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  • LMS Roadmap Updates: Moodle focuses on UX and Canvas cancels Insights (née DIG)

LMS Roadmap Updates: Moodle focuses on UX and Canvas cancels Insights (née DIG)

Despite 2020 being, well, 2020, we still have a big month of LMS conferences coming up when we should get insights (no pun intended) into LMS roadmaps. All virtual, of course, but with changes in dates from the original plans.

Ahead of these conferences, there are two significant roadmap updates worth sharing: Moodle’s new focus on user experience (UX) as its top priority, and Instructure’s cancellation of the Insights initiative (née DIG).

Moodle UX

On March 13th, Moodle HQ updated the roadmap page with information on Moodle 4.0, planned for 2021 release, which will have improved user experience as its top priority. In a subsequent April 24th announcement in a Moodle forum, Moodle HQ founder and CEO Martin Dougiamas provided more details.

I’d like to let you know about the major initiative we are planning for Moodle LMS 4.0, which is due late next year (see the Moodle Roadmap).

This release will focus primarily on UX (user experience).

Of course, UX has always been important in a project like Moodle, and every one of our 6-monthly major releases has included UX-focussed improvements, but because we’ve given ourselves a longer time-frame for our 4.0 (18 months), we’ll be able to make some really major strides forward in the overall experience of Moodle, areas like navigation, task management, course creation and more, bringing our thousands of community plugins along for the journey. As well as the big things, we’ll be fixing lots of “low hanging fruit” and long-standing smaller problems.

This is significant, in that it deals with one of the biggest reasons that Moodle has not been a major factor in new LMS adoptions in North America and Northern Europe for several years. We have started a private podcast “MindWires Musings” that we share with our LMS Market Analysis customers, and Jeanette Wiseman and I recently discussed this topic based on the November 2019 MoodleMoot Global conference.

Phil: It also goes to complexity, because – not just at the support level – is the way Moodle is described, that you can do almost anything with it. But so many people in the Moodle community don’t realize that’s actually a detriment to using the system.

People don’t want to have tons of options. They want to have an intuitive experience right out of the box. And in particular, they want to have it where faculty are saying, ‘oh, I can learn this. This is good. I want to use this system.’

Jeanette: Absolutely.

Phil: So you can do a ton of things with Moodle. Still can. And the system has been improving, but they never directly addressed that intuitive use need that the market demands these days. And when I was in Barcelona last fall, looking at their Global Moot, the most disappointing aspect for me is they were still not considering heading that problem off, is the competitiveness on an intuitive design. They just want to tinker and incrementally improve it. And I would hear people asking questions like ‘Help us, we want to stay on Moodle, but you’ve got to help us make it competitive with Canvas and Brightspace so that we don’t have faculty demanding that we change.’ So you had these advocates who were asking that they need more help from the core product to make it easier to use. They incrementally do, but they never truly faced the challenge of, ‘hey, let’s rethink it.’ It’s just a challenge that they have. But they’re aware of it. They just are dealing with in a way that’s not going to radically change the experience.

Jeanette: Exactly. And I don’t know if it’s going to happen anytime soon. Moodle has an opportunity in the Moodle community to create something that could be really competitive. Especially right now, I think the market’s about to shake up in a serious way. I just don’t know if they’re going to do that.

We would love our skepticism to be proven wrong (a healthy LMS market needs more competitive solutions), and Moodle 4.0’s focus on improved UX is a welcome and major shift for the world’s most-used LMS. It could impact LMS market dynamics moving forward, and I suspect we’ll find out more in two weeks at the virtual conference.

Instructure and the End of DIG

It turns out that Instructure is not waiting for its new CEO to start his job before making additional strategic changes. The company’s strategic data and analytics initiative, originally named DIG and subsequently named Canvas Insights, has been cancelled.

I have heard from multiple sources that earlier this month beta customers were notified that the original plan was based on slow-growth that would takes years to achieve a mature product line. The new model, based on private equity firm Thoma Bravo’s acquisition of the company, seeks to leapfrog these types of timelines based on corporate acquisitions that include solutions that have already been proven. Therefore, Instructure has “decided to end Insights beta program and are planning to turn off Insights on the last day of June 2020”.

I described the origin of the DIG initiative in this March 2019 post at e-Literate, referencing a Q&A session with Raymond James analyst Brian Peterson and former Instructure CEO Dan Goldsmith at an investor’s conference.

This is brand new behavior for Instructure as a company. Previously the company was reticent to talk much about non-released products, but now they are talking not just about a new initiative, they are touting buzzwordy machine learning and artificial intelligence and predictive modeling well before any of those capabilities exist or are in customer hands. Goldsmith further clarified the DIG plans during the investor conference discussion [starting at 9:00, emphasis added].

We already have analytical capabilities in our Canvas platform. I want to be really clear and delineate the difference between an analytics and reporting capability, and a machine learning and AI platform. [snip]

We have the most comprehensive database on the educational experience in the globe. So given that information that we have, no one else has those data assets at their fingertips to be able to develop those algorithms and predictive models.

Goldsmith then described an example of predicting a student’s expected performance in a class and how that prediction reliability goes up over time. Then we get the vision.

What’s even more interesting and compelling is that we can take that information, correlate it across all sorts of universities, curricula, etc, and we can start making recommendations and suggestions to the student or instructor in how they can be more successful. Watch this video, read this passage, do problems 17-34 in this textbook, spend an extra two hours on this or that. When we drive student success, we impact things like retention, we impact the productivity of the teachers, and it’s a huge opportunity. That’s just one small example.

Our DIG initiative, it is first and foremost a platform for ML and AI, and we will deliver and monetize it by offering different functional domains of predictive algorithms and insights. Maybe things like student success, retention, coaching and advising, career pathing, as well as a number of the other metrics that will help improve the value of an institution or connectivity across institutions. [snip]

We’ve gone through enough cycles thus far to have demonstrable results around improving outcomes with students and improving student success. [snip] I hope to have something at least in beta by the end of this year.

Wow. Robot tutor in the sky – meet the new kid on the block.

I never put much stock in the initiative, but the move raised major privacy concerns amongst the education community. You’re using my institution’s private data to build a product that will be monetized with other customers? Once you are sold to Thoma Bravo, who else is going to use this data? The concerns led to an open letter published in December 2019 to Instructure by a grass-roots group organized by Cristina Colquhoun.

Many calls for clarity have ensued, yet both Instructure and Thoma Bravo have side-stepped addressing specifically how the student data will be handled. In the past, Goldsmith stated: “One of our first and primary tenets is that the student, the individual and the institution own the data—that’s their asset. We’re not looking to sell data assets” (Wan, 2019, para. 38). Yet our student- and faculty-produced data are now part of a sale and we cannot assume that Instructure’s previously stated ethical position will be respected during the sale. As Crosslin (2019) put it in his unpacking of concerns, “data has the potential to be used in ways that users may not want, which could include monetization, and both Instructure and their potential buyer are not saying enough about what their plans are” (para. 11).

Monetization of student data is a valid fear, and one that should actively concern every institutional stakeholder and their students. Laws protecting students from their information being sold in the commercial marketplace are insufficient and do not protect the personally identifiable or sensitive data from being shared, even outside of the educational context (Russell, Reidenberg, Martin, & Norton, 2018). As pointed out by Lane (2019) in his shocking recounting of the sheer amount of data points Canvas holds on each of our students, “[t]his isn’t about shaming Instructure and its shareholders. This is about pointing out that we do not have any policies in place to prevent the exploitation of our schools and the students they serve. There is no approach to business or technology that will prevent the exploitation of student data. There is only a need to establish and strengthen federal and state policies that protect the privacy of students and their data, and minimizing the damage any platform can cause–no matter who owns it” (para. 10).

Instructure responded to these concerns in this company blog post:

Let’s start with the elephant in the room, the selling of data. Instructure has not and will not sell user data. Our perspective and commitment haven’t changed. We will always comply with privacy laws. We will be transparent and communicative about our privacy practices. And, we will encourage other vendors to take the same stance.

We also understand that our proposed acquisition has raised some questions about our position on data privacy. I can assure you that our commitment to data privacy will not change regardless of ownership.

The Instructure blog post also committed the company to revising its privacy policy and assembling a Data Usage and Privacy Advisory Board, which began meetings in the spring.

The demise of Insights (DIG) is good news or bad news, depending on your perspective. It should be obvious now that Bravo did not buy the company primarily for data, and the concern over how that initiative would be monetized is no longer an issue. Instructure could (and likely will) attempt to leverage the data for similar purposes based on corporate acquisition in the future, but the current initiative is no longer active. Furthermore, it is good to see Instructure pulling back from last year’s wild claims.

At the same time, it is becoming more and more obvious how Bravo plans to run Instructure, and investment in software development for long-term initiatives seems unlikely. The deep layoffs in late May and focus on profitability are closely tied to changes in Canvas roadmap, both for Insights and for other research & development work.

Unfortunately, CanvasCon is in October, so we won’t have a public form to get further clarity on the Canvas roadmap changes through a users conference this summer.

More LMS News Over Next Month

The LMS is becoming more and more important than ever with the hybridization of higher education. I expect that we’ll find out more news for the LMS market over the next month – stay tuned.

Disclosure: Instructure and Moodle are subscribers to the MindWires LMS Market Analysis data service (as are many of their competitors).