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LMS Market Changes: SUNY announces switch from Blackboard Learn to D2L Brightspace

Over time, I’ve written fewer posts on specific LMS migration decisions, saving those stories for the few significant events that can impact the overall market. Last year, with the Instructure acquisition by Thoma Bravo last year as well as this little pandemic event, there were only two stories – at the Alabama Community College system and the Tennessee Board of Regents. 1 In both cases Blackboard initially won a statewide system over the incumbent LMS, but due to vendor, faculty, and support staff protests against the evaluation processes, the decisions were reversed.

Today we have news that is more significant than those two cases, both in terms of total enrollments involved and of strategic consequence. The State University of New York (SUNY), with its nearly 400,000 students, announced that it will migrate from Blackboard Learn to D2L Brightspace as its primary LMS after an extensive evaluation and contracting process.

At the conclusion of a broad and consultative Request for Proposal process, SUNY selected Desire2Learn’s (D2L) Brightspace Learning Management System to serve as the hub of its Digital Learning Environment. The contract between SUNY and D2L has been approved by the Office of the New York State Attorney General and the Office of the New York State Comptroller.

With the transition to D2L’s Brightspace, SUNY envisions a dynamic opportunity to unify the digital learning environment within which all SUNY campuses operate: a common LMS application; a central architecture with common data structures; common templates; a common set of online tools integrated with the LMS (right now there is much redundancy across the System); and a common integration for data.

I’ve been told that a press release is in the works with more information. More on the long process to announcements later.

Original Request for Proposal (RFP)

The original RFP was established in mid-March 2020 (I know, not the best timing in retrospect), released in July, and initially scheduled for award in November 2020. Due to the pandemic and shifts to remote teaching and remote work last year, the evaluation itself was delayed to 2021. The RFP gives a sense of the scope of this decision.

SUNY is the largest comprehensive public university system in the United States, educating more than 400,000 students in more than 7,500 degree and certificate programs on 64 individual campuses with nearly 3 million alumni around the globe. Enrollments are detailed as follows:

* 13 University Centers and Doctoral Degree Granting Institutions offering academic programs through the doctoral level; each enroll between under 1,000 to over 19,000 undergraduate students.

* 13 University Colleges offering academic programs through master’s level; each enrolls between 3,700 to over 9,000 undergraduate students.

* 8 University Colleges of Technology offering academic programs through master’s level; each enroll between 1,600 and 6,000 undergraduate students.

* 30 community colleges offering academic programs through the associate’s level; each enrolls between 1,700 to over 26,000 undergraduate students.

The decision also includes SUNY Online, its centralized online education intiative.

Someday we’ll have to get SUNY and the CalState system to agree on definitions about largest university systems, with CalSate having more students (485k) but no community colleges.

SUNY has operated with an opt-in choice for its centralized LMS, with some Moodle, D2L Brightspace, and Canvas usage across the system. The RFP document also referenced an opt-in approach, but the plans have changed – not all 64 campuses and 400k students are migrating from Blackboard Learn, but all campuses are likely migrating to D2L Brightspace. According to an email statement provided by SUNY officials:

While SUNY has operated with an opt-in choice during its current University Wide LMS contract with Blackboard, with some Moodle, D2L Brightspace, and Canvas usage across the system, the Brightspace LMS will serve as the hub for a Unified Digital Learning Environment across the SUNY’s 64 campuses.

The SUNY RFP did not require a cloud-hosted LMS, instead focusing on a broader description of hosting environments.

The solution for SUNY’s Digital Learning Environment should be flexible allowing a single-instance multi- tenant deployment model for SUNY Online and any individual campus choosing to offer course instruction through that environment. The solution should also be flexible enough to offer single-instance single-tenant or single-instance multi-tenant deployment models to individual participating campuses.

Impact on LMS Market

This is a big loss for Blackboard, and it comes on the heels of losses for Liberty University (to Canvas), University of Groningen (to D2L), and Johns Hopkins University (to Canvas). Blackboard has won a few dozen schools (taking away from another incumbent LMS) over the past two years, mostly in Latin America, the Middle East, and southern Europe. Nevertheless, SUNY is a big system and has been one of Blackboard’s biggest clients. The other one of this size is the City University of New York (CUNY) with its 25 campuses and 285k students, and that systems has had an on-again / off-again LMS evaluation process over the past several years.

This is a big win for D2L, probably the most significant since their win at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) in 2018, when Brightspace replaced Blackboard Learn. We have called out in our market analysis service that D2L Brightspace has increased its wins for new clients in the past 3 – 4 years. This news from SUNY will likely cause many LMS evaluations to take D2L more seriously up front in the process, which has been the Achilles’ heel for that company. It is quite common for D2L to be overlooked or just thrown in as a perfunctory choice at least until the vendor demos and live meetings take place. In the case of Alabama Community Colleges, for example, several sources told me that the evaluation team was told that D2L was not a serious competitor to consider.

Put another way, Canvas is not the only game in town for schools looking to migrate to a new LMS, and with SUNY as well as SNHU and New York University, we are seeing significant examples where D2L wins head-to-head. I have had several people ask me lately if D2L’s wins are signs of pushback against Canvas after the Thoma Bravo acquisition, and for the most part my answer is no. Canvas is still strong, and where D2L wins, the decisions tend to be based on D2L’s merits – its product redesign, its improved customer support, and its ability to listen to customers during the sales process. To me, this is a good sign as we need real competition in the LMS market.

Based on our mid-year 2021 LMS Market Analysis report, we can see higher education LMS changes for 2019 – mid-2021 in North America and Europe. Note that these graphics do not include the SUNY or Groningen decisions yet.

Why the Delay?

Multiple sources have told me that the decision for SUNY to go with D2L Brightspace was made in the first few months of 2021, but the contracting process hit significant delays as hinted at in the announcement page:

As the contract approval process was a bit longer than originally planned, finalization of our timeline is part of work underway.

According to multiple sources, the primary delaying factor beyond the pandemic came from Blackboard protesting the decision, which makes sense given their recent successful attempts to be acquired by Anthology (the agreement is in place and expected to be complete by the end of this year). I have requested information from SUNY public records custodians to see if there was a technical or process reason underlying the protest that is worth exploring.

As described above, there were protests in Alabama and Tennessee on those decisions, and SUNY is not the only one that Blackboard has protested (e.g., at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands). We have always had protests around EdTech evaluation processes, but it feels like they have increased over the past two years. The stakes on LMS decisions are high, both for institutions rapidly increasing remote, online, and hybrid modalities as well as for vendors and investors.

Update 10/4: I was informed that the SUNY web page has been updated to clarify that the contract has already been reviewed by the NY Comptroller, and that previous references to restricted communications have been removed. I have updated the initial block quote accordingly. I have also updated the paragraph on moving away from an opt-in approach.

Update 10/5: Added statement from SUNY confirming move away from opt-in.

1 There were also two K-12 stories about massive outages driven by pandemic migration to remote learning, ending up with the two districts moving off the LMS in question.