D2L Fusion: Continuing product approach and market differentiation

The following is a guest post by O’Neal Spicer, consultant at MindWires and long-time observer of EdTech markets.

D2L held its Fusion users conference in Kissimmee, FL the week before last. Of the roughly 1,000 attendees, the majority were from the United States and Canada, but there is a growing number coming from Europe, Latin America, and Australia, reflecting D2L’s increased international presence.

This year’s conference was in many ways a continuation and elaboration of many of the themes we noted last year. D2L 1 appears to have found a consistency in its approach to and messaging around product development; consistency in its one platform approach to the K12, higher ed, and corporate learning markets; and consistency in how the company contrasts itself with the competition – primarily Instructure.


Over the last several years D2L has revamped its product team and their approach to product development for its Brightspace LMS platform. There is a greater focus on including users in the product development process than what we had seen in prior years. There has also been a recognition that incremental product improvements make a big difference for customers and can be more impactful than large-scale new feature development. At this year’s Fusion, the emphasis seemed more on the user role in product development, as seen in the product spotlight, where the company highlighted the Product Idea Exchange (PIE).

PIE is where users can share their pain points and ideas for product improvements directly with D2L’s product team. There were several break-out conference sessions based on the exchange, where customers worked with one another to share common needs and to brainstorm possible solutions, which are then shared and discussed with the larger group. I later found out that these were no-go sessions for analysts (my mistake), so I cannot share specific details except to note the general interest from both users and D2L staff in the process and its outputs. Some of the product improvements announced this year appear to have been directly influenced by similar sessions last year. One representative from a university in Brazil described how pleased she was to see her handiwork from a year ago incorporated in a revamped workflow.

Specific product highlights showcased during the product keynote focused mostly on incremental improvements that had already been released. One area that got a lot of attention was improved tools for grading and assessment – better organization of items in need of grading (Quick Eval, shown below) and in-line feedback (Annotations) were two specific highlights. There was also mention of a new content experience around rubrics and assignments that leverages templates, a simplified quiz engine that uses progressive disclosure to preserve robust functionality for the 10% that need it but keep things easy to use for the 90%, and an updated Pulse mobile app that makes a complete student learning experience possible on a phone.


Market Differentiation (especially from Instructure)

There were several strategic views shared during the conference that are clearly in contrast with Instructure and the Canvas LMS. For one, it was noteworthy that the live product demos shifted seamlessly between K12, higher ed, and corporate learning use cases. This combination shows D2L’s view that there is one broad learning market that can be served with one platform, which is in contrast with Instructure and their segmentation of academic (Canvas) and corporate learning (Bridge) markets served by different core platforms. 2

Breakout sessions at the conference included a mix of K12, higher ed, and corporate presenters, and at least some sessions had a mix of attendees as well. For example, Accenture uses Brightspace for a leadership development program, and there were several learning design questions posed by academic attendees who were interested in hearing about different ways to use the platform.

D2L believes its less segmented approach and reliance on a common platform can in some cases lead to an easier sales pitch. One example is a university looking to teach students and conduct professional development for employees. With D2L, there is one platform with combined data sets. With Instructure, it is potentially two platforms, two sets of data, and multiple integrations. D2L also believes that its approach allows shared internal resources working on the same platform, avoiding separate developments on separate systems.

A further area of differentiation is that D2L’s leadership team was fairly explicit that they do not think of themselves, nor do they want to be thought of, as a software company. They prefer to think of, and position, D2L as a learning company and a partner in learning (an approach and even phrasing that they share with Blackboard). Partially by design, and partially by coincidence, this self-image and projection is in direct contrast to Instructure who entered the market explicitly as a software company, as described in an interview with then CEO Josh Coates in early 2018.

But we are a software company. Customers should expect us to create new independent software products every 12 – 18 months. Some existing customers will use, some won’t. That’s the strategy – create new business by building great new software.

We should note that we have talked to several university clients of D2L, particularly outside of North America, where the market differentiation message is confirmed. At Fusion, we spoke with people from three universities in the Netherlands and one in Denmark. For all of them, D2L’s interest in getting to know the university and understand their needs during the evaluation process was a big part of the decision to go with D2L. Of course, the platform had to be competitive as well. We also spoke with people from a university in Brazil and a university in Colombia who are both relatively new D2L customers. They reiterated the general themes raised by their European colleagues and also found the versatility of the Brightspace platform met their needs better than competitive platforms.

The Challenge

Part of the consistency that we noted last year includes market performance.

D2L appears to have largely revamped its approach to product development that is more responsive to customer needs, and is putting resources into building partnerships. Yet they have not made the market gains envisioned after winning the Blackboard patent wars and then raising two large rounds of financing. We still see a two-horse race for new implementations (LMS product switches) in higher education, largely shared between Canvas and D2L, but the second horse that is looking better than it used to still needs to make further adjustments and run faster

Our view has not changed. D2L has some good wins lately (including several we expect to be announced in the next two months), but their overall market share is not improving in the core North American higher ed market. Phil will address this point in a separate post.

We do not believe that the academic LMS is a commodity, although it can seem that way in feature-driven evaluation processes. At a strategic level, the competitors are quite different, and D2L showed at Fusion further evidence of their approach and market differentiation.

Disclosure: D2L is a subscriber to our LMS Market Analysis service.

1 Disclosure: D2L is a subscriber to our LMS Market Analysis service.

2 It should be noted that over the past six months Instructure has introduced different platform offerings (e.g. Portfolium) that make their market segmentation more of a spectrum than a binary, although the core platforms are different.