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Cloud-Based LMS Wins Over Abilene Christian University

Pearson's cloud-based OpenClass learning management system impressed Abilene Christian University as social, modern, flexible -- and free.

OpenClass generated a mix of excitement and skepticism when it was first announced in October 2011 at an EDUCAUSE event. Many of the skeptics were looking for the catch, suspicious that free did not really mean free.

Yet it really is a free platform that "anyone in the world can use any way they like," said Scot Chadwick, VP and general manager of OpenClass for Pearson. The service is already being used by more than 6,000 institutions and nonprofits, as well as more than 100 companies for various learning needs. Although OpenClass was designed for higher education, it is also starting to see adoption at the K-12 level, he said. The beta label doesn't seem to be a big obstacle to adoption, Chadwick said, but OpenClass should exit beta this summer.

The cloud software itself will not be "freemium" in the model of Yammer, a social software product that provides a basic version of its cloud service for free but reserves more advanced administrative features for paying customers. However, Pearson does expect to sell some supporting services, such as help desk and tutoring, and, of course, Pearson content, Chadwick said. Even there, Pearson has shown a light touch, initially stocking the Learning Exchange marketplace built into OpenClass entirely with open educational resource (OER) content.

"We wanted to reinforce that it's not about Pearson content in particular," Chadwick said. "That was a question when we launched -- is this just some trick for Pearson to force us into buying Pearson content. Obviously, those were questions people needed to ask." Instead, Pearson is aiming for something more like the iTunes model, where Apple makes it really easy to buy from the iTunes Store but it's still possible to download content from elsewhere and manage it with the iTunes software, he said.

If Pearson were to limit OpenClass to institutions willing to commit exclusively to Pearson content "we'd be reducing the universe of potential users by quite a lot," Chadwick said. Instead, the OpenClass user interface is designed to wrap around any Web-based content an instructor might want to use. For example, it's easy to choose a TED talk video and embed it in a course.

Immersive, multimedia experiences can also take over most of the screen, rather than being confined to a small frame. Through an application programming interface, third-party applications can also hook into the OpenClass commenting system, making it possible to annotate and comment on objects in a 3-D virtual world. As an example, he had a colleague demonstrate science courseware created by Arizona State University in the Habitable Worlds environment.

Pearson also has commercial offerings in the LMS and online learning categories, including Pearson Learning Studio, a product of its eCollege division.

Pearson is aiming to introduce its own disruptive innovation in the market, undercutting those products before someone else does. With OpenClass, the company is betting that the base technology for delivering and organizing educational content will be less important than the content itself. "Historically, this has been owned and managed by the IT department and considered an IT decision in a lot of ways," Chadwick said. "We think the technology decision is going to be there, but there will be more decisions at the institutional level about the content and what they're delivering to students."

In particular, Pearson sees greater potential in "highly produced" educational experiences that incorporate video, animation and gamification techniques, he said.

Follow David F. Carr at @davidfcarr or Google+, along with @IWKEducation.

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