Software Evangelist Wants to Put Learning-Management Software in the Cloud

Ida von Hanno Bast

Adrian Sannier says his new product hits the sweet spot between true open-source systems and traditional learning-management platforms.
February 26, 2012

Adrian Sannier knows what it's like to place big bets on outsourcing data to the cloud.

When he was a technology officer for Arizona State University's office of the president, he was one of the first university leaders to shift control of student e-mail to Google's free service. His wager paid off: He said at the time that he saved $400,000 and brought in new features faster than his staff ever could. Now hundreds of colleges have followed that lead.

Mr. Sannier recently left academe for the software industry, and he says his new product, OpenClass, can use the cloud to transform learning-management systems that run college-course Web sites and digital grade books.

THE INNOVATOR: Adrian Sannier, Pearson

THE BIG IDEA: Colleges should outsource their course software and get out of the coding business.

He says universities should not have to endure the disruptive, slow upgrades that plague traditional systems. By distributing quick, constant enhancements through the cloud, he says, OpenClass will let universities improve their tools without the usual headaches.

The new product rode into the market on familiar coattails last fall—Pearson, the major textbook provider that runs it, offered it to any university using the Google Apps for Education platform. Already, 2,600 institutions have tried the system.

There is one catch: Pearson. The publisher, which these days produces a range of education software as well, will use this portal to promote its e-textbooks. It's a sign of a blurring line between educational content and Web-based services. Many in academe worry that the publisher could make it hard to plug in texts from other publishers. In feisty speeches at education-technology conferences, Mr. Sannier has insisted that OpenClass will incorporate all types of content. "We're not giving this product away to shill you into something else," he said at OpenClass's introduction.

Mr. Sannier admits that OpenClass isn't truly open source—clients cannot modify its code. But, he argues, most professors have neither the technical chops nor the interest to create their own systems.

OpenClass, he said, hits the "sweet spot" that will allow the best ideas to scale beyond the digital walls of traditional learning-management systems.

"The notion of a closed community that's managed—which has been at the heart of the LMS market until now—those are some of the boundaries that we're knocking down."

Adrian Sannier speaks at Abilene Christian University: "If Not Now, When?"