Back in September I wrote about the Helix LMS providing an excellent view into competency-based education and how learning platforms would need to be designed differently for this mode. The traditional LMS – based on a traditional model using grades, seat time and synchronous cohort of students – is not easily adapted to serve CBE needs such as the following:
- Explicit learning outcomes with respect to the required skills and concomitant proficiency (standards for assessment)
- A flexible time frame to master these skills
- A variety of instructional activities to facilitate learning
- Criterion-referenced testing of the required outcomes
- Certification based on demonstrated learning outcomes
- Adaptable programs to ensure optimum learner guidance
In a surprise move, Helix Education is putting the LMS up for sale. Helix Education provided e-Literate the following statement to explain the changes, at least from a press release perspective.
With a goal of delivering World Class technologies and services, a change we are making is with Helix LMS. After thoughtful analysis and discussion, we have decided to divest (sell) Helix LMS. We believe that the best way for Helix to have a positive impact on Higher Education is to:
- Be fully committed and invest properly in core “upstream” technologies and services that help institutions aggregate, analyze and act upon data to improve their ability to find, enroll and retain students and ensure their success
- Continue to build and share our thought leadership around TEACH – program selection, instructional design and faculty engagement for CBE, on-campus, online and hybrid delivery modes.
- Be LMS neutral and support whichever platform our clients prefer. In fact, we already have experience in building CBE courses in the top three LMS solutions.
There are three aspects of this announcement that are quite interesting to me.
Reversal of Rebranding
Part of the surprise is that Helix rebranded the company based on their acquisition of the LMS – this was not just a simple acquisition of a learning platform – and just over a year after this event Helix Education is reversing course, selling the Helix LMS and going LMS-neutral. From the earlier blog post [emphasis added]:
In 2008 Altius Education, started by Paul Freedman, worked with Tiffin University to create a new entity called Ivy Bridge College. The goal of Ivy Bridge was to help students get associate degrees and then transfer to a four-year program. Altius developed the Helix LMS specifically for this mission. All was fine until the regional accrediting agency shut down Ivy Bridge with only three months notice.
The end result was that Altius sold the LMS and much of the engineering team to Datamark in 2013. Datamark is an educational services firm with a focus on leveraging data. With the acquisition of the Helix technology, Datamark could expand into the teaching and learning process, leading them to rebrand as Helix Education – a sign of the centrality of the LMS to the company’s strategy. Think of Helix Education now as an OSP (a la carte services that don’t require tuition revenue sharing) with an emphasis on CBE programs.
Something must have changed in their perception of the market to cause this change in direction. My guess is that they are getting pushback from schools who insist on keeping their institutional LMS, even with the new CBE programs. Helix states they have worked with “top three LMS solutions”, but as seen in the demo (read the first post for more details), capabilities such as embedding learning outcomes throughout a course and providing a flexible time frame work well outside the core design assumptions of a traditional LMS. I have yet to see an elegant design for CBE with a traditional LMS. I’m open to being convinced otherwise, but count me as skeptical.
Upstream is Profitable
The general move sounds like the main component is the moving “upstream” element. To be more accurate, it’s more a matter of staying “upstream” and choosing to not move downstream. It’s difficult, and not always profitable, to deal with implementing academic programs. Elements built on enrollment and retention are quite honestly much more profitable. Witness the recent sale of the enrollment consulting firm Royall & Company for $850 million.
The Helix statement describes their TEACH focus as one of thought leadership. To me this sounds like the core business will be on enrollment, retention and data analysis while they focus academic efforts not on direct implementation products and services, but on white papers and presentations.
Meaning for Market
Helix Education was not the only company building CBE-specific learning platforms to replace the traditional LMS. FlatWorld Knowledge built a platform that is being used at Brandman University. LoudCloud Systems built a new CBE platform FASTrak – and they already have a traditional LMS (albeit one designed with a modern architecture). Perhaps most significantly, the CBE pioneers Western Governors University and Southern New Hampshire University’s College for America (CfA) built custom platforms based on CRM technology (i.e. Salesforce) based on their determination that the traditional LMS market did not suit their specific needs. CfA even spun off their learning platform as a new company – Motivis Learning.
If Helix Education is feeling the pressure to be LMS-neutral, does that mean that these other companies are or will be facing the same? Or, is Helix Education’s decision really based on company profitability and capabilities that are unique to their specific situation?
The other side of the market effect will be determined by which company buys the Helix LMS. Will a financial buyer (e.g. private equity) choose to create a standalone CBE platform company? Will a traditional LMS company buy the Helix LMS to broaden their reach in the quickly-growing CBE space (350 programs in development in the US)? Or will an online service provider and partial competitor of Helix Education buy the LMS? It will be interesting to see which companies bid on this product line and who wins.
If I find out more about what this change in direction means for Helix Education or for competency-based programs in general, I’ll share in future posts.