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.