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Ollie Gardener



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Shopping for learning systems – shifting from ‘one stop shop’ to best of breed


Big enterprise systems have had their day.

Instead of plumping for the 'one stop shop' option - giant enterprise systems that do everything bar park your car and feed the cat - increasing numbers of organisations are electing to have an ecosystem of individual, specialist tools that complement each other through APIs (application programme interfaces).

What has brought about this shift in the market? A clue lies in this comment from Julian Stodd, author of ‘The Social Leadership Handbook’: “The age of the dinosaur systems is over. Are you constrained by your technology or liberated by it?"

What Stodd is talking about and what we are discovering as a small and specialised learning tech provider, is that rather than enabling people to do what they need to do, many of these big packages actually constrain users. They may appear to do it all, but how can they possibly do everything (or anything) well? The phrase ‘Jack of all trades, master of none’ comes to mind.

What the one-stop-shop package offers is integrated solutions that answer every conceivable feature request. For IT and HR departments tasked with finding a solution to a diverse set of complex needs, it is easy to see the appeal. But those benefits come with some big compromises.

Outlining those compromises

First of all, you are putting your trust in a single vendor to meet your needs and to keep on top of the advances in technology for all aspects of online learning experiences.

As systems get larger, the connections between systems’ moving parts gets increasingly complex and harder to change. You are relying on this single vendor to keep up to speed with the advances in technology, but these tools cannot possibly adapt and innovate at the rate of more specialised tools. You will get left behind.

Additionally, as online learning becomes increasingly social and collaborative, attempting to develop all of the required functionality under one digital roof is simply not sustainable.

By going down the one-stop-shop route, what you end up with are “socially enabled” clunky LMSs which actually deliver very little - allowing you to add a comment to an elearning module, for example.

A comment field on a delivery platform may tick the IT department’s box, but for learning professionals wanting to enable valuable communities of peer-to-peer learning, it doesn't come anywhere near hitting the mark.

Change in the air…

The alternative to enterprise packages is the ‘best of breed’ approach. This is when organisations piece together their own ecosystem of specialised tools.

It may sound like more effort, but actually these ecosystems can be generated very easily.

As a founder of a specialised collaborative learning tool, I am witnessing this first hand. By simple embedding of HTML5 or connecting via our API, customers are connecting Noddlepod with other tools and functionality according to their specific needs.

Our focus at Noddlepod is to provide the best possible platform for asynchronous peer-to-peer learning and communities of practice. Simplicity and user-friendliness is absolutely core to achieving that and so “feature creep” is our enemy.

Mixing the best of the bunch

We are by no means the only people offering niche applications. There are specialised tools out there to answer all sorts of requirements.

Want to add a quiz for a group of learners to complete? There are tools available. Want to track graduates’ completion of certain e-learning modules or offer powerful document co-authoring tools as part of your leadership network? There are tools for these too.

We do not try to compete against the specialists in these areas. It would be reinventing the wheel and it would dilute our own focus and competitive advantage. Instead, we would rather work with or alongside them.

Organisations can plug in new tools as their needs change and disconnect old tools if they become obsolete or are outcompeted

This is a dream come true for many users. Instead of waiting and hoping for your favourite providers to join forces and create your ideal product, you can cherry pick functionality from different tools and create a uniquely customised experience for your learners.

This approach is in many ways less risky than the more traditional method, as organisations can plug in new tools as their needs change and disconnect old tools if they become obsolete or are outcompeted. There is no major overhaul of the ecosystem and no major retraining programme for staff.

Specialised for complexity

Bigger organisations and even whole industries are cottoning onto the benefits of this approach. Customers whom we would not have dreamed of being on our books only a few years ago are getting in touch. They are looking for simple, targeted solutions for very specific needs.

Very large organisations still have the complexity and variety of use-cases as they always did, but more and more of them are seeking answers to that complexity in a connected ecosystem of more specialised tools.

UniNett is a state owned company responsible for the Norwegian national research and education network, which interconnects about 200 Norwegian educational institutions and more than 300 000 users. UniNett has this approach at its very core and it is set to revolutionise the higher education sector in Norway.

Universities, even the faculties or individual teachers within them, will be able to create custom systems to suit their needs and preferences

With a mandate from the government, they are establishing an ecosystem of cutting edge tools and services, each doing just one thing exceptionally well, all playing well together.

Universities, even the faculties or individual teachers within them, will be able to create custom systems to suit their needs and preferences. UniNett are even establishing communities for the sharing and evolution of best practice, making “the Norwegian HE sector better equipped to face future challenges.”

The innovative educational leader, Richard Culatta, compares this approach to media mashups: “Mashups differ from all-in-one products in the fact that instead of adding new features to existing tools, they combine existing tools that already have the desired features. All tools work independently, but create a uniquely customised experience when used in harmony. New products can be created simply by adding additional media or functionality to the mix.”

There is a vast array of tools available to us as learning professionals, to create learning resources and enable various learning modes.

In the age of “the best of breed”, we are no longer confined to the toolbox we bought five years ago. APIs allow us to design and re-design our own systems, retaining the specialised functionality and strength of each component, but creating a customised experience when used in harmony.

I will end on another quote from Richard Culatta’s article; “The best systems can be chosen to support each of the desired functionalities - each learning requirement supported by the best-of-breed tool for that particular need.”

The age of the dinosaur systems is over… the age of the specialised and the agile has come.

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Ollie Gardener


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