Technology Research

Building Brighter Spaces through Acquisition and Integration

Eduventures recently attended the Brightspace FUSION conference in Orlando, hosted by parent company D2L.  The conference location enticed me to extend my trip through the weekend to enjoy all things Disney. Walking from the Magic Kingdom to Tomorrowland, it occurred to me that the edtech industry has something to learn from the entertainment behemoth about how to manage mergers and acquisitions. When Disney heard from its loyal audience that it was losing its spark of good storytelling and engaging movie experiences, it acquired the well-established leader of 3D animated films, Pixar. The results speak for themselves: Pixar leads revenue generation for Disney and now has a huge presence at its theme parks. Disney’s willingness to infuse its traditional offering with a new experience for its consumers has put the company back on track. Disney managed the acquisition in a textbook fashion—it enabled Pixar to thrive by allowing the acquired team to flourish and influence the user experience from within.  Acquisitions that fail to treat the acquired brand without the respect it deserves risk losing customers loyal to the original brand (I’m looking at you, Star Wars VII). Learning Management Systems (LMS) vendors need to understand this as they manage the current acquisition climate that characterizes the market. LMS vendors have realized that their core audiences are clamoring for startups with added value capabilities and user experiences.  To meet this market need, D2L recognized that integrated analytics on learner engagement and outcomes would be critical to its continued success and to expanding its market share in the core LMS platform market.  In 2013, the company acquired three companies in an attempt to jump ahead of the competition by providing integrated services and features that its client base is demanding as part of the core LMS user experience.  At this year’s conference, we saw firsthand the results of the integration of these products into the core learning experience.  

Brightspace LeaP

D2L considers adaptive learning fundamental to where the course design market is headed in the coming years.  After 18 months of new development and deeper integration with its core LMS, D2L has launched its Knowillage adaptive learning and analytics platform and rebranded it as Brightspace LeaP .  Building upon its already established tools for content release conditions and intelligent agents, LeaP promises faculty the tools to deliver the “right content and right questions at the right time.” Historically, these adaptive solutions had an implicit need for content curation and mappings to instructional standards, imposing a high burden for faculty and instructional designers.  This required a considerable time investment by faculty members in the mapping effort prior to launching courses.  LeaP’s competitive advantage is that it leverages its achievement standards network for objectives and allows faculty to point the adaptive engine at local, licensed, and open education content sources.  The engine then crawls through the content and makes fully automatic mappings.  When the course goes live and students engage with the chosen content, the learning path is then adapted based on performance assessments.  Also note that Brightspace LeaP is an LTI-connected application, so it can be used in conjunction with any other LTI-enabled LMS on the market. These tools are impressive in their promise to reduce the effort for instructional designers.   While faculty members build trust in a machine to choose the right content for each student, instructors can also adjust mappings and scoring algorithms for recommended content such that the right sources and pieces of content are presented based on user preferences. You can also suppress certain types of content by source and citation.  Eduventures believes that while these tools will definitely appeal to those users of the LMS who want a deeply integrated adaptive solution, there will be other users who will want to wait to see hard data on the efficacy of these tools in live classrooms with multiple terms of full courses fed back into the learning machine.  

Brightspace Insights

The conference also heralded a revamp of the Brightspace Insights platform for learning analytics, as well as the introduction of a new Brightspace Insights Analytics Suite.  The staging of data to the analytic engine is now based on the volume of real-time event traffic in the learning environment.  Built to be as near real-time as possible, data is now transferred much more frequently than in the previous versions—hourly as opposed to daily.  This should be good enough for most faculty use cases, as real-time analytics are only useful for those instructors or programs that have a formulated plan for real-time response and intervention.  Collecting data from the LMS is now done through a data bus using commonly available technology, along with a new internal application programming interface (API) for event generation.  These APIs allow you to expose data to a centralized visualization engine where it is available to other systems. As examples:
  • Brightspace Student Success System (S3) leverages the data to identify trends in behaviors and segment student audiences based on multiple factors. It also allows faculty to message directly from within the platform, enabling simple interventions by acting on data as soon as they see it.
  • Brightspace can also now pull learning events into a centralized “Brightspace Data Platform” using an emerging standard from IMS Global called Caliper. Note that D2L participates actively in the Caliper technical working group at IMS. D2L sees support for standards as a clear market differentiator, and it is coaching its application partners on what they should be sending to Brightspace through Caliper to make the unified experience better.
The entire ecosystem of products will only get better if all partners are equipped to send and receive data in support of better analytics and user experiences.  The bottom line is that analytics will only be as good as the data itself, and the D2L investments in its data platform are intended to provide a roadmap for better analytics for years to come.  


While there is no specific mention of IBM in D2L press releases, IBM’s Cognos technology is clearly core to powering the data visualization experience and underlying analytics engine.  This launch is also the result of a yearlong partnership with IBM, first announced in July 2014, in which Brightspace used Cognos to “help faculty and administrators track student learning outcomes.”  While the company is building upon a foundation of proprietary LMS platform technology, it is very selective about co-branding or exposing “powered by” logos for its core R&D outputs.   However, D2L recognized that Cognos was the platform of choice for its larger institutional clients based for data warehousing and reporting technologies. The feature demonstrations at the conference clearly showed that IBM Cognos features are being used off-the-shelf for the last mile of data visualization.  Standard reports are pre-configured and D2L will automatically add new reports that are developed over time and leverage the new engines. These new reports are then immediately available to users of D2L’s cloud-based LMS platform.  

Look for More LMS Analysis

Eduventures is in the midst of analyzing several other LMS platform vendors to see how they are progressing with the strategy of acquiring must-have tools and integrating them into the core LMS experience.  Specifically, we have had a chance to see Blackboard’s upcoming “Ultra” user experience firsthand when it is applied universally across the student and faculty interfaces.  While Blackboard has already rolled “Ultra” out on its Collaborate product, it is waiting to make a broader launch at its upcoming Blackboard World conference later in July.  Based on the products acquired from MyEDU, this will be Blackboard’s chance to prove to its vocal user base that it too can integrate the best ideas from others to get back on track.  In this area, Blackboard could take a lesson from D2L’s successful acquisition and integration playbook. Stay tuned…    

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