A recent flurry of media attention has cast the current state of the learning management system (LMS) market as a “David vs. Goliath” story. In this tale, underdog Canvas (David) seems poised to usurp industry giant Blackboard (Goliath). Indeed, many articles point to recent data that shows each company now stands at 28% market share, with Blackboard’s share down from 70% in 2006.

While some question the methodology of this data, one could also ask whether viewing market trends in this way gives a full picture. Rather than a simple comparison of market share, what do these trends actually mean?  To explain them, industry analysts are quick to point out deployment models, roadmap delivery, and growing user preferences for specific features. But might something be occurring beyond these factors signaling a fundamental tension in how institutions are viewing learning management systems?

Our answer to this question is “yes.” While these useful market analyses consider many variables, they overlook a significant one: how market shifts may signal the way many institutions are critically evaluating the role of the learning management system, as a response to two key developments:

  1. Profound changes in teaching and learning: The rise of new approaches, such as competency-based education, adaptive learning, analysis of learning effectiveness, and digital curriculum development.
  2. Increased demand on technological fit: Viewing technologies not as standalone solutions, but as critical parts of an overall ecosystem.

Our discussions with institutions show that these two developments play a significant role in selecting learning management systems that underlie the market trends highlighted in recent articles.

Decision Continuum: Overview

To us, the decision points that help inform institutions about which LMS to acquire are on a continuum between a focus on feature suitability and a focus on technology suitability (see Figure 1). While we do not see institutional leaders concentrating solely on an end of the continuum, we do see their decision-making weighted toward one end or the other—depending on where they are in negotiating the ongoing changes in teaching and learning and the demand for technological fit.

The critical areas of focus on this continuum are:

  1. Focus on features: Higher education leaders, usually spurred to make a technology change based on dissatisfaction with their existing systems, focus their acquisition decisions on the specific characteristics or features of given systems, such messaging or content sharing capabilities.
  2. Focus on technology ecosystem goals: These leaders begin from design principles, like the adaptability of agility of a given system, to ensure the LMS fits their entire technology ecosystem. While this fit may be invisible to their end users, it meets their overall needs in contributing to an ecosystem that supports their long-term goals.

In between, you’ll find a focus on teaching and learning goals: Leaders who begin here are concentrating on how the technology contributes to their users’ efforts to further their goals, such as teaching and learning, seeking to determine whether features, such as interoperability and accessibility, support their efforts.

Figure 1: LMS Decision Continuum

How does this decision continuum help us understand the recent market shifts? Mapping the four leading players in the LMS market—Blackboard, Canvas, D2L, and Moodle—against this continuum reveals some interesting insights into what some market trends might mean:

  • Many leaders prioritize features, with some user goals: Institutional leaders tend to praise Canvas’ for its features and user goals, specifically its student-centeredness. This praise suggests that the company’s market share has increased in part because of its emphasis on these decision factors, but raises the question of how Canvas would adapt if more institutions began concentrating on technological fit.
  • A slowly increasing number of leaders focus on technological fit within their ecosystems: Often overlooked in the recent articles on the LMS market is the slight growth in the market share of D2L, currently up to 12% from 11% in 2016. This growth suggests that its approach of providing an LMS that meets institutional goals for a technological ecosystem has gained some traction, but also raises the question of whether the number of institutions that prioritize an ecosystem view will continue to increase.
  • Shifting along the continuum may pay off: Perhaps Blackboard’s loss of market share may be the result of a shift in prioritizing user features over prioritizing other parts of the continuum, such as user goals and technological fit within their ecosystem. Based on the bold statement of its CEO, Bill Ballhaus, at its annual conference that the LMS was “necessary, but not sufficient for teaching,” however, it appears that Blackboard plans to shift to these other parts of the continuum. It remains to be seen whether this shift will gain traction with institutional leaders.
  • Deciding where to position is an open question: With the end of its partnership with Blackboard in sight, the critical issue for Moodle is how it will preserve its 23% market share. For institutional leaders, this question may hinge upon where it will play out on the continuum. Will it dive into developing new features, focus on supporting teaching and learning goals, or leverage its open-source configuration to appeal to institutions that focus on the fit of technology within an ecosystem?

Viewing the market through the lens of how institutions begin and prioritize their decision-making yields important insight into market trends. We will continue to monitor markets such as the LMS and further develop analyses.

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