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Top ten learning platform trends from 2013

This post was written by Mark Arbedour and first appeared on the Epic blog on 23rd December 2013.
Learning platforms and record stores (LMS and LRS)2013 has been a landmark year in many ways for our learning platforms team at Epic, and the end of the calendar year gives us a good opportunity to reflect and take stock of some of the key trends in the learning platforms market that have stood out for us over the past 12 months.

Customers aren’t afraid to switch suppliers

It’s all about the customer, stupid. We’ve picked up new customers who said their last supplier a) didn’t care about them, b) had poor quality of service, c) over-promised and could not deliver or d) behaved like lawyers and charged just to pick up a pen. I even had a new customer reveal that they threw one of our competitors out of an LMS procurement on ethical grounds because they were having a go at us! It certainly makes life easy for our sales team at times; however what is genuinely worrying is what appears to be a trend of falling standards in the industry, while our relentless focus on our customers keeps us ahead of the competition.

Thedrive to good user experience

LMS vendors are continuing to improve usability following years of negative feedback from customers and analysts. Customers are increasingly taking the lead on this, insisting on good user experience in their solutions. This is easier with bespoke platforms which we design from the ground up; however when using an off-the-shelf LMS you are always a bit constrained by the product’s capabilities. But there’s no doubt that Open Source gives you extra flexibility here. Moodle HQ have formed a dedicated front-end team and we have seen a renewed focus on usability in M2.5 and 2.6 which is warmly welcomed. Some of my favourite moments this year have been getting involved in design workshops with students and stakeholders. This is basic stuff, but so often forgotten in technology projects.

Therise of the supercharged LMS

This year, e-learning gained access to bigger-than-ever audiences through the rise of MOOCs. EdX, Coursera and co threatened to close the door on this large market to traditional LMS vendors, who have been  scrabbling around to offer high-scale cloud services to support hundreds of thousands of learners. Canvas were very quick off the mark and Moodle got in on the action too with its own MOOC and a Finnish startup called Eliademy. At Epic, we delivered prototype public-facing platforms for several top global universities looking to get in on the action which will start to scale up in 2014. We also scaled Moodle higher than we’ve ever taken it before. After winning a major government LMS contract we got involved in some serious optimisation for a Moodle site which hosts half a million users and one thousand simultaneous logins without drawing breath, and we look forward to scaling our platforms even further next year.

Thesecondcoming of online training

It’s sometimes easy to forget that there is a world of traditional classroom training vendors out there who have chosen not to move into online training. 2013 saw a huge amount of activity in this space as many of these providers commissioned platform offerings for the first time. At the same time, smaller distance learning providers have been commissioning new platforms to scale up to larger audiences, and universities have commissioned public-facing platforms to build on their brands and sell short courses to the wider world. The huge publicity around MOOCs is responsible for this and providers can now see much bigger markets for their courses. There is a hunger for open source among these players as none of them want to be tied to the last century’s payment model of subscription based on user numbers, which most platform vendors still offer. Good payment gateways are vital to these customers, and we have been using Course Merchant or integrating with customers’ existing e-commerce systems. We didn’t especially plan for this sector in 2013 but have been completely led by our customers and have developed a strong offering over the course of the year that enables us to serve this market. This one looks set to grow and grow.

The year Moodle went mobile

Moodle went fully mobile this year after a few years of tinkering around with mobile themes. The incredibly popular Bootstrap theme made it into Moodle core as the Clean theme, which is something I was pleased and proud to get involved in. So with the launch of Moodle 2.5, all of a sudden Moodle was responsive. This has been a big driver for site upgrades among our customers, maybe even more so than earlier versions going out of support. My book, Moodle for Mobile Learning, also made it onto the shelves around the same time, after spending many a long night taking screenshots of Bootstrapped Moodle, and then redoing them all after Clean came out! Frustrating, but worth it. Mobile Moodle was a big part of our year in 2013, and is only going to get bigger.

Connecting systems with designpatterns and APIs

A lot of our enterprise customers have been working on web design standards this year, updating their portfolios of website and platforms with a  consistent, modern look  and feel. There has been a resurgence of interest in design patterns and UI Kits, providing a framework for a common look and feel across applications. It all makes for a common sense approach and maybe reflects the more frugal times we live in, as enterprises are continuing to move away from the installing new and vastly expensive, monolithic applications and are wisening up to using specialist software tools instead, connected together using web services and a common look and feel. We blogged about the rise of APIs and the death of monolithic bloatware last year and are pleased to see that companies are continuing in that direction. It’s a good, common sense approach to software implementation in the enterprise.

The march of Tin Can API

Talking of APIs, this one deserves its own mention. This time last year it was just a twinkle in the eye of the L&D community, the new buzzword. The standard was formalised in the spring, we took our Tin Can ideas to the LT13 expo, started discussions with prospective customers, blogged and presented on the subject far and wide, engaged the Open Source community on Moodle.org and hired the UK’s main Tin Can expert Andrew Downes. It paid off and we won a contract to build an LRS for a global retail customer using Tin Can to track detailed usage of an iPad native app, and a global hotel chain to track a variety of learning interactions from multiple systems into one place. Andrew had his Moodle Tin Can launcher accepted for inclusion on the Moodle.org plugins database. Tin Can has gone beyond talk and into reality at Epic. In 2014 we will bring you the case studies!

The rise and rise of open content

With the rise of the MOOC, education is becoming open, right? Not necessarily. Much of the content used in MOOCs sits behind a copyright wall and cannot be openly accessed or reused. After all, many MOOCs are just basically marketing exercises for top universities. It’s all about the brand and they protect their IP. Hence the Open in MOOC refers mainly to open registration, not open content. But some interesting work is afoot. Open Educational Resources are gaining in popularity in the education sector, and I’d love to see more of this in workplace learning. Sites like Saylor.org provide an outlet for OER. What is really exciting is course-building collaboration with sites like Coursefork, which is basically a Github for course authors. I’m looking forward to seeing much more of this in 2014.

Epic listed on AIM, again!

My last two items are about how the market has changed Epic this year. Firstly, we listed! We used to be on AIM back in the 90s but the company got sold to some print publishers who took it private and almost killed the company. After a few years the business changed hands once more to its current owners who have got Epic back into rude health and at the top of its game again. Epic took a bit of flak last time round on AIM for sitting on a load of cash but not investing it. Not this time. Learning Technologies Group, the name of the holding company we have listed under, is well and truly on the acquisition trail, and 2014 looks set to be very lively.

An Epic platform for growth

From a small sideline four years ago, Epic’s platforms offering has been growing steadily and this year is the fastest growing area of the business. The growth over three years is astounding, to the point that we are now having to make some changes to the team structure in order that we can sustain this growth while continuing to deliver excellent customer service to Epic customers and the wider Learning Technologies Group. 2013 has been a really exciting year as we’ve built up the team and worked on some fantastic projects. We will be building on this in 2014 and already have several major projects to kick off in Q1.

Thanks to our amazing team and customers for making 2013 a successful one. Have a great Christmas and New Year, and we look forward to working with you in 2014!