Ellucian Stops Support for Brainstorm, its CBE platform

In a surprise move, Ellucian has decided to end support for Brainstorm, the competency-based education (CBE) platform it acquired from Helix Education two years ago. All Brainstorm customers are being notified of the end-of-life and aggressive measures are being used to help these customers quickly migrate to alternative platforms.

Ellucian staff contacted me to share the general news of ending Brainstorm support. The stated reason for this change is that Ellucian perceives that there is insufficient market demand for full CBE programs, with many schools looking to ease into CBE in a minimalist fashion (I’m paraphrasing here). Brainstorm was designed primarily for non seat-time courses that are fully based on a competency framework and self-paced student access. We have covered Brainstorm / Helix on these issues here, including this observation:

One educational model that is becoming more and more important is competency-based education (CBE). One of the challenges for this model is that the traditional LMS – based on a traditional model using grades, seat time and synchronous cohort of students – is not easily adapted to serve CBE needs.

Kelvin Bentley, Vice President of Academic Affairs for the TCC Connect Campus at Tarrant County College,[1] was one of these customers. He described an unexpected meeting late last week where going in the college had no idea that Ellucian was considering such a move. Ellucian notified the college that the Brainstorm platform would no longer be available as of the end of March, and that the company was taking a number of steps to help with the transition. Ellucian offered refunds for money spent to date, credits for other Ellucian services (Tarrant County uses Ellucian as its student information system) and notably Ellucian staff would help migrate the Brainstorm courses developed to date onto a different platform of Tarrant County’s choice. While it is too soon for final decisions, Kelvin indicated that they would likely migrate courses on Blackboard Learn, the primary LMS for Tarrant County College.

While Kelvin was disappointed at the short notice provided by Ellucian, he was pleased with their strong, proactive approach to help Tarrant County College make the transition and to make financial amends. Kudos to Ellucian for making their priority during this transition to proactively helping their customers make a transition.

While Ellucian works out similar deals with others customers, I cannot say if the timing and transition plans are consistent with Tarrant County College’s experience. Ellucian Live, their annual users conference, is scheduled for late March, for what it’s worth.

This end-of-life is not just a winding down of Brainstorm support, however. It appears to be a full change of direction. As recently as this past summer I was invited to the company’s San Francisco offices where I saw the build-out of the Brainstorm (and associated services) team, and I saw a demo of the new features and design updates. Ellucian was investing in Brainstorm and increasing its support – moving from five people at the time of Helix acquisition to a team of 30 “teaching and learning” with Brainstorm at the core. At EDUCAUSE in 2015, Ellucian’s CEO described the company’s $100 million investment in product updates that included Brainstorm completion. Throughout this past fall and into winter there have been other signs of the company’s investment in this area. But obviously something changed. Not the web site – all info on Brainstorm is still live.

Winter is Here

From my recent post “Winter is Here: EdTech investments and M&A dropped significantly in 2016”:

However you read it, I think it is quite clear now that the big drop in the financial business of Ed Tech is here. This is not just a blip in the data or one-time change – by all appearances (outside of TechCrunch offices) we have a new set of expectations and a new trend. Will this trend continue, stabilize, or reverse? We don’t know, but let’s stop pretending the change hasn’t come.

And this change in investments and M&A has and will have a real impact on the Ed Tech market. More companies are scrambling to try and become sustainable without new rounds of funding, but not all will succeed. I expect we’ll see a number of companies go out of business or be acquired in distress sales. The companies who have strong financials have a chance to improve their positions. Institutions need to have backup plans in case vendors go away or change. On the positive side, I find that many Ed Tech companies have a more mature approach to the market, with less hype than a few years ago.

In this case we have a larger company but the same dynamics apply. The business of Ed Tech is changing, and more decisions will be based on whether product lines have a real chance to become self-sustaining based on near-term revenue. Institutions should include contingency-planning for core learning platforms and apps. Not all companies will follow Ellucian’s lead in helping customers when product lines shut down.

CBE Market Extrapolation

How much can we extrapolate this news from a Brainstorm story to a CBE platform market story, or even a broader CBE story? While the timing of this news is a surprise to me, there is an element that is unsurprising. I have seen quite a few schools who want to get into CBE but would prefer to do it carefully and to not have to change learning platforms or to move away from one supported LMS. There is a balancing act that schools are managing, and the scales seem to be tipped more towards ‘stick with one LMS and be cautious side’. This is different than the initial wave of CBE programs at Western Governors University (WGU) or Southern New Hampshire University’s College for America.

To further pursue the unsurprising element, the Education Department’s (ED) inspector general started an audit a year ago of WGU, and in late 2015 the department criticized an accreditor in an audit for being too accepting of CBE models. One year earlier the ED’s inspector criticized the ED itself in yet another audit for being too accepting of direct assessment. As described by Inside Higher Ed in the auditor story:

The audit builds on similar concerns the inspector general raised last year. It could have a chilling effect on competency-based education’s growth, said experts and advocates for such programs. More than 600 institutions are in the design phase for a new competency-based credential or already offer them.

What Ellucian is observing in the market may be heavily influenced by these past ED actions.

For that matter, how much can we extrapolate this news into a broader Ellucian story? The company had been investing heavily in CBE support, not just for the learning platform but also for ERP (student information system, financial aid system, etc). Jim Ritchey at Delta Initiative described just today that Ellucian is also putting Banner 8 into sustaining support mode and that customers need to be off that version by the end of 2018. In this case, Jim noted how Ellucian’s move was more aggressive than people expected.

The announcement is not a surprise due to its link to the support of Oracle forms. From what I hear, the surprise is that it includes all administrative modules. Many people expected this would only impact the Financial Aid module.

I have asked Ellucian for an interview and additional information. I’ll update here at e-Literate as I learn more.

  1. TCC Connect which manages online learning courses and programs and a Weekend College for the Tarrant County College District.

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