Top ten learning platform trends from 2013

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The end of the calendar year is a great opportunity to reflect and take stock of some of the key trends in the learning platforms market that have stood out for me and the team at Epic over the past 12 months. Do these reflect your own views of the market? What was big for you last year? Let me know in the comments, it would be great to share thoughts and notes on what was a fast moving year!

Customers aren’t afraid to switch suppliers

It’s all about the customer, stupid. Everyone knows that, right? Well, I’ve learned a big lesson this year about customer service through the mistakes of others. I’ve lost count of the number of times we’ve picked up new customers who said their last supplier a) didn’t care about them, b) had poor quality of service, c) over-promised and could not deliver or d) behaved like lawyers and charged just to pick up a pen. I even had a new customer reveal that they threw one of our competitors out of an LMS procurement on ethical grounds because they were having a go at us! While it’s kind of nice knowing a competitor is so preoccupied with Epic that they focus on us in their sales presentations instead of on themselves, what is genuinely worrying is what appears to be a trend of falling standards in the industry. Of course, we sometimes make mistakes too, but I do think that our relentless focus on our customers keeps us ahead of the competition.

The drive to good user experience

LMS vendors are continuing to improve usability following years of negative feedback from customers and analysts. Customers are increasingly taking the lead on this, insisting on good user experience in their solutions. This is easier with bespoke platforms which we design from the ground up; however when using an off-the-shelf LMS you are always a bit constrained by the product’s capabilities. But there’s no doubt that Open Source gives you extra flexibility here. Moodle HQ have formed a dedicated front-end team and we have seen a renewed focus on usability in M2.5 and 2.6 which is warmly welcomed. Some of my favourite moments this year have been getting involved in design workshops with students and stakeholders. This is basic stuff, but so often forgotten in technology projects.

The rise of the supercharged LMS

This year, e-learning gained access to bigger-than-ever audiences through the rise of MOOCs. EdX, Coursera and co threatened to close the door on this large market to traditional LMS vendors, who have been scrabbling around to offer high-scale cloud services to support hundreds of thousands of learners. Canvas were very quick off the mark and Moodle got in on the action too with its own MOOC and formed the basis of a Finnish startup called Eliademy. At Epic, we delivered prototype public-facing platforms for several top global universities looking to get in on the action which will start to scale up in 2014. We also scaled Moodle higher than we’ve ever taken it before. After winning a major government LMS contract we got involved in some serious optimisation for a Moodle site which hosts half a million users and one thousand simultaneous logins without drawing breath, and we look forward to scaling our platforms even further next year.

The second coming of online training

It’s sometimes easy to forget that there is a world of traditional classroom training vendors out there who have chosen not to move into online training. 2013 saw a huge amount of activity in this space as many of these providers commissioned platform offerings for the first time. At the same time, smaller distance learning providers have been commissioning new platforms to scale up to larger audiences, and universities have commissioned public-facing platforms to build on their brands and sell short courses to the wider world. The huge publicity around MOOCs is responsible for this and providers can now see much bigger markets for their courses. There is a hunger for open source among these players as none of them want to be tied to the last century’s payment model of subscription based on user numbers, which most platform vendors still offer. Good payment gateways are vital to these customers, and we have been using Course Merchant or integrating with customers’ existing e-commerce systems. We didn’t especially plan for this sector in 2013 but have been completely led by our customers and have developed a strong offering over the course of the year that enables us to serve this market. This one looks set to grow and grow.

The year Moodle went mobile

Moodle went fully mobile this year after a few years of tinkering around with mobile themes. The incredibly popular Bootstrap theme made it into Moodle core as the Clean theme, which is something I was pleased and proud to get involved in. So with the launch of Moodle 2.5, all of a sudden Moodle was responsive. This has been a big driver for site upgrades among our customers, maybe even more so than earlier versions going out of support. My book, Moodle for Mobile Learning, also made it onto the shelves around the same time, after spending many a long night taking screenshots of Bootstrapped Moodle, and then redoing them all after the Clean theme came out! Frustrating, but worth it. Mobile Moodle was a big part of our year in 2013, and is only going to get bigger.

Connecting systems with design patterns and APIs

A lot of our enterprise customers have been working on web design standards this year, updating their portfolios of websites and platforms with a consistent, modern look and feel. There has been a resurgence of interest in design patterns and UI Kits, providing a framework for a common look and feel across applications. It all makes for a common sense approach and maybe reflects the more frugal times we live in, as enterprises are continuing to move away from the installing new and vastly expensive, monolithic applications and are wisening up to using specialist software tools instead, connected together using web services and a common look and feel. We wrote about the rise of APIs and the death of monolithic bloatware last year and are pleased to see that companies are continuing in that direction. It’s a good, common sense approach to software implementation in the enterprise.

The march of Tin Can API

Talking of APIs, this one deserves its own mention. This time last year it was just a twinkle in the eye of the L&D community, the new buzzword. The standard was formalised in the spring, we took our Tin Can ideas to the LT13 expo, started discussions with prospective customers, blogged and presented on the subject far and wide, engaged the Open Source community on and hired the UK’s main Tin Can expert Andrew Downes. It paid off and we won a contract to build an LRS for a global retail customer using Tin Can to track detailed usage of an iPad native app, and a global hotel chain to track a variety of learning interactions from multiple systems into one place. Andrew had his Moodle Tin Can launcher accepted for inclusion on the plugins database. Tin Can has gone beyond talk and into reality at Epic. In 2014 we will bring you the case studies!

The rise and rise of open content

With the rise of the MOOC, education is becoming open, right? Not necessarily. Much of the content used in MOOCs sits behind a copyright wall and cannot be openly accessed or reused. After all, many MOOCs are just basically marketing exercises for top universities. It’s all about the brand and they protect their IP. Hence the Open in MOOC refers mainly to open registration, not open content. But some interesting work is afoot. Open Educational Resources are gaining in popularity in the education sector, and I’d love to see more of this in workplace learning. Sites like provide an outlet for OER. What is really exciting is course-building collaboration with sites like Coursefork, which is basically a Github for course authors. I’m looking forward to seeing much more of this in 2014.

Epic listed on AIM, again!

My last two items are about how the market has changed Epic this year. Firstly, we listed! We used to be on AIM back in the 90s but the company got sold to some print publishers who took it private and almost killed the company. After a few years the business changed hands once more to its current owners who have got Epic back into rude health and at the top of its game again. Epic took a bit of flak last time round on AIM for sitting on a load of cash but not investing it. Not this time. Learning Technologies Group, the name of the holding company we have listed under, is well and truly on the acquisition trail, and 2014 looks set to be very lively.

An Epic platform for growth

From a small sideline four years ago, Epic’s platforms offering has been growing steadily and this year is the fastest growing area of the business. The growth over three years is astounding, to the point that we are now having to make some changes to the team structure in order that we can sustain this growth while continuing to deliver excellent customer service to Epic customers and the wider Learning Technologies Group. 2013 has been a really exciting year as we’ve built up the team and worked on some fantastic projects. We will be building on this in 2014 and already have several major projects to kick off in Q1. Thanks to our amazing team and customers for making 2013 a successful one.

Have a great Christmas and New Year, and we look forward to working with you in 2014!

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7 thoughts on “Top ten learning platform trends from 2013”

  1. Mark – This is an excellent summary.

    The key point for me from the above is “The drive to good user experience”. In past years this has frequently been forgotten, especially with the use of off-the-shelf products, but it’s nice to see it coming back in again. When I talk to our “learners”, they all tell me they want an experience “like facebook” – essentially they mean they want it to be clear and easy to access, rather than having to navigate through masses of menu structures to find content/courses.

    What I find particularly interesting is how we’re seeing everyone focus on delivering ‘responsive templates’. Two years ago everyone wanted to design ‘user-configurable templates’ (where users could drag and drop ‘widgets’ to different locations on screen) – but this concept seems to have been abandoned, in favour of a consistent style which displays well on different devices. It will be interesting to see if the next year or so goes full-circle and brings us ‘user-configurable, responsive templates’.

  2. Hi Mark, nice summary, thanks and a happy new year to you!

    Must say customers certainly aren’t afraid to switch suppliers; we too have seen that customer service as the n#1 reason to switch. Poor quality of service after over-promising and not delivering, and charging just to pick up a pen I heard more often in 2013 than previous years. Like you I had a customer reveal that they threw one of our competitors out, not on ethical grounds but because they were very hard sell. I agree it is worrying what appears to be a trend of falling standards in the industry (it do think however its isolated in some cases to certain suppliers, which of course remain unnamed – customers know who they are!), Unicorn like Epic sometimes make mistakes too, equally like you, our focus on our customer relationships keeps us ahead of our competition.

    On the UX side of things, I would argue that Open Source isn’t necessarily the only way forward, you can meet the ever demanding customer requirements to improve UX with a fully configurable LMS, but without the Open Source challenges which face some customers, such as security issues, ongoing support, and version updates impacting customisation to name a few examples.

    So what do you think will be the real trends vs. the buzz words for 2015?


  3. Thanks for your comments Nick, you hit the nail on the head, a lot of people use Facebook as the benchmark and I’ve had several customers cite that as the level of user experience their learners will expect. It’s a good thing and is driving standards up. I’ve discussed this at #MoodleBrighton with the team from Sussex Uni who noted that Facebook users are not offered the ability to change font sizes and styles with a HTML Editor – but we keep on allowing students and tutors in their LMS to have this level of stylistic control over the interface? And 99% of the time it makes the site look terrible. A more simple content editing experience would be good, I think.

    As for draggable widgets, I supposed Moodle blocks operate in that sort of manner, from an admin users perspective. Users can select and move blocks on their MyMoodle page and these should display consistently on mobiles. less control once inside a course area though. Be interesting to see what happens.

  4. Thanks very much Mark, it’s good (I think!) to know that you’ve had similar experiences on the customer switching side of things. I think you are right that among the bigger players the falling standards are isolated to certain suppliers who have taken their eye off the ball, I also hear about some small businesses over-promising, ones I had not come across before. Those who keep their eye on their customers will continue to do well I have no doubt, although as Outstanding Learning Organisation of 2013 you guys already know that 😉

    Regarding UX, yes this an across-the-board thing regardless of open or closed source. I’ve seen some shockers this year especially among old-school commercial LMSes but I think that even they are stating to raise their game in their latest versions. Recent years have seen a new, more modern breed of LMS like Upside and Topyx and while they may lack all the features and capabilities that our clients require, they do look the part and have made the old incumbents sit up and take notice.

    I opted to do a retrospective rather than a forecast, as I’m not one for making big predictions. But I’ll have a crack at a top three predictions for 2014!
    1. People will continue to make a buzz about big data and learning analytics without understanding what they heck they are. More sensible people will start to realise that while learning related data is not really “big” it is tremendously powerful and we will see some genuinely useful learning analytics tools that are properly focussed on improving learning outcomes for individuals.
    2. People will continue putting additional letters in front of already stupid acronyms (cMOOC, xMOOC, yMOOC, zMOOC?). However, MOOCs will start to come of age and get refined and improved (heaven knows they have a loooooong way to go).
    3. Many authors will continue to build “mobile learning” that is nothing more than a responsive version of a desktop SCORM resource. Because, as we all know, most people want to sit through a 60 minute elearning module on their mobile. Not. I am sure though, that many more authors will strive to understand the situations in which mobile devices can be used to improve the learning experience and lead to better outcomes, led by good research and case studies.

  5. Really like your summary, Mark. The point about the second coming of online training really rings true. The amount of money venture capitals have thrown at Ed Tech startups has been astounding. Suddenly being in Ed Tech is hip!

    This is the year Moodle went Mobile, but it really is the year that the World went mobile and the trend will no doubt continue and morph (i.e., wearables, beacons, etc.)

  6. Hi Mark,

    Your comment about “mobile learning” very often being nothing more than a ‘responsive version of a desktop SCORM resource’, made me smile as I am constantly on the look out for opportunities to show how mobile can be, and indeed is, so much for than that and for opportunities to maximise the functionality any indeed the mobility of our mobile devices.

    I know that GoMo and Adapt are due for public release in the next couple of weeks, so I’m waiting with baited breath to see if they will allow us to truly maximise the potential of ‘mobile’.

    I think we’re also due a ‘beer and a catch up ‘ soon eh?



  7. Thanks Craig. I’m not convinced that e-learning content authoring tools are ever going to really going to exploit native hardware features in a significant way, they’ll most likely always remain pretty ‘presentational’ in my view. I see hardware exploitation as more where the learning platform comes in. Interactions like capturing photos or video are better off as uploads into a platform where they can be discussed, shared and remixed. Communication takes place in the platform too.

    Definitely up for a beer 🙂

    Jody, I totally agree, very good point. Moodle and mobile dominated my year on a personal level, but the world continues to go completely mobile crazy! In the ‘developed’ world we think it may be big, but it is just insane in the BRIC countries. Our Rio office is pretty much doing purely mobile learning work – nobody over there wants desktop based elearning. They have leapfrogged desktop technology and gone straight to tablet and smartphone, and there is a huge appetite to learn on their devices. Will be interesting to see where the wearables take us 🙂

    Thanks for the comments!

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