The North American Higher Ed LMS market continues to grab headlines left and right. Moodle is the most widely used system in Higher Education, K-12, and Professional Education worldwide, with the US offering the strongest competition. However, looking deeper into the dynamics, Moodle is a thriving ecosystem, with players strengthened through mastery, quality of service, and a drive for collaboration. They are aligned under Moodle’s certified Partner Program.
Baltimore-based eThink Education is the leader of this movement. Quick growth has led them to become the largest certified Moodle Partner in the world, as well as the 2018 Totara Global Partner of the Year. Despite their starring role in the Moodleverse, little is known about how the company came to be. That is, until now. On a converasation with eThink’s CEO and Co-Founder Brian Carlson we discuss the origin, the state of affairs in 2019, and where the company and the industry are heading.
eThink Education, to this day a bootstrapped operation, launched in 2008 in Baltimore. (Fun fact: The same city former top Moodle Partner Moodlerooms called home.) Eleven years later, eThink is the largest Moodle Partner in the US. The company has the largest international presence among partners, and the only one in many parts of the world.
In 2008, Carlson and eThink COO and Co-Founder Cheryl Patsavos worked together at Ellucian, the largest Student Information Systems company then and until now. Their job gave them a unique vantage point for understanding customer needs relating to the technologies institutions were using. Among those needs, one stood out: Many customers were frustrated by the lacking quality of service and support for their Learning Management System of choice, any of the 3 or 4 available at the time.
It was, in fact, a customer who introduced Brian and Cheryl to Moodle. An interesting, open source tool not very well known, that was incredibly adaptable and already had the largest number of users outside of the US. “We became very good at tying Moodle with an institution’s existing SIS.” From there, the formula was complete. eThink’s success came not from popularity contests, but from competitive expertise and a high-touch service model, a difficult task to achieve through top-down approaches.
In 2016 eThink joined the Moodle Partner Program. For many Moodle-based businesses, the recognition as a Moodle Partner is a milestone that amps the power of their message. But eThink already had years of high reputation built among peers, a great asset in the education sector where word of mouth is holy. By achieving Partner status, eThink would gain yet another driver of customer satisfaction: An open and direct line of communication with the core Moodle development team. This is a privilege for eThink’s, as well as every Moodle Partner’s clients, Carlson would point out.
eThink offers clients peace of mind by doing all the heavy lifting for their LMS. The team takes care of every aspect of the experience, including hosting, implementation, customization, consultation, and more. Customers have requested switches to and from Moodle, and eThink has delivered. The company also supports Totara Learn (as partner, recently named Totara’s 2018 Global Partner of the Year), but Moodle remains the top choice for many. eThink caters to any size of request by offering simple solutions that maximize user experience and make managing an LMS virtually painless. (Learn why eThink chose to join the Totara Partner Network here.)
While other partners focus on perfecting their take on Moodle through ample customization, Moodle sites serviced by eThink usually keep the default “Boost” look and feel and deviate from the standard as little as possible. This provides enormous economies of scale, which help offset the burdens of the “unlimited and uncapped” customer support the company ensures to all their customers.
Here we see eThink’s two key strengths at play: Keeping close with partners through highly streamlined systems; and the ability to offer seamless integrations. The company runs a partner program of their own featuring over 130 partners that offer complimentary solutions to enhance a client’s learning ecosystem.
Coming up, it is not a question of if, but who or what kind of provider will forge bonds with eThink. The answer will depend on who excels at delivering the technologies showing up across their customers’ radars. At the end of 2018, a key partnership with HT2 Labs, developers of the open source Learning Record Store LearningLocker, became one of the strongest statements in support of the xAPI technology. It was furthered with a partnership with elearning strategy and content design shop TorranceLearning, for a year-long dizzying pace of matchmaking. These partnerships signal key forces to look out for throughout the coming year: Analytics and content (there was also a Yet Analytics partnership announcement in 2018); and measurable instructional content delivery, with new allies such as TorranceLearning and others.
Emerging markets could prove worthwhile, if for now underdeveloped and riddled with challenges and entry barriers. eThink managed to enter Nigeria in 2017, the largest African economy, becoming the country’s first and only the second Moodle Partner in the continent. “It’s still a tough market,” Carlson admits.
Back home, the Higher Ed space is sliced and diced. User experience and the reliability provided by Canvas LMS and Moodle Partners might have only minor differences, even if Moodle still has the upper hand in customization, control, and price points. At the end of the day, measured in marketing dollars, Canvas’ operations is still many times the size of Moodle. eThink has its eyes on a more appealing marketplace: Professional Education. It includes the likes of SMEs, Corporations, and Government and Nonprofit entities. Professional education is a space where Moodle already prevails and where Instructure, Canvas’ parent company, has admitted to struggle at the gates.
While other LMS figure out their strategy in this new space, eThink has some aces in hand: Unbeatable customer ratings (12 thousand tickets for the year with an average response rate of under an hour), 99.9% uptime rate, and a 5-year customer churn rate practically nonexistent. Plus, they run on Moodle, “the most sustainable learning software long term” according to Carlson. Better information about market dynamics could also put a dent in Instructure’s triumphal narrative. “Moodle needs to get out there and tell its story,” Carlson reckons. But perhaps the onus is on the Partners themselves to do their own storytelling. It was eThink who earned the Platinum Totara Partner, Ellucian Alliance Partner, and just last week, the Totara Global Partner of the Year titles. Alliances bring power to a narrative in a way technology alone cannot.
In any case, 2019 will prove to be an interesting year for eThink, Moodle Partners, and the LMS industry, where Carlson wraps up: “There’s never a dull moment.”