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Pearson Debuts Free LMS with Google Apps Integration

Publishing and education tech behemoth Pearson has introduced a new, free, cloud-based LMS for higher education. OpenClass, as the LMS is named, is expected to appear in the Google Apps Marketplace for Education Oct. 18.

Users will be able to launch OpenClass from within Google Apps or access their Google applications from OpenClass, which, the company declared, has no hardware, licensing, or hosting costs.

"OpenClass has huge potential for higher education," said Adrian Sannier, senior vice president of Learning Technologies at Pearson. "OpenClass accelerates what technology will do for learning with a free, open and innovative platform that easily scales and lets students work via social media, with an intense focus on learning that elevates achievement."

The company, which already offers LearningStudio, an LMS intended specifically for distance learning programs, said the new service is intended from the start to be used in traditional face-to-face courses.

A Feature Set for Social Networking Fans
OpenClass, which is being tested at nine institutions currently, offers a spate of features that fans of social networking will appreciate.

When the Google Apps user logs in, OpenClass will appear as an item in the Google toolbar. The dashboard view of the service provides the ability for a faculty member to create and manage courses. According to Katy Kappler, product director at Pearson and senior product manager for OpenClass, the application will eventually provide tools to enable an instructor to import existing materials from "most of the major LMSes."

Once inside OpenClass, both student and faculty users can access e-mail, documents, and calendars.

The program has two primary feeds, "Activity" and "People," which show up within an individual's workspace, representing all of the courses he or she is in.

Activity has social elements intended to engage the user and drive interaction. Typically, when a user goes into an LMS platform, he or she is there to check a grade or turn in an assignment, said Kappler. "You have one or two things you want to do. You do those things and then you go away again. With the Activity feed, we aggregate all the things going on across your courses and present them to you in this one interface. Even though I may have come to get a grade or post an assignment, now I can see that Tyler is looking for people to study with tonight, that my instructor has posted a new threaded discussion. And now I'm [going to be] interacting with those elements, with that content, with those people. What originally was going to be two interactions in the platform could become 10 or 15 interactions."

That more continual interaction with other students and with the course content, Kappler noted, could "actually drive improvements in student performance and satisfaction."

The People feed shows all the individuals enrolled in all of a user's courses. It also shows who's online at the moment. A user can launch a chat session with somebody else through a native chat feature built into the service or he or she can launch a Skype session with audio, video conferencing, and screen sharing.

Those feeds narrow down in a course home page to reflect the activities and students of a given class. That level provides for "Remark," a feature that lets a student or teacher to put out notes to some or all members of the class. Kappler said that Remark is turning out to be a handy way for students to interact with each other without the need for e-mail.

Another feature introduced in OpenClass is "Collaborations," which integrates with the Google Docs collection function. Both students and faculty can create collaboration spaces, which allow groups of students to share digital artifacts and work on projects together; it also provides a way for instructors to monitor the evolution and dynamics of a group project.

The program introduces Sharing, a blogging tool that lets a user write and post blog entries and bring in video content while also integrating with YouTube, photo-sharing site Flickr, and microblogging site Tumblr. What sets Sharing apart from the standard blogging tool is that Pearson intends to allow the user to share entries outside of the immediate course or campus by letting people "follow" each other and to make those entries available across institutions.

"One of the things I think that will really differentiate OpenClass is that we think it's very important for the individual--whether a professor or student--to own their profile and persona. All of the work they do and all the things they collect over time in OpenClass really belong to them," Kappler said. "In practice, let's say you're a student and you're working at one university, and then you transfer to another. You can take all that work you've done and that profile you've built up and bring it to that other institution. The traditional barrier that might exist between one system and another won't exist in OpenClass. Similarly if you're teaching at more than one [university], you can have a single profile in OpenClass that will allow you to access all of those institutions and work across them really effectively."

The Business Model
In spite of its virtual nature, the LMS could be said to have behind it the heft of the largest textbook publishers in the country. Along with the core LMS, Pearson has also announced development of an exchange that will pull together learning resources from commercial publishers and open source suppliers. Planned for a mid-2012 release, that exchange will be hosted through CourseSmart, the online provider of e-textbooks and other digital course materials. CourseSmart is owned by a consortium of major publishers, including Pearson, McGraw-Hill Education, Cengage Learning, and John Wiley & Sons, among others.

Pearson isn't the first company to find ways to integrate course management with course content. Desire2Learn just announced an agreement with Cengage Learning to make its digital content more easily available. In July Blackboard announced a similar partnership with the same four publishers that are at the forefront of today's news.

It's no mystery why the LMS and content sources need to become more closely integrated, said Scot Chadwick, vice president of account management at Pearson. "First, what we need to address is the challenge for individual faculty to identify the content and learning resources that are out there for the discipline they're teaching. And second, if they're lucky enough to find those resources today, it's incredibly challenging for them to bring them into the LMS on their own. A small percentage are adept at that, but for the majority of faculty, it's just way too challenging to find the best resources and bring them into the learning environment. We're integrating those content resources in ways that can be much more easily adopted by faculty than exist today."

Pearson's business model with OpenClass, Chadwick said, is predicated on taking a revenue share from items sold through the exchange. In addition, Pearson will sell services and support for the new LMS, but, he added, those will represent "a very minor part of the overall business model."

Test Run
Nine institutions are participating as "design partners" in the development of OpenClass. Those are:

The company said many of these institutions are also already teaching courses on OpenClass this fall.

"We truly believe that OpenClass is a disruptive technology for education," said Kevin Roberts, chief planning and information officer at Abilene Christian U. "Pearson's commitment to providing an open and free platform is monumental. The days of 'business as usual' in higher education are gone. OpenClass is a powerful tool to help us move forward into the connected, mobile and open world that we live in."

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