EdTech that connects: Learning relationship management systems

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Oct 27, 2015

Over the past few years, a new category of EdTech platform has popped up across K–12 and higher education called the learning relationship management system (LRM). LRMs join a larger wave of student-centered, next-generation infrastructure tools that put individual students—rather than instructors, courses, or compliance-driven data collection—at the center of learning systems architecture. Specifically, LRMs not only enable learning pathways that can guide students on individual paths to success, but also allow users to flex another resource often ignored in the course of instructional design and delivery: relationships. Looking ahead, these platforms could serve as an architectural backbone to an education system that optimizes not only for what students know, but also their access to networks and power.

As I’ve written about previously, somewhat ironically the EdTech industry is so focused on content delivery and assessment that we rarely see technology tools designed to connect students to peers, mentors, or industry experts. This trend prevails despite the fact that among adults in the working world, technology has radically expanded our ability to connect with colleagues, customers, and clients across the globe at the press of a button. Moreover, companies increasingly leverage technology to enhance employee mentoring programs. Schools and universities, on the other hand, have tended to treat this opportunity to forge new human connections as an afterthought in their EdTech strategies; instead, their technology investments have focused on delivering traditional instruction and assessment more efficiently and effectively or on tracking reams of enrollment and outcomes data in reliable ways.

A consortium of LRM companies is trying to help the field see that integrating relationships into a students’ educational journey ought to play a key role in the design of our education system. The LRM Alliance consists of five companies—XL Academics, Fidelis Education, Epiphany Learning, Motivis, and Fishtree —working together to communicate the value proposition that this new species of software offers. Although all five companies offer different products to different customers, they share a common set of features and functionalities that focus on people, purpose, and pathways.

All five companies’ products connect students to people by providing a centralized profile where students can access mentors and relationships inside and beyond their school communities. Importantly, these relationships do not exist in a vacuum or as a one-off supplement as some traditional mentorship programs do. Instead, all LRM platforms also include a goal-setting feature by which students articulate a purpose around which their academics and networks should be organized and integrated. All five also provide the architecture—much as next-gen learning management systems do—for students to pursue a learning pathway that aligns with that purpose and leverages those relationships.

As an emerging category in the EdTech market, LRMs find themselves in the challenging position of trying to pivot the education system to expand its vision of success beyond just academic outcomes or student retention to also include access to networks, opportunities, and even employment that align to students’ personal interests and goals. In that sense, LRM companies are embarking on a noble but tricky mission. Any radically new platform play in EdTech inevitably faces a chicken-and-egg problem: institutions will only embrace a new technology if they see it as improving outcomes that they care about, be those financial or academic. Although LRMs can theoretically drive these traditional metrics, they are designed to do more. As a result, truly willing customers will only be those who value new metrics of success that the current system undervalues or outright ignores—and by definition, these customers will only represent a fraction of the current market.

Relatedly, we’ve long seen in the education software industry that even state-of-the-art technology is not a silver bullet to shifting outcomes: any platform is only as good as its actual use in practice or the model within which it’s deployed. A tool might offer an infinite number of features and functionalities, but how that tool is actually put to use will ultimately shape students’ experiences and outcomes. For example, unlike direct-to-student online mentoring or coaching tools, LRMs will not themselves ensure that students strengthen existing relationships or forge new ones to meet their goals—they are a platform through which students can theoretically locate and connect to people. To take full advantage of LRM platforms’ capabilities, institutions purchasing the tools must be willing to prioritize students’ individual goals, embrace personalized pathways, and help seed new relationships within schools, with alumni networks and outside industry experts. It’s not surprising then that some LRM companies, like Fidelis Education, have gained the greatest traction with higher education institutions looking to fundamentally redesign the higher education experience—rather than simply to tweak the existing model at the margins. The less willing a system is to reinvent its model to embrace new metrics of success, the less utility an LRM stands to offer.

For all of these reasons, LRMs appear at least in part to be taking a disruptive tack. By definition, disruptive innovations offer a different value proposition than extistant products and services—and this very difference is often the very reason disruptive innovations win out over time. We have little evidence that our current mainstream education system values relationships as a key ingredient to lifelong success, despite plentiful evidence that adults consistently use their networks as currency—or social capital—to make progress in their personal and professional lives. As such, LRMs are more than just a platform play: they are forcing us to imagine a system that embraces this invisible—and potentially disruptive—currency in students’ lives.

Julia is the director of education research at the Clayton Christensen Institute. She leads a team that educates policymakers and community leaders on the power of disruptive innovation in the K-12 and higher education spheres.