Who will own a newer, data-mineable, identity-based, smart system designed to improve the delivery of education to learners who can help manage their own success and bridge into the workforce?

It appears to me, after years in the higher education ed tech and online learning spaces, that we are stalled. There is a lack of progress in these areas at colleges and universities, and little new or compelling for learners. An alphabet soup of solutions has been created, each linked to a specific buyer on a campus, with none of the solutions linked to each other, and certainly no single point of interaction for students.

LMSs and SISs Fall Short

The current LMS (Learning Management System) and SIS (Student Information System) technologies seem tired, regardless of their features, marketing spin, or capitalization. With many products created on the East Coast, there is little of the luster of Silicon Valley shining through. For the most part, the Valley has stayed away from mainstay education products because the human (versus machine) overhead is simply too high.

The LMS and SIS that continue to be seen as the campus cornerstones are not living up to their platform promise or their enterprise billing. They have not truly innovated, nor do they use their data to compute recommendations, efficiency, or cost savings.

Such a high percentage of public tax dollars flow into these vendors, one would expect a higher bar for conducting and sharing research and demonstrating their “learning ROI.” Where the companies are publicly traded or owned by private equity, it is a hardcore numbers business.

LMSs Offer Few Riches from Data Mining

In the LMS space, even with the advent of competency-based platforms (CBE), there is little that can be data-mined in order to improve courses for learners. Also, relevant data coming from LMSs do not systematically nudge students. This behavioral area is being developed outside the LMS but is limited and without standards. This LMS and SIS failing explains why there is such a robust market for student success, dashboards, and analytics products.

The LMS and the textbook, while intertwined somewhat, leave the whole question of content and assessment consumption and measurement off the data grid. While Amazon knows when and what you are likely reading on the Kindle, no higher ed product tracks learning content consumption uniformly, or can report on content and assessment consumption patterns in relationship to outcomes, interactions, or communications. By contrast to its education content counterparts, the academic and scientific journal industry (STM) has for years had uniform search and other data services available across all journals, including competitors and open journals.

Then there is the question of adoption. Rarely is there more than 50% of faculty actively using the campus LMS platform. Somewhere in this fact could be an equity claim: students arguing for their rights to full and consistent technology usage on campus versus faculty prerogatives to make their own choices, however inconsistent.

SISs Leave Learners Disconnected

The SIS space exists alongside, and out of sync with, the world of the prevailing identity-driven apps and Web solutions (Twitter, Facebook, Hangouts, Amazon, etc.). Where is the student identity portal for an SIS that connects students to their academic performance, to all the campus services, or to their future in the job market? Many secondary solutions are being introduced to build a bridge between education and the workforce. However, where is the innovation in the world of the SIS to help the learner manage their education and career?

It could be argued that Civitas, EAB, Starfish and other student success and analytics solutions are the result of failures with the LMS and SIS to live up to their platform potential. Both Civitas and EAB are growing while the core LMS and SIS systems are being swapped out in a zero sum sales game. Yet, for a campus, the cost and the confusion of more solutions is very expensive overhead.

Unfortunately, the reason there will continue to be more ornaments added to the institutional Christmas tree with fewer presents for the students around its base is that there is no “owner” to help architect new systems. Colleges and universities are not managed like corporations or even nonprofits that have true chief executives to run the ship. At our private and public institutions, there is a president in charge of external relations, a provost with the internal responsibility, trustees with wide-ranging interests, and finally, an alphabet soup of program silos governed by endless meetings.

So, the problem is not with the vendors, but with the colleges and universities that do not have a single buyer that owns the life cycle of the student and the integrated support for the university across all of its buying silos. Can this be remedied?

Unconventional Solutions

There are two possible paths: (1) True innovation likely driven by an outside maverick (such as a Bezos, Musk, etc.) who really understand the space, and (2) The arrival of a new organization that brings a diverse set of unrelated players to the table, and staffs the effort with old and new tech execs, innovative education leaders, employers at different scales, and research organizations like the national laboratories.

Thus, it is likely time for a new organization, a congress on the future of academic technology, to take on this role. However, it is unlikely that the current incumbents — Educause, ACE, the Gates Foundation, Lumina, IMS, Eduventures and the others — can easily organize this effort because of the existing buy-in for the current world of fractional vendor product and the current siloed institutional buyers.

The actual stakeholders of the college and university product (graduated learners) are not the institutions or the vendors, but those who hire students and run the economy. Those stakeholders need to be invited to the table in some new forums and bring with them what has succeeded in information-driven consumer tech, commercial applications and big science, and a willingness to try to understand how to apply their knowledge in creating successful grads.

I have used this Christmas break to examine the landscape and communicate with the handful of people and organizations that are looking at the cutting edge, who are willing to change up the current game. I think there are openings now for the ultimate innovator, a new cross-sector organization, a senior Valley technologist, a new publishing division, or for pilot sites at willing institutions to begin to challenge the status quo at scale.

New Litmus Test Needed

At some level, a new litmus test is needed that measures and rates how products and services are becoming more consolidated, more student focused, and less about a hundred points of scattered light.

This post may sound like a bit of a rant, but for those of us who earn a living in the education world, we have to think about whether the work we do is reaching enough new and potential learners and making their world easier and more successful. They are friends, our children and people we don’t know but all of whom should have the right to a full education.

Please Join the Conversation

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( is a West Coast nonprofit devoted to gaining processing parity between consumer apps, e-commerce and big science and the academic space. We value your input as we build this new nonprofit.)