Online learning: expect the unexpected, from time to time



It has been a challenging week in the higher education industry, with both a service outage at Desire2Learn, the learning management system (LMS) provider, and technical glitches suffered by Coursera, the massive open online course (MOOC) provider. Off-the-cuff remarks on social media sites, for example that institutions should switch their LMS vendor and that MOOCs have no promise, have added to institutions’ angst and diverted their attention away from considering the potential improvements that vendors are likely to deliver in the future. Ovum believes that when issues such as these occur, it is important that service providers respond to their customers immediately, keep them apprised of the remedial action being undertaken and the anticipated consequences, and offer advice on the workarounds they should implement in the interim. Desire2Learn’s service outage and the cancellation of a MOOC by Coursera are both unsatisfactory events. However, the way in which a vendor handles its mistakes speaks a thousand words about its quality and may prove it should not be ruled out as a vendor with which to work.

No “Desire2Learn” – for some institutions

Desire2Learn suffered a service outage that left many institutions unable to access the company’s web-based platforms. Over 100 clients were affected by the outage, which, according to the vendor, was the result of a standard data center upgrade. The interaction between the company’s new storage solution and the solution chosen to migrate user data caused the outage, despite being a typical data center architecture and migration process. While Desire2Learn did test the compatibility of the two solutions beforehand, perhaps the test was not thorough enough. However, the vendor has confirmed to Ovum that the incompatibility of the solutions was not caused by a fault with the company’s software-as-a-service (SaaS) infrastructure. Therefore, institutions should still view cloud computing as a promising solution to the challenges of shrinking IT budgets. It is notable that Desire2Learn understands the seriousness of the problem, responding by sending institutions both a letter of apology and a letter detailing the technical specifics of what went wrong. The company has a well-deserved reputation for having a very good understanding of institutions’ needs, and it will continue to make improvements to ensure that the situation is not repeated.

“MOOC mania” becomes a “MOOC mess” for Coursera

Given the speed with which MOOCs are being launched, it was only a matter of time before technical problems occurred. Last week, Coursera cancelled a MOOC offered by the Georgia Institute of Technology, called the “Fundamentals of Online Education: Planning and Application,” due to technology and design problems. Over 40,000 enrolled students, unable to participate in the forums or access the objectives of the course, received apologies from both the course instructor and Coursera. The course design included a considerable amount of collaboration and interaction between students, and the high number of students caused everything to break down. It is more than likely that it was not as much Coursera’s issue as that of the course itself. Ovum argues there is a clear difference between the design of a MOOC and that of a traditional online course; this experience should provide an opportunity for institutions to refocus, identify the role and purpose of MOOCs, and move forward with a revised strategy.

Challenging times require strong communication between vendors and institutions

It is no secret that technology has become a vital component in the success of entire institutions by improving learning and achievement and by providing administrators with better data that can improve decision-making and policy implementation. However, all enterprise software vendors have problems from time to time, and LMS vendors will be no exception. When problems occur, communication and honesty between vendors and institutions is crucial. While some institutions may look elsewhere for service, most will appreciate a rapid and honest response, the issue being dealt with, and that there will be improvements in future. After all, what is important is whether these vendors did enough to mitigate the risk to their customers, how quickly they resolved the problem, and what they learned from the experience. The higher education industry is a tight-knit community and word of mouth is a strong factor in the selection of an online learning solution. As institutions are forgiving of vendors if they respond to problems in a professional way, as both Desire2Learn and Coursera did, the two vendors may stand to benefit from positive word of mouth.



Navneet Johal, Associate Analyst, Education Technology

Further reading

2013 Trends to Watch: Education Technology, IT008-000171 (October 2012)

Cloud Computing in Higher Education, IT008-000170 (October 2012)

The Prevalence of Open-Source Learning Management Systems in Higher Education, IT008-000168 (September 2012)

Making a Case for On-Demand Learning Management Systems, IT008-000164 (August 2012)


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