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Early thoughts on Pearson’s OpenClass

This was a major topic of conversation at Educause last week, and I had the chance to chat briefly with Adrian Sannier of Pearson on the exhibit floor–and also to try it out myself.

A few quick facts/impressions. A lot of the early buzz was about “Google’s new free and open source LMS” or similar. Almost none of that is accurate. It’s not a Google product, it’s a Pearson product. It’s available (for now) through the Google Apps marketplace, and integrates (or will–this week, they’re promising) with an existing Google Apps for Education database if you have one. But everyone I talked to from Google was very quick to point out that they didn’t develop this, aren’t offering it, don’t really have much of anything to do with it. They marched me straight over to the Pearson folks if I even tried to ask a question.

It’s also not at all Open Source. Pearson uses the term “open” very very loosely–so far I haven’t seen anything at all open about it. Adrian Sannier says that that is coming–some way for teachers to identify parts of their courses that could be shared with a wider network, multiple campuses or maybe all users of the system or maybe the whole world. But that’s not available yet. And the source code is definitely not open or available. There aren’t even API’s yet (although again, Adrian promises that there will be).

What is, however, is free of charge. That’s the main “selling” point, and when asked if that’s the distinguishing feature he would most want to claim, Adrian was very clear (both to me and to my friend Michael Feldstein. Michael has a very good blog post about OpenClass here ). This is not going to cost anyone money–free as in free beer, not as in free speech–and that’s what they’re proud of and what they’re promoting.

For now (and this should change sometime early in 2012), OpenClass is only available to Google Apps for Education campuses. Since we at Macaulay do use Google Apps for education, I (like hundreds of others) went immediately after the announcement and installed OpenClass to check it out right away.

I could talk at some length about what I discovered in testing–and we’ll be doing a lot more testing and trying (maybe for some spring classes, perhaps) as time goes by. It’s still very much in beta, with some features that aren’t quite working yet–some of them essential–and some little bugs that they’re still working on. The Pearson people seem to be extremely committed to fixing those bugs–they are responsive on twitter and by email, and in fact, when I pointed out a bug to their folks at Educause at about 3 in the afternoon, they called me back with more questions within 45 minutes, and then had the problem fixed by dinnertime that same day. That’s impressive, and not something that most LMS vendors would ever dream of doing for an end-user. That kind of response is reserved for high-level “escalated” tickets. Will that last? Who knows. But it did leave a good taste in my mouth.

As for the product itself, even given that it’s in beta, I have to say and somewhat hate to say that I’m not all that impressed. It’s an LMS. A fairly ordinary LMS. It’s not got revolutionary features, and the so-called social networking integration (mostly just an activity wall pulling together everything that is happening throughout the LMS for a given user as a main front page) is pretty much a big meh. The discussion board is not particularly attractive or navigable, and the general features (gradebook, announcements, submission/dropbox, assignments, documents) are just standard. Functional, but nothing interesting. The design is fine, but not very elegant and hardly customizable at all.

This is a standard LMS for a class (not a fully online class, Pearson is trying to make that distinction very clear) where a teacher and students want to do the basic LMS stuff–post a few things, assign and submit a few things, check grades, have a little bit of discussion–mainly just for asking and answering questions, not what I call a “real” online discussion (wide-ranging, digressive, engaging, critical, multi-media). Multi-media capabilities are limited. Sharing with the world outside the classroom, or escaping the silos of course and semester that the LMS is so married to, are both just about non-existent.

But all of that could come. At least for now, the promise or potential for most of that seems pretty strong. And one thing that Adrian also pointed out–with a free LMS, upgrades and new features can come much more quickly and easily. Most of the time, they will come fairly transparently. Nothing at all like an “enterprise” LMS upgrade. So that all remains to be seen.

I’m really interested to see how this will open beyond Google Apps for Education. When (and again, it could be just a few months) this opens up more widely, will that be to all Google customers? So that if I’m not affiliated with any institution, but I want to (for free) set up a class where I could teach and/or learn about birding or reef aquaria or the history of haberdashery, can I do that? And can I do it in a way that will make sense for learners–not just for a traditional class/semester-based type of education? Open questions!

I will also say that OpenClass is still a long, long, way from being even a bit close to the kinds of features and functionality, and from the kind of “disruptive” innovation that we are already seeing and demonstrating and doing at Macaulay (and elsewhere, of course) with WordPress. It’s like some of us are already working with refining a very low-cost and efficient warp drive technology, while Pearson has just introduced a fairly nice three-speed bicycle which they will give away for free.

But…when the overwhelming majority of classes in this country are riding around right now on a ten-speed bicycle, for which they are paying $100k a year (or whatever), a nice shiny three-speed for free is going to sound like a pretty good deal. If possible, though, I’m always going to want to do the deeper exploration that a cruising speed of warp 6 or 7 can allow.


  1. Dter, after reading the phrasing used in the original Pearson press release, that it “integrates seamlessly with Google Apps for Education™ and will be available starting this week in the Google Apps Marketplace™, Google’s online storefront for Google Apps™ products and services” I see that it isn’t misleading in the press release. While I appreciate the lack of information that occurs early on- and recognize that what went on at Educause was probably meant to create buzz, no matter how often Google’s name is ‘dropped’ its an app that works in a specific platform- nothing to read into or suppose they have ‘teamed’ up with Google- except if you write for Wired Campus blog- then the idea is to conjecture away with no real evidence.

    I mean, its hard to see there was no intent with a headline like that-given that a week went by and they did finally admit Pearson drops the company’s name so much that ‘many college officials (and WC) assume’ that Google is jointly building the new system; the fact that I can get the ‘angry birds’ app at the App store and I can play it in Google Chrome doesn’t mean that Rovio is teaming with Apple and Google to create the world’s biggest game changing video game.

    So while I’m really happy you were in a great mood yesterday (and hope still today) Joe, I’ll agree with your impression that the article was pretty bad and at best misleading and am appreciative that you gave us your initial and clear first impression – THAT’s journalism! 😉

  2. Hi Joseph,

    Just wanted to say thanks for sharing your initial impressions – very interesting from a Moodle advocates point of view to see how end users are responding to OpenClass.



  3. It’s true, Alyson, that the Chronicle’s initial coverage was pretty bad, even misleading–but I’m tempted to cut them a little slack, because things were developing pretty quickly. The Chronicle’s coverage of educational technology is and always has been fairly bad overall, even in Wired Campus (with Prof Hacker being an exception).

    And I tend to also have a knee-jerk suspicion of big publishers. When they say “free” I check my wallet, and when they say “open” I look for the padlocks. But in this case I think Pearson does deserve some credit. This really is free, they really won’t charge for it. That has the potential to be very big. And while they’re not really what I would call open, it is not a completely closed platform, either. They are hoping (of course) to sell a lot more of their e-textbooks because of this platform, and maybe they will, but it’s also open to any other publisher’s stuff, and OER’s, too.

    I don’t think there was any real intention to mislead, and I think there is still some real disruptive potential. Although maybe I’m just in an overly optimistic state today.

  4. Shame on Wired Campus: Well of course when I first read this at the Chronicle of Higher Education website without the ‘real’ context that your post provided my thoughts went to ‘wow, imagine what CUNY could do with all the money they wouldn’t have to invest in Bb?’… I appreciate that George Otte pointed me in the direction of your post, mostly because I was at the mercy of the blazing headline that came out of the Chronicle- a supposed higher ed ‘tech news’ organization- declaring that the two media giants are hoping (operative word) to “upend(ing) services that affect just about every instructor, student, and college in the country”.

    That you are calling the social networking portion ‘meh’ at this early stage (we have plenty of ‘meh’ right now in Bb) and the discussion board features as not what you would call “real” online discussion made the article they first posted all the more disappointing… they were basically shilling for Pearson with that load of propaganda–thanks for the timely and important first look.

    An interesting point I caught later (and will be posting about) was that it took a full week for Wired Campus to recognize they’d been ‘had’ by perpetrating Pearson’s misleading declaration that they were ‘teaming up with Google’ and put out a somewhat scathing-of-Pearson clarification which doesn’t at all negate their laissez faire rush to toss the original press release without the due diligence of even contacting Google or testing the thing (which Joe performed and posted here with great immediacy -Thanks Joe!):

  5. Thank you for sharing your insights from Educause, as well as your personal experiences in exploring the features and functionality of OpenClass. They are all very helpful and it will be interesting to see how the product evolves. And, thank you for clarifying that it is not a Google product. I was wondering why the mainstream media had not picked up on it given that Google’s name was being linked to it.

  6. My hope is that delivering on the standard LMS expectations is an adoption strategy rather than a destination. Agree that interface design still has a way to go but Skype and Google Doc integration are headed in an interesting direction.

    To the WordPress point, I agree that our early adopter faculty will continue to benefit from the uber-flexibility of platforms like WP, but the rest just want a place to do a little of this and a little I that. I this can recapture funds currently invested in the LMS, then hopefully we can stoke the warp drive.

    Thanks for the post. Enjoyed conversations at NERCOMP and look forward to more to come.

  7. Joe,

    Thanks for this posting. We need to be thinking at CUNY about alternatives to Blackboard. I think I agree with your conclusion. I for one would much rather be on a three-speed bike that is free and provides basic functionality than on a ten-speed that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. If necessary we can build in some bells and whistles with other open source software.


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