Welcome to The Higher Edge Podcast!
Nov. 1, 2022

People, Puppies, and the Pandemic: A Conversation with Phill Miller

Learning management systems (LMS) are important vehicles for data delivery and instruction in higher education. But can also be expensive software platforms that may not give institutions the flexibility and value to highlight their uniqueness.

Phill Miller , Managing Director at Open LMS , shares how vendors monitor and cultivate open-source platforms to help give academic institutions the Higher Edge.

Join us as we discuss:

  • What is open source in the world of the LMS? (2:48)
  • The appeal of open source LMS systems for institutions (9:47)
  • Supporting community and corporate collaboration for institutions (20:15) 

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[00:00:00] Phill Miller: Welcome 

[00:00:08] Announcer: to The Higher Edge, a podcast for the brightest minds in higher education. Hear from the change makers and rulebreakers that are driving meaningful, impactful change for colleges and universities across the country from improving operations to supporting student success. These are the stories that give you, "The Higher Edge".

[00:00:30] And now your host, Brendan Aldrich 

[00:00:34] Brendan Aldrich: hey everyone and welcome to the HigherEd. I'm Brendan Aldrich and I'm here today with Phill Miller, the managing director of Open lms, one of the world's largest Moodle based LMSs or learning management systems. And it's commonly used by colleges and universities across the country, uh, but also by thousands of companies outside higher ed to provide education and training to employees across a vast array of in.

[00:00:56] Fun fact open l m s employs currently about [00:01:00] 150 people that are spread almost equally across three very geographically dispersed countries, the United States, Australia, and Columbia. Phil, welcome and thanks so much for joining us here 

[00:01:11] Phill Miller: at the Higher Edge. Yeah, it's my pleasure. And speaking of Australia, I just got back from Australia last week and I think last night was the first night I slept all the way through the night.

[00:01:18] So, um, the jet lag is pretty fierce when you're coming in that 

[00:01:21] Brendan Aldrich: direction, so , I could believe it. Phil, we're gonna dive into a variety of topics related to learning management systems, especially during the last few years of the Covid 19 pandemic. But I wondered if you might share a little bit about your background leading up to your current role as the managing director of Open 

[00:01:35] Phill Miller: lms.

[00:01:37] Well, my background is very heavily ed tech, uh, skewed. I, uh, I was a longtime student. I got my master's in business and also a law degree. But through all that, I was doing all that in night school because I was working for an ed tech company called Angel Learning back in the early two thousands, um, which eventually got sold to Blackboard.

[00:01:57] I almost immediately quit. And then I joined another company [00:02:00] called Moodle Rooms, which then got bought by Blackboard and um, And I stayed with Blackboard for quite a while, until, until I decided to make a, a, a kind of a strange move. And that was to take the company that I'd brought in to Blackboard, which is called Moodle Rooms and bring it out of Blackboard.

[00:02:15] Uh, and that happened in 2020. So I've had some interesting roles as well. I served on the IMS Global Board for many years, which I think is an important standards body. And, uh, so really just a. a full career in ed. Tech. Fun notes about me, I guess. I've got four kids, a nine year old and a seven year old triplets.

[00:02:34] So I do care heavily about the future of education and in fact, if we could find a way to greatly reduce the cost of education about 11 years from now, I would really appreciate it. Really help me out in the future. Absolut. 

[00:02:48] Brendan Aldrich: Hey, uh, Phil. So most people I know in higher ed are at least somewhat knowledgeable about the learning management systems they use, but I think what's really fascinating and what they might not be as familiar with is the idea of open [00:03:00] source, but that's a key part of Open lms.

[00:03:02] So I wondered if you might share a bit about 

[00:03:03] Phill Miller: that. Yeah, I mean, open source is, is the core of who we are. So let's back up. What is open source? Open source means that the, the code of the software. Is open, it's, it's freely available, or they say it's, there's off a free software. Now, when we say free in this scenario, we don't mean free like beer.

[00:03:22] We, we, we, we have to say in this, it's free like speech, not like beer, right? It's free in that. Everybody has rights to it, that it lives independently. That's incredibly important for a lot of reasons. One, open source tends to spur a lot of innovation because a lot of people can participate. It's not just employees of one company that are working on it.

[00:03:41] Then the second one is actually in the cost profile of open source software tends to be lower in a lot of different ways. There's never license fees for it is one, because you can't license open solar software. Any fees that you get to that are really around the support and hosting of that. But then also the [00:04:00] exit cost is lower as well.

[00:04:01] So if you're, if you have control of the code, you know, you can control your own destiny and you're not, you're not beholden to a company. So what Open LMS has done, there's a platform out there called Moodle. I'm sure hopefully most people in education have heard of it. Uh, it's actually the, the world's dominant.

[00:04:17] EdTech platform globally, just under 70% of all institutions of higher education use Moodle as their platform. It's an open source platform. Uh, what Open LMS has done is we've taken Moodle and we've really professionalized the support hosting and delivery of that. If you're familiar with open source software, the best corollary I can come up with.

[00:04:39] We're kind of what Red Hat is to Linux is what open LMS is to Moodle. So you want to use an open source platform, but you need a great vendor to host support. Pick up the phone when you have a problem, be there to help you implement and train. That's what we do. So, um, the other joke about open source software is that, you know, it's, it's free, but it's, but we then say it's, it's [00:05:00] free like a puppy, right?

[00:05:00] Somebody gives you a puppy and they say, It's free, but we know that there's an ongoing cost to that. And so the same thing is true of open source. You have to maintain and manage that and support that, and that's what Open LMS is really designed to do. . 

[00:05:14] Brendan Aldrich: And that's an example that that absolutely resonates with me having, having three dogs.

[00:05:18] So I can absolutely understand about the dogs. Uh, they might be free or there might be, uh, cost when you first get them, but there is absolutely that, that ongoing cost. Uh, so Phil, we've been talking about the pandemic and I saw a report that was published by the World Economic Forum talking about how back in April of 2020, more than one and a half, Billion students across 186 countries were affected by school closures due to the pandemic.

[00:05:45] Now you've got enormous experience in the l m s market, but you had literally just formed open l m s in March of 2020. Uh, so what was that 

[00:05:54] Phill Miller: like? Well, I'm surprised the numbers that, that small, actually, I, that number seems almost low to me, but yeah, [00:06:00] what, what's really fascinating about the open LMS story for the last several years, Open LMS for a long time was actually part of Blackboard.

[00:06:09] On March 1st, 2020, we announced that we were going to separate from black. On April 1st, 2020. And so March, 2020 was the transition month where Open LMS became a new company. And of course in the middle there, , the world changed, right? And so I'll just give one example of that. In during one week of March of 2020, we host all of our clients on Amazon Web Services, aws.

[00:06:37] In one week our bill went up by more than 400%. Right? Like, which means that people were using our platform more than four times as much as they were the day, the, the, the week before. Um, and so the world just kind of went crazy. I mean, we, we all kind of remember that, but the, that, that transition was incredible.

[00:06:56] I mean, our team was working around the clock [00:07:00] to. Our clients, but you know, I've got a lot of respect for our clients as well, and the, the, the professors that were out there that had to transition to online learning, the IT people at colleges and universities, the, the trainers, right? People, the help desk, I mean, all of us that we're trying to support this massive shift to online learning.

[00:07:21] It was a crazy few months. I, I hope that everybody has mostly recovered from that now, two years later. But it was a big. For us, you know, it's interesting. So many businesses across the world were, were kind of, you know, decimated by the, the pandemic because of the big shift to online learning. It actually, our business did not only find it actually kind of thrived, which feels a little bit weird, um, during that time.

[00:07:44] But, um, but I mean, everything personally, professionally changed. It's, it's been, it's been quite a journey and, and we're still in it a little bit, although I'll say we've seen some transition happen lately. a few clients that that recently left us. And you know, [00:08:00] I, we always reach out and say, you know, what's going on?

[00:08:02] And we have very few clients that, that leave us, but they said, you know, listen, we, we, we purchased this software on a grant to support us during the pandemic or on government funding and mm-hmm. , now that funding's starting to run out, so we're gonna move back to face-to-face. While I know that the pandemic isn't really gone yet, and, and Covid is not gone.

[00:08:22] We are seeing that transition back, but we're seeing it kind of back to a different level than it was before. Right? Like, so the online learning part of the hybrid learning is definitely at a higher level than it was beforehand. So it's, it's the people are calling it the new normal. I don't know if I'm ever gonna be okay calling this the new normal, but yeah, it feels like we're at a different place after this.

[00:08:43] But man, it was a, it was quite a wild ride. And again, not just for us, for every. Personally, professionally, et cetera, but our university and college clients, what a remarkable experience. I mean, you, you've, you basically took 10 years of transition to online learning and condensed it [00:09:00] into a weekend, you know, like it was crazy.

[00:09:03] So, uh, it was, it was, it did, it was kind of an interesting time to form a company too. Our team really came together and it, and I think it actually in the long run probably helped us, uh, form the team more effect. . 

[00:09:14] Brendan Aldrich: Well, and I think even from, from talking to a lot of people in higher education, I think there's this, this broad awareness.

[00:09:20] When we get back to what you call normal or the new normal, that that really, that's gonna be different from what it used to be. That we're really gonna be more in this hybrid space where it's not that you're gonna go fully back to face-to-face because you have a lot of people who have not only adapted to, but thrived in more of an online environment.

[00:09:38] And not everybody does, but I know a lot of people do. And I think that there's a recognition that we need to serve both the face-to-face and the online needs 

[00:09:45] Phill Miller: moving. Yeah, absolutely. I couldn't agree more 

[00:09:47] Brendan Aldrich: just talking about the l m S market for a second. In February of this year, fortune Business Insights, I know estimated the value of global learning management system markets at like 14.4 million billion, excuse me, [00:10:00] billion dollars.

[00:10:00] Billion with a beat. . This was at the same time that Phil Hill published an update on the state of the higher ed LMS market for the US and Canada showing that Moodle had, at that time captured 21% of the market. I mean, in fact, I think he even noted that the Moodle market share includes open lms, so specifically called out, uh, your organization.

[00:10:19] So I wonder if you might take a minute to talk about. Really the appeal. We've talked about open source, but the appeal of open source solutions like open LMS to institutions across 

[00:10:27] Phill Miller: the country. Yeah. So a couple quick notes on your question. The, the, the $14.4 billion number, that's all LMSs, right? So that's not just higher ed, that's also corporate learning and government learning and all that type of stuff.

[00:10:39] And yeah, Moodle has a really significant market share in North America. What's interesting is it has an even bigger market share almost everywhere else in the world, right? So even though it's only 21% of the US higher ed market, it's closer to 70% market share in pretty much every other country in the world, and it's in the eighties and nineties in some countries around the world.

[00:10:58] So [00:11:00] Moodle is still the most important LMS in the market. We hear a lot of talk about Blackboard, canvas desire to. But really Moodle is the, the, the market dominant player. Again, outside of, outside of the us, although still really important here. So why does this matter? Well, why, why open LMS matters and why Moodle matters in this, in this market.

[00:11:19] There's a couple things. Open source, Solutions like Open LMS tend to provide a great deal of flexibility, right? And they, they just support so many use cases because the community of people that interact with the code and create things are coming from a variety of different places. So you've got a, you've got a lot of different use cases that are supported.

[00:11:41] You're, you're almost never constrain. in how you use the system. Now that creates some downstream effects, right? Because it's, it's kind of like we're giving people enough rope rope to hang themselves with there. There can be a downside to that flexibility, but, but many institutions want that control, right?

[00:11:58] And that control matters a [00:12:00] lot because one of the things that we need to think about as we go forward, especially in this, we talked about the big move to online or hybrid, , the, the university experience has changed a lot, right? I don't know about you, Brendan, but when I was looking at university's colleges, I would go to the campus and, you know, you walk around and see the bell tower and all these types of things, right?

[00:12:21] And if you're going to an online uni, university, if you're going to an online program, even a, a hybrid program, the bell tower in the cafeteria don't matter as much as the system that you use every day. So institutions that really want to have a. niche environment. That flexibility of controlling the online learning environment, that's the front door of your campus, right?

[00:12:41] That's the same as the bell tower and the quad and the gates to your campus, is that that first experience that people have in your online environment. So giving that level of control and flexibility is really important. The other part that's important from an open source perspective is the value play, right?

[00:12:59] [00:13:00] We often at Open LMS tend to be more affordable. Especially on a long time horizon than our commercial competitors. Why is that? Well, first of all, we're open source. We don't employ hundreds of developers who are constantly maintaining the platform because there's a, we're part of a big community that does that.

[00:13:18] Uh, but at the same time, one of the most important things that people forget when you adopt a software solution, there's not just the cost of acquiring that solution. There's also eventually, and it may be five or 10 years down the. The cost of leaving that solution. Right? And, and if a, the company that's providing your system gets bought or releases a new version that doesn't work for you, you've then gotta go through a change process.

[00:13:43] And an open source solution often protects you from that cost of exit because you control your own destiny, right? Like you're, um, and that, that gives you, so the, the cost of exit is off, often way lower. So when you're thinking about total cost of ownership, open source platforms like Open LMS or Moodle tend [00:14:00] to.

[00:14:00] Way more competitive from a total cost of ownership perspective. 

[00:14:05] Brendan Aldrich: Hey, for everyone listening, hang tight. We're gonna take a quick break to hear from our sponsor and we'll be back in just one minute. 

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[00:15:15] Brendan Aldrich: Thanks so much for listening to our sponsor.

[00:15:17] Let's get back to the show. , that level of personalization that you're talking about, I think is so critical for colleges because you're right with, with a lot of systems, it can be, you can, you can customize, but only to a certain level, which does make it hard for you to stand out amongst all of your other competitors or schools that students may be considering in addition to your own.

[00:15:36] But more importantly, I think you mentioned the cost of exit. Mm-hmm. , and I think that's something that really it's, you don't really think about it until it's too late, right? That idea of, well, I know what it's gonna cost me to onboard, to transition, to migrate, to use this on an ongoing basis. But it's often the question that, that people forget to ask until it's too late, which is, what's it gonna cost me to leave this platform in the future [00:16:00] if I ever need to or want to for 

[00:16:01] Phill Miller: my.

[00:16:03] Absolutely. And if you're the CIO at a university or a college and you're running an RFP for any solution, it should be part of your criteria. What's gonna happen if you're asked to switch? It could be because the company gets bought. It could be because there's a new version, or it could be because the, the software no longer meets your requirements and they change.

[00:16:23] But that mean you think about an E R P system or especially the really big. The idea of ripping those out and replacing that can be a tens of millions of dollars endeavor and, and even for smaller systems, it can have a really big impact. So our goal is to help our clients avoid that and to really reduce that, especially that cost of exit.

[00:16:42] We want to give them control. This is part of what Open source, one of the real benefits of open source. . 

[00:16:47] Brendan Aldrich: Now, one of the other things I know you and I have talked about is that you've got a, uh, a user conference coming up, which I always think is exciting to do because you're getting a lot of different people that are using your platform together to collaborate on different ideas.

[00:16:58] But as you mentioned, you've got so many [00:17:00] customers inside of higher ed and outside of higher ed or even outside of the country. How, how do you bring all of those people together at one conference, uh, in a meaningful way? Is that, is that a, a. 

[00:17:10] Phill Miller: Huh, well, we don't know yet. This is our first ever users conference.

[00:17:14] We, we were, as I said, we formed, we formed the company coming out of Blackboard in 2020. And of course, the idea of having a face-to-face users conference for the last couple years was a non-starter. But we do have a wide variety of clients. I mean, we have some of the largest universities in the world. We have statewide agreements for community college systems, or as they call them in other parts of the world, further education, uh, groups.

[00:17:37] So, but we also have companies that are using us for sales training and, uh, we have a, an auto manufacturer that. Every time they release a new car, they train all of their dealers using our platform. And, uh, one of the things we've seen a lot recently is a lot of, uh, medical associations that, that use us to provide continuing education to their, the [00:18:00] members.

[00:18:00] Right. Uh, the, so it's a really diverse, and part of that comes from the open source, the flexibility that we talked about, right? And, and the, the platform can serve a lot of use cases. Now, how you bring those together in a user, One hypothesis is, you know, you, you kind of have different tracks. You know, let's put all the higher ed people in this room and let's put all the corporate people in this room and let's put all the nonprofit people in this room.

[00:18:24] Um, and, and there might be reasons to do that. Um, but we're actually kind of thinking about leaning into it and saying, you know what? We're talking about learning here. Let's have the, the university sit next to the community college, sit next to the the corporation, sit next to the associa. and instead, let's talk about how people learn and how to use the system to do that and see if through the diversity of, of the client base and the diversity of opinions, if we actually don't spur better thinking, man, maybe it's a little bit of both, right?

[00:18:54] That that's probably the, the right solution. But we'll see. We're, so we're gonna be in Phoenix at the end of [00:19:00] February with not just our clients, but also a broader community. Part of the Oakman LMS family is we actually have a community. Of learning professionals. That's called the E Learn magazine. And there's, there's a bunch of people that contribute and, and take place, uh, take part in that.

[00:19:15] We're hoping to have a really nice turnout and we're gonna talk about all things e-learning. I mean, if you want to geek out on e-Learning, Phoenix is gonna be the place to be at the end of February. It should be fun. Do you have a name 

[00:19:25] Brendan Aldrich: for the, the conference or a name for the event? It's called the 

[00:19:28] Phill Miller: Open LMS Connected Conference, and we called it Connected because especially after, you know, two and a half years of being apart, we want our users, we want our clients, we want EdTech profess.

[00:19:39] To really start to connect and to start not only physically as as humans, but also to start to connect the ideas that they have, uh, across different part of you mentioned before, and I didn't mention this, uh, earlier, we are, we're not only geographically distributed as a team. Our clients are very geographically distributed as well.

[00:19:55] We've got about 300 ish clients in Australia, for example, in a bunch in [00:20:00] Brazil and Columbia and Chile, and then in the us and. Different things are happening in education in different parts of the world, and we want to connect those ideas as well. Uh, by the way, if you're in Indiana, like I am in Phoenix at the end of February does not sound too 

[00:20:14] Brendan Aldrich: bad.

[00:20:15] Well, something I was thinking about as we were talking was. The idea, we talked about open source, and yet open, l m s is a private company, which creates some benefits, but also some challenges because you're developing things obviously that, that the market demands or that your clients need that may not be part of the, the open source, uh, packages.

[00:20:34] But I think Open LMS really has been leading the way, I think showing how a privately held LMS company, but built on open source software can still be committed to the ideals, ideals of being open and transparent. In fact, last year you announced your commitment to open source by, uh, committing to distributing core open LMS modules and enhancements via.

[00:20:57] Glv three or the new general public license, [00:21:00] why was that important to you? 

[00:21:01] Phill Miller: Well, it's a, it's, first of all, I think there's a big misconception that, that, um, open source, and it kind of goes back to that free like speech, not like beer comment, uh, that open source can't provide for-profit com can't create for-profit companies.

[00:21:16] In fact, I think for-profit companies, An important part of any open source movement. If you look at things like php, which is open source, the primary driver behind PHP is Facebook, right? They, they built their system on Facebook and they continue to evolve that. Companies like Microsoft, Google, all of them are using and participating in open source projects, and so, There, there's, I think it's a often a big misconception that, that there's this big chasm and that you're evil if you make money using open source software.

[00:21:41] I, I just think that's, I, I think it's a, a, a unfortunate misconception. Why is it important for us? We make our money based on supporting and hosting and delivering the lms. We do not make money off of license fees, and so at the end of the day, we want the open source community to [00:22:00] be thriving because that creates more potential opportunity for us.

[00:22:03] Again, this is one of. Symbiotic relationships for where a for-profit and an, and an open source community can come together. So yeah, we made a commitment to contribute by the vast majority of all of our code to the open source community. There are a few things that are very specific to our architecture that we, we can't really open source for a variety of reasons, but, uh, and we've been working hard on it.

[00:22:24] We've released dozens and dozens of modules. It takes time, right? It's a commitment because you, when you put something out in the open source, c. You can't just leave it sitting there, right? If, if somebody downloads it and asks you a question, you have to respond. And if somebody finds a bug, you have to fix it, right?

[00:22:38] So it's a pretty big commitment, but it is important to do that. And it's also important to establish that we're, we're really participating in this community. The idea that if you're a university or a college, that that is depending on a company to support your LMS or your student information system, or, You actually want them to be a nice, healthy company, right?

[00:22:58] That gives you them the chance to [00:23:00] invest in a roadmap. It gives them a chance to invest in support and services. No, that 

[00:23:03] Brendan Aldrich: makes total sense. Hey, Phil, one of the things I love to ask guests on the show is if you have a story or experience, uh, from your own background that others may not know about that might help them get a little bit of that higher edge, is there a story you have that you 

[00:23:17] Phill Miller: might share?

[00:23:18] Yeah. I mean, I'll, I'll tell the story in a minute, but I mean the, the principle that I learn over and over again as a technology leader, in general, technology problems are pretty straightforward, right? A computer only does what you tell it to do. The real complicated challenges are people problems and organizational problems.

[00:23:35] And so I'll, I'll, I'll share this story that from early in the pandemic, one of our clients called me a few months into the pandemic. They were just telling this story about this big shift. This client had been on Moodle for many years and they said, you know, every Thursday for the last five or six, , we've been hosting Moodle training and generally we get three or four or five people that show up and [00:24:00] it's often the same people and it's actually the people that don't need training.

[00:24:03] They're just trying to do something really fancy. And then the pandemic struck and the first week of fully online in the pandemic, they had something like 85 or 90 people. For a Moodle training. Right. And, and so, you know, the tech in, in the interim there, the technology didn't change, right? Nothing in Moodle changed from one week to the next, but the, the needs changed and therefore the organization needed to change and the people needed to change.

[00:24:32] And so it's, it's really important to think, especially if you're in a technology company or if you're a CIO at a univers, You know, you gotta think about things not as necessarily as technology problems, but as people, problems and technology is a way to help solve those. But, but really understanding how those two fit together, that's the, that's the big lesson that I've, not only, I, I won't say I've even learned it yet because I forget it often, right?

[00:24:56] I, I say, oh, we can just, we'll release a new feature for that and [00:25:00] then, and then you go talk to clients and they don't realize that you released a new feature. Right. That's the the thing that I have to keep reminding myself. You know, focus on the people, focus on the organization, the technology problems, the, the, some, those are actually simple, right?

[00:25:14] Computers only speak ones and zeros, , so it can't be that complicated. But the people problems, man, they speak a million different languages. I, I think that's the, the lesson that I would wanna 

[00:25:23] Brendan Aldrich: share. Such a great one to remember too because, and it's even outside of it, whether you're talking about processes or you're talking about anything that ultimately, uh, people are at the heart of everything that we do.

[00:25:33] And I think that that's very cool insight. Thanks. So, uh, Phil, thank you so much for coming on the show and sharing your experience with us. 

[00:25:38] Phill Miller: Hey, my pleasure. It's all, it's great to see what you guys are doing, uh, here. It was great to see you at Edika. Uh, and also for you guys to connect with, you know, we have our own podcast, the eLearn podcast, the eLearn Magazine.

[00:25:49] Uh, great to connect you guys at Educas Ed. Finally feels like it's going again. So, uh, after a couple years away, it was good to see everybody. Uh, it's like a big family reunion for those of us that are EdTech nerds. So [00:26:00] great to see. 

[00:26:01] Brendan Aldrich: And for our listeners, we've been talking to Phil Miller, managing Director of Open lms.

[00:26:05] Hey, Phil, if listeners would like to reach out to you with questions about today's episode or to continue the conversation, what's the best way for them to 

[00:26:11] Phill Miller: contact you? I mean, um, maybe a little old school. My email address, Philip dot miller open lms.net.net.com. Just not, not.com. Just to note there. Um, we also, I mean, if you're interested in open lms, we're everywhere as you expect.

[00:26:25] LinkedIn, YouTube. Uh, podcasts, et cetera. So open lms.net. And, uh, we'd love to hear from you and love for you to be a part of our community. Whether you use our software or not, I think you'd find interesting things happening in the open LMS community. Phil, 

[00:26:39] Brendan Aldrich: thank you so much for coming on, being guested with us here on the higher edge.

[00:26:42] Hey, for everyone listening, I'm Brendan Aldridge and we'll talk soon. Thanks 

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[00:27:02] Drop us a line at podcasts@thehigheredge.com. The Higher Edge is sponsored by Invoke Learning in partnership with Westport Studios. View and opinions expressed by individuals during the podcast are their own. See how Invoke Learning is empowering higher education@invokelearning.com.