D2L’s Way: Lessons In Sustainable Elearning By Canada’s Longest-Running Player In The LMS Space Race

532
Elearning Success Summit

See D2L’s Kenneth Chapman at LMSPulse Elearning Success Summit. Sign up for free now — limited spots available.

Post Pages - Post Inline - WIRIS

Corrections made at 10 am. A previous version of this article claimed that D2L was founded before Blackboard. In reality, Blackboard LLC was founded in 1997, 2 years before D2L.

In the 2020s, D2L has one of two paths to take. It’s not one exclusive to the Canadian masterminds behind the Brightspace LMS, but one that will shape the profile of all the world’s top LMS, and in so the industry’s:

  • To aim towards becoming the giant, the “Mangaf” (Microsoft, Amazon, Netflix, Google, Apple, Facebook) of the field, the “one-stop shop” where customers need not look any further; or
  • To push towards the open ecosystem of solutions, integrations and interoperability standards, where customers inhabit one “LMS state” but prize themselves in their ability to communicate, exchange, even collaborate with others, regardless of platform.

It is clear where some Open Source LMS stand. For D2L, the answers are clear as well, and they have been for the over 18 years the company has been in business. Community and interaction, but also ambition and excitement about the technological possibilities, continue to define D2L ever since Kenneth Chapman, Vice President of Market Research and one of the first “Moose,” joined the team.

How to leapfrog under everyone’s nose

Chapman joined the company before completing his studies at the University of Guelph. “I was coding the LMS while taking courses on an LMS,” he reminisces. In the wild aughts, of course, claiming anyone had a full blown digital learning environment would be going too far. Desire2Learn, the company’s original name, in fact saw this as an opening. The internet was only beginning to creep up into our daily lives, but John Baker, Founder and CEO, was judicious enough not to let the technology lead them astray.

Since the beginning we sought to establish D2L as an education company before a technology company. We invest on best educational practices at least as much as in software development. We’re not a ‘growth at all costs’ type of company. We aren’t trying to take over the world with as many implementations as possible.”

Among the many things D2L has excelled at, not being content with the conventional assumptions about learners and cultures is a landmark. This has become a strong source of growth as the company broadens its view and matures a global presence. Chapman’s account of the Latin American dynamics are exemplary:

We’ve been doing a lot more work in Latin America, and I’ve been really excited by how sophisticated the institutions and organizations we’re working with are. A couple years ago, if we were to map out the maturity of the different regions around the world, we’d typically look at, you know, North America, Australia and Europe. What we tend to find now, particularly in the U.S. is that there’s a more basic appropriation of educational technologies, whereas Latin America has really leapfrogged in the last couple of years. Colombia, Mexico and Brazil are a lot more thoughtful about data and personalized experiences than many in the U.S.

Those who understand D2L’s constant process of discovery fueled by their interactions with customers feel perfectly comfortable to rely on the company for a learning solution that never stops improving. Chapman reveals the University of Arizona’s recent decision to extend its contract with D2L 5 more years, extending its relationship to a total of 23 consecutive and ongoing.

How to knit accessibility into your DNA

Like all the other top players in the LMS Space Race, D2L is part of the “feature-parity club,” where barely any feature and very specific use cases aren’t covered by either provider.

But among the round and balanced strength of D2L across all the dimensions, the one where they stand out is, without a doubt, accessibility.

Every LMS project D2L takes on involves a 5-layer accessibility intervention, laid on a pyramid:

  • The base is on the “Institutional” level;
  • Next up is the “Pedagogical” level;
  • Followed by the “Adaptive” level;
  • Pushed further by the “Content” level which involves general standards (WCAG, ATAG, etc.);
  • And whose edge is “Technical,” involving custom code and compatibility with assistive technologies.

It is a social commitment, but there is no doubt it is also a strategic advantage. As more elearning professionals continue to recognize, the whole community benefits when all its individuals enjoy the tools they need to succeed. Chapman emphasizes the company’s commitment to equity over equality, and how the tools to succeed for each individual are simply not the same. At each level of the pyramid, our needs are different.

It’s also a great visibility asset. D2L is the LMS of choice by the U.S. National Federation of the Blind, Canada’s CNIB and Blind Foundation.

How to teach a customer they are allowed to want for more

It is a paradox of sorts for those trying to sell a flexible and encompassing learning solution, with too many features to list on a brochure. At least on a first instance, customers react better to a simpler and clearer proposition. Don’t count on the public’s imagination to sell something, but also don’t be content with their description of their own problems. Simpler LMS may give an easier time in their marketing, if not in long-term satisfaction or ROI; but for D2L that has not been a reason to funnel their features.

The winning solution, which never ceases to be a challenge of message and medium fitness, focuses on high-level interactions that seek to identify truly like-minded organizations. While D2L’s customers offer a wide range of sectors, types and student demographics, over the years there have been 3 outstanding groups, sort of the ideal D2L customer:

Not just schools, but “growth and innovative educational models.” This camp includes Purdue Global, Texas A&M, Florida Virtual School, among others.

Not just universities, those driven by “Student success and learner outcomes.” D2L boasts some of Canada’s world class institutions: Guelph, McGill, University of Ottawa; as well U.S. universities, including Arizona, Georgia, Michigan and Chapman’s favorite, Southern New Hampshire University.

Not just public entities, but those advocating for “Central governance with local control”: University System of Georgia, Tennessee Board of Regents, Minnesota State Colleges and Universities, Lone Star College System, Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education.

Part of the sustained enthusiasm D2L and Chapman can still offer comes from the privilege of being picky. They can make sure they select organizations, teams and cultures to partner with where there is true alignment between principles and actions; and where a long-standing reputation is wise enough to be open for experimentation and technological optimization.

Coda

I come to work everyday excited to level the playing field for access in education. In our minds it is the biggest impact one can have on society. Education raises communities out of poverty and ignorance in such a sustainable way that it transcends generations. — Kenneth Chapman, VP of Market Reseach, D2L

Elearning Success Summit