart people whose vocation is education, who know a lot about educational content, and who are going to have to get very innovative very quickly if they want to have jobs three years from now. I find that to be incredibly attractive. The trick is, it has to be the right textbook company. Change of this magnitude is hard and scary. Some textbook companies, probably even some big ones, won’t have what it takes to survive this transition and carve out new roles for themselves in the new world.
But I’m betting that Cengage will be one of the companies that does survive. And thrive. I have seen what they have been working on, and it blows me away.
I will be working on Chris Vento’s team. I have written about Chris before. He is something of a legend in the field. I remember a visit he made to SUNY back when I was there in which he talked about how important it is to be able to bring all kinds of new tools and capabilities developed by third parties into the learning environment, and how important it therefore was to have an open standard to make that practical. This was back in late 2005 or early 2006. It’s fair to say that his comments had a significant impact on my colleagues and me as we were formulating our ideas for the Learning Management Operating System. Which is another way of saying that Chris’s early work had a significant impact on all the thinking I’ve done about digital learning environments in the last six years.
I’ll be working on Cengage’s recently-announced MindTap platform. MindTap isn’t an LMS, an LMOS, a post-LMS, or any other kind of LMS-with-a-twist. It’s something different. Something pretty new. I don’t know of a product category name for it yet. I’ll call it a content-centric social learning environment for the purposes of this post, but that doesn’t really capture it either. You have to really see it to get it. I hope to be able to write and show more about it in the coming months. (More on that in a bit.)
In addition to working as part of the product management team for MindTap, my job will be to work with third-parties who have apps that should be integrated with the platform. Cengage calls these MindApps. In other words, I’ll be looking out for the long tail of learning applications. I will be helping to both identify the right apps and figure out the best functional integration for maximum educational impact as well as craft the partnership relationships with the developers of the apps. In that second part, I’ll be working with my friend and mentor Curtiss Barnes. I learned a lot from Curtiss when I was at Oracle and I expect to learn more from him at Cengage. In fact, I expect to learn more from a lot of people at Cengage. Both Chris and Curtiss have assembled jaw-dropping collections of talent. Seriously, almost every person I have met there so far has been intimidatingly smart. And I don’t intimidate easily. I’m excited, and a little nervous.
You may be wondering how the job change will affect this blog. In at least one important aspect, it won’t change anything at all. At Oracle, I had tremendous freedom to write what I wanted to write. It wasn’t unlimited freedom, but there never was anything that I felt I really needed to write that I couldn’t. The restrictions that I had were not ones that really hampered me. I tried to comply with the company policies and to be sensitive to any awkward positions that my writing might put my colleagues into. In return, they respected my independence. In fact, they strongly defended it, in ways that I can’t go into here. Suffice it to say that they had my back. I would insist on maintaining that level of independence wherever I went to next, and I have been given assurances that I will have it at Cengage. If I want to write about the good things that Cengage’s competitors are doing, I will. If I want to write about exciting new developments in the world of OERs, I can. As with Oracle, I expect to have a dialog with my Cengage colleagues at appropriate moments. And as with Oracle, I don’t expect that the level of cooperation they have asked for from me will prevent me from writing about the things that are important to me or taking the positions that I feel are right.
But that doesn’t mean that nothing will change. Because I am not a paid professional journalist, I can’t afford to spend my day hunting for stories that would round out a publication. I can only write about the things that I run into during the course of my day that I think are interesting and that I can find the time and passion to write about. Since I will have a new job, I will be running into new things. At the very least, I expect to be writing more about tablets, content, and different ideas about digital learning environments. Ideally, I would like to be able to write directly about some of the stuff I’ll be working on at Cengage. That would not be without its challenges, either from Cengage’s perspective or from mine. My blog is not a company blog, and a prerequisite of my ability to maintain my independence is that there can be no question in anybody’s mind that I may be writing as a spokesperson for the company on these pages. If my brand is my own, then by extension Cengage’s brand is their own. I can’t mess with that, even by accident. And for my part, I have no desire for e-Literate to become a press release factory, either in reality or in perception. When I got elected to the Sakai Foundation Board and started writing more Sakai posts, a few people complained that I had become too much of a Sakai partisan and one or two even told me that they were going to stop reading e-Literate because of it. On one level, I can’t worry about that. I write about what I’m learning at the moment and what lights my fire enough to get me to the computer when I could be doing something else. I was spending a lot of time thinking about and learning about Sakai, so that’s what I had to offer. It was either that or nothing. But on another level, part of what gets me to write is that I want to do something useful for people. My ability to do that will be limited if my objectivity becomes suspect. Also, I won’t take responsibility for defending every business decision that Cengage makes any more than I took responsibility for defending every decision that Oracle or SUNY made. I don’t want anybody to think that I will. e-Literate is about what I, personally, am learning about. Nothing more and nothing less.
In the end, I’m not that worried about this particular issue. I’m pretty optimistic that I will be able to work out the right balance with my new colleagues and with all (or at least most) of you. I’m just letting you know that I can’t know what that balance will be until I’ve had some time to work this through with the folks at Cengage.
While I’m on the topic of the blog and its editorial policies, I’d like to address something that doesn’t have anything to do with Cengage but which I’ve been looking for the right opportunity to write about. I have been just blown away with the amount of attention that all of you have been willing to give to e-Literate. I’m just some guy in his office in the mountains of Western Massachusetts writing whatever comes into my mind. When I started this blog, I had no idea if anybody would read it. Luckily, getting readership wasn’t critical to success as I defined it for myself. The writing was (and still is) its own reward. Nevertheless, readership has come. And every time I think I have reached a stable plateau, something happens that makes me feel like I’m suddenly on a whole new level again. This is wonderful and incredibly gratifying, but it is also work. I spend much more time managing comments than I used to, and I now get many private emails asking for advice or consultation. So many, in fact, that if I answered them all, I would have trouble meeting the obligations of my day job. For the first time, I am simply not answering some emails. That feels terrible, but I don’t feel that I have a choice.
As a result, I have created a new page of editorial policies for e-Literate. What I’m hoping is that, by being clear about how I can and cannot help, I will get fewer emails that I am forced to ignore. This is very much a work in progress, and so suggestions are most welcome.
Anyway, the bottom line is that I am delighted that you have come this far with me on the journey and I hope that you will find the next leg of it enjoyable. We really are still at the very beginning of a grand adventure trying to transform education and I, for one, can’t wait to see what the next chapter has to offer us.
OK, I tried to kick the Feedburner habit once before and I fell back into it for no good reason. This time I mean it. I have killed my Feedburner subscription because (a) it keeps breaking and (b) I don’t really care about the statistics it gives me anyway. The RSS feed for e-Literate is now located at http://mfeldstein.com/feed/. Please resubscribe to this URL. The old feed URL will stop working in two weeks.
Sorry for the inconvenience. I promise you, this will not happen again.
I have gotten some good feedback and done some thinking regarding how to improve my interviews. I’m a bit torn, though. People seem to want shorter interviews, but I really like the long form. I hear lots of five- and ten-minute interviews, and I rarely get much of value out of them. At the same time, I appreciate that people don’t always have time to listen to an hour-long interview in one shot.
So here’s what I’m thinking about doing:
How does that sound?
There’s just so much to like about the LetterMPress project:
To begin with, I found it on KickStarter, a great site for crowd funding art projects that I learned about thanks to my friends at smARThistory. (There’s still one day left to donate to their project!) There’s something very satisfying about direct micro-funding of local projects that you believe in. My wife and I have been giving micro-lending gift certificates to friends and family via Kiva for years, and we’re probably going to fund our first classroom project on Donors Choose very soon.
Second, there’s the software. A direct manipulation interface that provides a high-fidelity simulation of the analog world is something that just sings on a touch-enabled device. Could you do something like this on a traditional computer using a mouse? Sure. But there’s something about touch, about transforming the screen into an object that you can manipulate with your own hands, that just seems new and fresh and powerful. In this case, it’s helping to keep alive an art that is in danger of being lost, and it’s doing so through a direct, physical interface with the art-making.
But the best part is that the digital interface, including the individual type elements, will be connected to a physical letterpress facility where people can have their digital letterpress creations transformed into real, honest-to-goodness letterpress-created analog art. It’s about as close as you can come to giving everybody their own physical letterpress. The approach reminds me of MIT’s iLabs, where students can have remote access to real lab facilities that are difficult and/or expensive to reproduce every place where you might have students that want to learn using the labs. Of course, one of the shortcomings of virtual labs is that students don’t gain the hands-on skills that they need to have in order to work in a real-life lab. I wonder whether a high-fidelity simulation on a touch interface would make a difference in terms of those skill deficits. It may turn out that touch will be much more important and useful than 3D in terms of creating high-value educational simulations. This would be particularly true in cases where the touch-based simulation could actually drive physical, real-world equipment so students could see the actual reality mirroring the virtual one. One other nice wrinkle to the LetterMPress implementation of this approach is that the simulation is only loosely coupled to the physical equipment. Students can practice and experiment as much as they want with their digital tools and submit their designs for real-world processing only when they’re ready.
So, to sum up, LetterMPress gives us the following:
If you’re interested in participating, you can donate to the LetterMPress KickStarter project. A donation of $25 gets you a copy of the app when it’s finished and a T-shirt.
For my first attempt at a Skype video interview, I was fortunate to be joined by Moodlerooms CEO Lou Pugliese. Unfortunately, the network gods were not with us; the picture is extremely fuzzy. But the audio is quite good and well worth your time. Lou is an interesting guy. He started out as a journalist, got into online learning early, was Blackboard’s first CEO, worked with VCs for a while, and now is leading one of the fastest growing open source LMS support vendors around.
On a related note, I’m in the process of doing some more research on the Moodlerooms/Cambridge University Press relationship. I was mistaken when I assumed that it was similar to the Blackboard/McGraw Hill deal. There are some interesting wrinkles to it, which I’ll report as soon as I have the details nailed down.
By the way, I’m looking for input on these interviews. Is an hour too long? Are you listening to the whole thing? Are there ways that I could make it more likely that you would? Making a podcasting feed available on iTunes, for example?
This is just a quick note to say that the UK’s Association for Learning Technology (ALT) has renamed the ALT-J journal as Research in Learning Technology and is making it available open access. I haven’t had a chance to sit down and spend time with the latest issue but, given the general high quality that ALT tends to produce, I expect it to be pretty good.
Today Moodlerooms announced a partnership with Cambridge Global Grid for Learning that allows faculty and students to access content from Cambridge University Press, Reuters, Corbis, and other content providers from within Moodlerooms’ Joule platform. As far as I can tell, this partnership is roughly similar to ones that Blackboard has previously announced with McGraw Hill and NBC. I expect to see more of these going forward, so it seems worthwhile to take a little time and look at the details of how these deals work for everybody.
Let’s start with why these deals are happening. For the LMS providers, it’s a revenue stream. They get to charge content providers for access to the students and teachers. At a Deutsche Bank conference last September, Blackboard CEO Michael Chasen said,
With the publishers that we have relationships with, if they teach or download a specific publisher pack from a publisher that we have a relationship with to have that content run within our class environment, we make money from the number of students or faculty that then adopt that content within their course environment.
The publishers are essentially paying for storefront access. The think they will sell more content if they can expose teachers and students to it through the LMS.
What does this integration look like? Blackboard and McGraw Hill have a demo video here. (Sorry; it’s not embeddable.) The details are as follows:
Blackboard and McGraw Hill advertise that their integration is accomplished through the IMS Basic Learning Tool Interoperability (BLTI) standard. Since grade return and assignments integration is not supported in BLTI, Blackboard and McGraw Hill are presumably using extensions. These are allowed within the specification. Furthermore, the full LTI spec, which will probably be completed by some time in the second half of 2012, will support grade integration.
At any rate, while I think the rough shape of these deals is likely to be around for a while, the specific nature of the integration is likely to change. To begin with, I am skeptical that purchasing content through an LMS interface is likely to enhance the shopping experience. Furthermore, the coming of the tablet to higher education is likely to disrupt this relationship. While LMS vendors are building tablet interfaces, the truth is that educational content eReaders are likely to become their own software category with substantial affordances that are different than those of a tablet-enabled LMS. I expect that the content providers themselves, rather than the LMS vendors, are more likely to develop these interfaces. And once they are in place, they will be a much better point of sale. This is a problem, since a major portion of the value that content providers are paying for when they pay the LMS vendors is increased sales through the LMS interface. If that value proposition fails, then the deals the content providers are willing to strike will change significantly.
On the other hand, the ability to integrate provided content with assignments and grading tools, as well as the ability to support single sign-on, may be more enduring integration points. Some content vendors do provide their own LMS-like grading and assignment tools (I’m looking at you, Pearson myLabs). It’s not clear, however, whether or how quickly these are likely to displace the LMS tools that faculty are used to. Nothing is certain here. But if you just look at the transitional nature of these publisher/LMS vendor relationships and think through where the affordances are going, it really points to the fact that whole current educational technology ecosystem is at an inflection point right now. In a world where educational computing is largely PC-based and educational content is still mostly on dead trees, the LMS has dominant positioning. But in a world where educational computing is more tablet-based and educational content is mostly digital, the picture becomes more complicated.
Update: The video was briefly broken as Instructure inexplicably chose the day after their big announcement to change their YouTube account. I have updated the post with the new URL and it should be working now. Note that anybody else who linked to Instructure’s videos before today is going to have the same problem. The new channel for Instructure’s videos is http://www.youtube.com/canvaslms.
Instructure has just announced that they will be releasing an open source version of their Canvas LMS product. Between this announcement, the winning of the Utah Education Network contract (109,000 college students and 40,000 K12 students), and the oh-so-ever-brief lawsuit by Desire2Learn about that win, Instructure has been making quite a splash lately. In this post, I’m going to look a little more closely at the company, the software, and the business model.
When Instructure alerted me to the fact that they were about to make an announcement about releasing their software as open source (something that I’ll get to in more detail later in this post), I decided to spend a little more time getting to know their product. The company makes it possible for anyone to create a course in Canvas for free, so I created one to play around with. Probably the most astonishing aspect to me is how feature-complete the product appears to be for such a new entrant. I’ve seen a handful of version 1 LMSs in my day, and no matter how promising they were, they have always had obvious gaping holes in their functionality. I found no such holes in Canvas. Granted, playing around with a course site is not like teaching with the product; I could easily be missing problems. (In fact, I’m sure that I am. No software is perfect.) But the point is that I couldn’t find any, and I really looked. That hasn’t happened before.
Let’s take the example of the grade book, which Instructure rightly touts as one of the highlights of their system. Grade books are one of the first places to look if you want to understand the pathologies underlying the design of a particular LMS. They are fiendishly hard to do well. For every ten professors, you have at least 20 different ways to set up a grade book. They use points, or letter grades, or percentages, or a mix; they want to drop the lowest grade; they want to grade on a curve; they want to have some ungraded assignments; they want to use rubrics; and so on. Before you know it, the LMS developers have had to re-implement Excel on the web, and made it hideously hard to use in the process. Plus, electronic grade books are intimately tied into the way students submit assignments and the ways instructors give feedback, so they really are at the heart of academic workflow. They are really important and really hard.
Here’s a video demonstration of the Canvas grade book:
First of all, the design is really clean. There are no unnecessary clicks. If you teach four classes a semester with 25 students per class, small increments of time saved in the grading process add up very quickly. Add to that the fact that the Canvas grade book will render your students’ documents in-browser so you can look at them right in the grading interface, and you have some very significant time savings for faculty.
But it’s not just about speed and convenience. Canvas can take a snapshot of anything on the web and pull it into the grading interface. Want to grade a blog post on the student’s own WordPress installation? You can do it. Want to grade a video posted to YouTube? You can do it. Plus, if your computer has a webcam and built-in mic (and whose doesn’t these days?), you can record video feedback right from the grading interface, giving that increased sense of presence that is so important in successful teaching.
My first impression was that this ease-of-use and innovation was going to come at the cost of feature-richness. But as I spent more time digging into the grade book last night, I was forced to reassess that position. Some of the advanced grading features that I thought weren’t there are, in fact, there. I could think of a single thing that I would want to do with the grade book that I wasn’t able to do. Again, I’m not actually teaching with the software, so I’m sure that I’m missing things. But still, the level of finish is remarkable.
This brings us to the technical aspects. Some of the quality of the application just comes down to good design and engineering talent, but some of it is from the architecture. Instructure CEO Josh Coates makes much of the fact that the system is built on Ruby on Rails and how much more agile that lets the company be. I’m no expert on programming languages, so I have no useful comment to make on that topic. But another differentiator that I’m more confident about is the ability to design the architecture from the ground up using 2011 concepts. The current crop of LMSs in the market are mostly built on a conception of the LMS from the late 1990′s, with a bunch of stuff bolted on as new ideas came a long. But some things are hard to bolt on. Take messaging, for example. Today, we take it for granted that students and teachers are going to use multiple modes for communication—email, Facebook, Twitter, text messaging, Skype, and so on. Since the name of the game in teaching—particularly in a distance learning course—is contact, it just makes sense that you’d want to have a rich set of personalized communication channel preferences across the range of class communications. Instructure has this:
But if you designed your LMS even five or six years ago, this world of multiple channels just wasn’t there when you were thinking about your design. Most of the current-generation LMSs weren’t built with unified messaging systems. They bolted on email alerts one application at a time as it occurred to them that it would be necessary. Retrofitting a unified messaging system to an architecture that doesn’t have one is a major effort.
This difference also shows up in how they integrate third-party applications. Take the example of video recording and video conferencing. It’s not like it never occurred to any other LMS provider that it would be a good idea to integrate such capabilities. But usually it’s done through a plugin architecture that hangs it somewhere non-obvious off the main menu with fifty-seven other undifferentiated third-party capabilities. In contrast, Instructure chose to make videoconferencing and video recording a core part of the platform, giving it a privileged place on the main menu and even integrating it into assignment feedback.
This approach has its tradeoffs, though. For example, Instructure’s videoconferencing platform of choice is the open source DimDim application. Unfortunately, DimDim was acquired by Salesforce.com recently and, while the source is still available, it’s not clear who, if anybody, will continue developing it. But that’s not an insurmountable problem. Instructure could, for example, swap in BigBlueButton or, for that matter Wimba or WebEx. The integration points are there.
Speaking of open source, did I mention that Instructure is releasing a version of Canvas under an open source license? Specifically, they are using the Affero GPL (AGPL) license. This is a relatively new variant of the GPL that is intended to close what was perceived to be a loophole for application service providers. The GPL requires that anyone who distributes the licensed code to submit changes they make back under an open source license. To distribute means to physically transmit a copy of the program for somebody else to run it on their own server. But if you’re running a SaaS company, you never distribute the code. Customers never download Salesforce.com or Google Docs and install them on their own machines. Thus, these companies can modify GPLed code and, in the case of Salesforce.com, make money selling the functionality it provides without ever having to contribute that code back to the community. AGPL says source code changes must be made available to all users of the code. Thus, if Salesforce.com modified AGPL code was used in the creation of functionality available to customers, they would have to make their modifications available under an AGPL license to anyone with a Salesforce.com account. What this does for a company like Instructure is it prevents somebody from opening up an LMS SaaS shop across the street, improving Canvas, and not giving those improvements back to Instructure.
It’s important to understand that Instructure’s approach to open source is very different than that of either Sakai or Moodle. Sakai has a very traditional academic consortium model at its heart. The foundation is the center of the action, it’s a non-profit, and it’s largely run by the schools who have a stake in Sakai’s success. Moodle is a company-run open source project, but it’s a highly unusual one that’s very much adapted to fit higher education. In fact, it’s so well adapted that most Moodle customers probably aren’t even aware that Martin Dougiamas’ company, Moodle Pty Ltd, is at the heart of it. Moodle has an extremely strong user community that has input into product development as well as a partner network that also has some input into governance. Instructure, in contrast, appears to be more of a traditional company-run open source project in the style of Alfresco, for example. There are no signs that the company is going to cede product development to an open source community or even cultivate a community in a serious way. On the one hand, I expect there to be some open source contributions to the project. The barriers to entry are low enough, and a Rails-based LMS is a very attractive project for computer science students and computer-savvy university faculty and staff to play with. (On a related note, I’m taking bets on how many hours it takes Chuck Severence to download Canvas and add Basic LTI support.) But I suspect that those contributions will tend to be enhancements and extensions around the edges, rather than changes to the core platform. How much that matters depends a lot on your perspective. Also, Instructure maintains a commercially licensed edition of the product that has functionality not included in the open source edition. (This is a business model that Alfresco actually moved away from.) So, for example, the open source version of the product does not include multitenant support.
Instructure’s approach to open source is indicative of the way the company is run in general. While the design of the software reflects a good understanding of the classroom, the design of the business is all Silicon Valley. That’s not an accident. The company’s new CEO and lead angel investor is Josh Coates. Ever use Mozy? Yeah, that was him. He sold that company to EMC for $76 million. The company before that he sold (or sold the intellectual property, anyway) to Intel. Instructure was born out of class he taught in entrepreneurship at Brigham Young University. Coates asked his students to list the worst software they’d ever used. Apparently, Blackboard made the top of the list. He then asked the students to think about why that software exists, what market forces drive it, and how to make it better. Two students, Brian Whitmer and Devlin Daily, came up with Canvas in response. Coates was impressed with their work and took an interest.
There are strong indications that Josh Coates is taken very seriously by both Silicon Valley and Wall Street. For one thing, I can’t remember any LMS launch being lovingly profiled in TechCrunch. I also can’t remember an LMS startup being mentioned by a journalist on CNBC, but that apparently happened in the last 24 hours. (I haven’t seen it myself.) In talking to Coates, I get the strong sense that he sees Instructure as his legacy. He claims he is in this for the long haul and not interested in selling off this company. (Ironically, he reminds me a bit of Desire2Learn CEO John Baker in that regard.) But don’t expect Instructure to behave like all the other LMS companies. Coates thinks like somebody from Silicon Valley, and he definitely has a bit of a Silicon Valley swagger. He isn’t shy about talking a little trash about his competitors and, for goodness sake, the man has an M18 Hellcat tank destroyer in his garage.
What are the company’s success prospects? It’s hard to say. They certainly are getting off to a roaring start. In the short term, they are in a race against time to get on the evaluation list of schools that are switching off of WebCT or ANGEL. They probably have about 6-12 months to make that happen. Even if they do, they still have to overcome schools’ native conservatism about going with unknown startups. On the other hand, since Canvas was built from the beginning with multitenant support, I strongly suspect that their cost structure for hosting is lower than that of their competition and that they therefore can be pretty aggressive about pricing. That matters more than ever these days. Longer term is harder to analyze. I expect the entire educational technology landscape to change considerably by 2014. It’s very difficult to know what the competitive landscape will look like by then.
But I’ll say this much. This is a company that should be taken seriously.
As a follow-up to my two-part series on LMS market share, I am tracking news development about adoption announcements, particularly of Vista schools. Today brings word that CSU Chico is moving from Vista to Blackboard 9.1.