Not Dead Yet
Why the Institutional LMS is Worth Saving

By Mark Notess / July 2009

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Comments (13) Instapaper
In a recent post on his own site, Michael Feldstein tackled the question of whether Google Wave or WordPress spell the end of the learning management system (LMS). He concludes that they do not, because some instructors want control, the ability to structure or sequence learning and assessment activities, restrict permissions, establish academic workflow, and manage resources. Unlike generic collaboration technologies, an LMS directly supports these forms of instructor control.

As Feldstein points out, not everyone is a fan of this kind of control. He mentions the open education movement. To this I would add researchers such as Stephanie J. Coopman, whose recent deconstruction of Blackboard investigates the distribution of power and privilege in an LMS ecosystem.

But is it all about control? Although control may be a part of the issue, there are other factors promising to keep institutionally adopted and integrated LMSs alive for years to come. Consider the following three points.

1. Privacy
Not everyone wants to teach or learn in public. In corporate environments, participants may be required to protect intellectual property from competitors. In higher education, protection of intellectual property is likewise an issue. While some instructors are eager to share their syllabi and assignments with colleagues, others prefer to keep their courses from being copied by other institutions.

Technologies such as WordPress and Google Wave can support privacy, but systems integrated into the IT fabric of the institution are better able to restrict access based on course enrollment or other group memberships. We may argue against such protectionist attitudes, but in many environments, institutions will find an obligation to support the privacy of teacher and learner content and communications.

2. Simplicity
quote from Mark Notess Not everyone is cut out to be an EduPunk, cobbling together unique collections of social media tools to craft the customized toolset for each learning event. In fact, quite a few instructors prefer the technology of instruction to be as invisible as possible and do not themselves have the expertise, time, nor interest to make it so if they must build their own learning environment.

While few would suggest the LMS is suitably invisible, reasonable default configurations, assisted where possible by instructional support technologists, can help make course setup less painful. Students themselves often drive LMS adoption because they find it easier to have all their courses in a single environment—one grade book, one assignment calendar, one system to learn. They pressure instructors to "get with the program" and use the same system their other instructors are using.

3. Focused Attention
Not everyone can (or should) teach (or learn) in a YouTubey, Twittery blogosphere, where mobs clamor and technology obtrudes relentlessly. We may argue that single-mindedness is passé, that 21st century literacies and pedagogies necessitate attention being more evenly divided between the topic under discussion, the technology of discussion, and a social networking backchannel.

Fair enough. But many instructors and students are not there today. Is killing the LMS the best path to get them there?

It would be a mistake to suppose I'm glorifying existing LMSs. Quite the opposite. There is enormous room for improvement and much to learn from visions such as those embodied in the design of Google Wave. My caution is not against innovation, open education, or EduPunk. Rather, my caution is against predicting the demise of the monolithic institutional LMS so early that we lose interest in improving something likely to be with us for many years to come.

Comments

  • Wed, 09 Sep 2009
    Post by Mark Notess

    Thanks for your comment Randy. LMSs and LMS implementations differ, of course. Here at Indiana we use Sakai. Looking at your points from my own Sakai-influenced persective, I come up with the following.

    > They're too complex...try to be everything to everyone...can't accommodate every esoteric teaching need

    Off the shelf, I think this tends to be true for most users. A solution for this is to have a layer of staff who customize the LMS deployment for individual units. Of course few units are willing to make the staff investment in either IT or instructional designers to craft a more customized environment. Systems that can support templating will be better off here. The Sakai 3 effort is headed in this direction.

    > They're inflexible...geared towards particular teaching styles...can't easily give the system the look and feel they want for their class or have a workflow that more closely matches what they've traditionally done "on paper".

    Not quite sure what you mean by teaching styles, but I think most LMSs can support a wide variety of pedagogical strategies, though it may require some sophistication to figure out how with a given LMS. My work on "coursonas" is an attempt to raise this issue. Again, having departmental staff to assist would help. In particularly, departmental staff could help move faculty away from the mistake of merely trying to replicate what they've done on paper in the online system.

    > They're used in ways they're not intended...faculty committees, student and staff organizations as a collaboration or file sharing tool for day to day work...they've neglected other types of tools more appropriate to administrative needs.

    Sakai was specifically designed to support collaboration of this type, so it's an intended use for us.

    > They're designed to be completely private....the first LMSs were created for the K-12 market

    Sakai and (I think) Bb at least have ways to make content public. And today's LMSs haven't really sprung from K-12 requirements, I don't think. I'd argue that both K-12 and higher ed have needs for privacy (e.g., FERPA in HE) and needs for sharing and public access. I don't believe they are designed to be completely private, but I do agree they could make it easier to share and understand the implications of sharing decisions.

    > This may sound presumptuous of me, but I feel that the debate over the LMS and many other academic technologies is driven by those who teach and not by professionals who can see the "bigger picture". Any single faculty member or small group of instructors can see only one part of "the elephant" . However, as someone that has observed and consulted with a wide range of faculty, from humanities professors to science faculty to those teaching in professional schools, I can confidently say that no LMS is a perfect fit with the way that faculty actually work and teach.

    On one level, I agree with you. It is important that interactive systems be designed and stewarded by people who understand how to do requirements analysis and provide solutions meeting real user needs. Too often that doesn't happen. But I think many faculty perceive the LMS as a one-size-fits-all solution foisted on them by a central IT organization rather than being a system whose requirements they are driving. I'm sure these perceptions vary widely across and even within institutions.

    > More of the responsibility for shaping the online presence and workflow of a course will have to shift to the individual instructor - there's simply not enough staffing, money or technology resources to offer a central "all in one" solution for everyone.

    I think most instructors need adequate support to be successful with this shaping. I'd argue for a tiered system with central IT offering core services and unit IT offering customization, additional tools, and local support. If quality technology support for teaching and learning matters, of course. Many institutions may decide other things matter more.

  • Wed, 26 Aug 2009
    Post by Randy Riddle

    After working with LMSs for 15 years in academia, I've seen them evolve over time. At best, they've become a mixed bag; at worst, they have several insurmountable problems.

    They're too complex. Faculty have different methods of teaching and LMSs have evolved to include many functions that only a small number of faculty at an institution many use. For most users I work with, the array of choices is confusing and distracting. LMSs try to be everything to everyone, from the science teacher with self-paced modules to the humanities professor with just a few documents to post and discussions to facilitate. Can't we just admit that one all-encomposing system can't accommodate every esoteric teaching need?

    They're inflexible. LMSs are geared towards particular teaching styles and views of how teaching should work in their basic design. Many faculty I work with grow frustrated because they can't easily give the system the look and feel they want for their class or have a workflow that more closely matches what they've traditionally done "on paper".

    They're used in ways they're not intended to be used. I know at my institution and many others, the LMS is being used by faculty committees, student and staff organizations as a collaboration or file sharing tool for day to day work. Institutions have put so many resources behind the LMS, they've neglected other types of tools more appropriate to administrative needs. It puts an undue burden on the academic technology group to support what is essentially an administrative university function. More importantly, it's an ill fit for what these groups are doing and they have to "work around" how the CMS is designed to make it work.

    They're designed to be completely private. I think we must recognize that the first LMSs were created for the K-12 market that required absolute privacy and control for the instructor and students. Higher education has never worked that way - some aspects of courses that deal with intellectual property or student information and private journals have to be kept private. However, many other aspects of a course have always been more public - final presentations, work involving community service, or collaboration with scholars or members of the public outside of the classroom.

    This may sound presumptuous of me, but I feel that the debate over the LMS and many other academic technologies is driven by those who teach and not by professionals who can see the "bigger picture". Any single faculty member or small group of instructors can see only one part of "the elephant" . However, as someone that has observed and consulted with a wide range of faculty, from humanities professors to science faculty to those teaching in professional schools, I can confidently say that no LMS is a perfect fit with the way that faculty actually work and teach.

    It's time for universities and software vendors to recognize faculty needs that are more widespread and universal and ask some hard questions about the support and funding required for tools that only fulfill the teaching quirks of the few. In the end, I think that the functions of the LMS will be "split" among several applications that fulfill certain types of needs for privacy or class structure. More of the responsibility for shaping the online presence and workflow of a course will have to shift to the individual instructor - there's simply not enough staffing, money or technology resources to offer a central "all in one" solution for everyone.

  • Fri, 14 Aug 2009
    Post by Mark Notess

    Bryan, I do track the Pew studies, but I don't remember seeing something saying that most teens climb the learning curve for disparate web-2.0 privacy settings. Most Pew internet research is based on self-report data, so how would that tell us how good a job teens do on understanding the (highly dynamic) privacy settings on disparate web-2.0 tools?

    On a related topic, I wonder whether legal counsel at many universities feel confident that edupunked solutions are FERPA-compliant.

    Again, I'm not trying to hagiographize the VLE/CMS. I'm just saying that it's not going away soon, for a variety of reasons that may not even always be good reasons. If it will be with us for awhile, let's see if we can't improve it.

  • Thu, 13 Aug 2009
    Post by Bryan Alexander

    (Thanks for the note about the change in comment flow, Mark)

    This is a great phrase: "The stinging insects can still fly over the wall and sue your pants off!"

    Let's keep on with your point scheme.

    (0)Copyright - if you're right about "a future coursepak-style lawsuit", then we should wonder if the copyright issue will backfire on academia. That is, if CMSes' compliance with TEACH have made us all more relaxed about IP, then not only will we face some suits, but also have not taught ourselves copyright skills as social media users tend to do. As you say, "The walled garden of the CMS is probably providing a false sense of security to faculty." This is potentially a huge deal, Mark!

    1. Privacy. "given the choice, will most people choose to climb that elearning curve? I guess not." The Pew evidence is that most teens climb that curve. If you don't think adult faculty and staff will, then I deduce two things. First, that's a campus policy and pedagogy problem, not a technology one. Second, the CMS is a tool for propping up adults who haven't adjusted to the Web. A sort of information literacy prosthetic.

    2. Simplicity. Another advantage of a single tool is that it's easily married to a pedagogical and/or curricular aim. "We're using a wiki because collaborative writing is important in the sciences," for example.

    This last is a tricky point, worth separating out, I think: "although students who are already using the CMS in other courses may still complain about the lack of consistency." So CMSes become a justification for CMSes, in effect. It's allied to the sunk cost model. (I'm not disagreeing, just trying to explore this theme)

    Many thanks for continuing the discussion, Mark.

  • Tue, 11 Aug 2009
    Post by Steve Wheeler

    I wrote a post about the impending demise of the institutional VLE which has caused a stir it's at http://steve-wheeler.blogspot.com/2009/08/two-fingered-salute.html . I'm being deliberatly provocative of course - there is always a middle ground. But for the sake of the argument, and the impending debate (symposium) between myself, James Clay, Graham Attwell and Nick Sharratt at ALT-C Manchester, next month, I will maintain the polemic stance. Oh, and the symposium will be 'refereed' by Josie Fraser. I hope some of you can make it to join the discussion!

  • Mon, 10 Aug 2009
    Post by Mark Notess

    (Note that comments in eLearn are newest-first (?!?), so read from the bottom of the page.)

    Bryan, thanks for mentioning copyright. The copyright issue that leaps to my mind fits into the privacy issue. The amount of copyrighted material faculty upload to the CMS/VLE to share with their students may eventually (if it has not already) obviate the need for libraries to provide online course reserves. I smell a future coursepak-style lawsuit here. The walled garden of the CMS is probably providing a false sense of security to faculty. The stinging insects can still fly over the wall and sue your pants off!

    Regarding your other comments:

    1. Privacy. I agree valuable learning occurs when people climb the learning curve for the disparate web-2.0 privacy settings. A bit like eating your vegetables: good for you, but given the choice, will most people choose to climb that elearning curve? I guess not.

    2. Simplicity. I think we agree here. I did not mean to suggest that any given CMS is simpler than any given web 2.0 tool. It's the locating, evaluating, selecting, and cobbling together of multiple tools that adds the complexity. In cases where a single tool, such as a blog or wiki, suffices, that single tool is likely to be much simpler than the CMS, although students who are already using the CMS in other courses may still complain about the lack of consistency.

    3. Focus of attention. No disagreement here.

  • Wed, 05 Aug 2009
    Post by Bryan Alexander

    Interesting argument, Mark. Those three points are some of the more powerful ones in favor of CMSes. (I'd add copyright as a huge, understated one, myself. Jim Greenberg notes that in his comment.)

    At the same time, each one is undermined by features of Web 2.0 which you don't address. Let me explain, following your tripartite structure.

    1. Privacy - Web 2.0 platforms have generally had various privacy settings for some time. The idea of Web 2.0 = public has been a straw man for some time. While each application and service has different ways of selecting privacy levels, and each may embody a bias towards either open or closed, it's not sufficient to oppose CMSes to Web 2.0 along strict open/closed lines. Indeed, one could argue the opposite, when it comes to users' habits. If a student or faculty member works through a classic CMS for semester after semester, they learn little about privacy, since those settings are predetermined. In contrast, if users experience the Web through Facebook, Livejournal, etc., experimenting with privacy tactics and effects, they increase their knowledge about the fairly complex world of digital privacy.

    2. Simplicity. Again, the situation is more complex than to assign these attributed in simple opposition. While some Web 2.0 tools offer complexity exceeding a Sakai or Blackboard class, others do not. For example, Twitter's simplicity is one of its attractions; clearly, it is easier to use than any CMS. Or consider blogging - setting up a blog (not a server, but an individual blog) has been a very simple matter for years. Or look at Delicious, or Flickr. In fact, one reason the various social media platforms have taken off so rapidly is their ease of use. Arguably, some CMSes are becoming increasingly *difficult* to use. The look and feel of Blackboard, for example, is more like the Web of the late 1990s than the modern one. Now, not all Web 2.0 platforms are simpler than CMSes. Compare, say, doing a data mashup to putting course materials in Moodle. And using multiple tools and services, unlike my examples, can readily ramp up complexity. But it's simply not correct to assert that CMSes just win on simplicity's grounds.

    3. Focus of attention. Some of what I said in #2 applies here. There are many ways to use Web 2.0 tools simply. For example, a course blog is at least as focused as a course management space, if not more so (compare a basic Blogger setup to a typical Moodle front page, for example). And there are many examples of using a single blog to unite a course. For what it's worth, "where mobs clamor and technology obtrudes relentlessly" is a fine rhetorical flourish!

    Thanks, once more, for a thoughtful article.

  • Wed, 05 Aug 2009
    Post by Patrick Batty

    Very Nice article Mark.

    I agree that not everyone is looking to effectively build their own LMS, cobbling together a collection of software, tools, and even open source products to do the job the LMS is doing for them. Nor should they. Frankly, as you say, many people would like to stick with their own competencies and interests and have someone else take care of these tasks. For that matter, institutions might prefer it as well. As you say, not everyone is cut out to be an Edupunk. For that matter, whats the true cost of having so many education professionals take on these tasks themselves.

    I do believe LMS need to change however.

    Our vision, as a vendor, is for an LMS is to not just host and present content, assignments, quizzes etc., but for the LMS itself to become a hub of connectivity and social networking amongst students. By using a wide range of controlled, yet embedded social networking products/sites/tools like Facebook, Linkedin, or even Skype or Twitter to enable discussion collaboration, as well as blogs, forums etc. were trying to have students much more actively engaged in their material.

    Patrick Batty Vice President Academic Solutions Http://interactyx.com

  • Wed, 05 Aug 2009
    Post by Avron Barr

    I think of the changing role of the LMS not so much as its death, but rather as the dis-aggregation of its multiple features and their subsequent re-integration with a new wave of innovative software applications that connect teachers with students. Integration of these new learning activities - sharing data - is key to finally realizing the potential of elearning. But open software standards will only happen when the market insists on interoperability, which typically happens after customers have wasted a lot of money and gotten really frustrated with proprietary systems and trade associations that represent the status quo. Are we there yet?

  • Wed, 05 Aug 2009
    Post by Mathieu Plourde

    Hi Mark,

    Great article. I think it reflects the less radical wing of Edupunk.

    One thing that I want to point out: LMSs are not a mainstream technology yet. They are not ubiquitous in higher ed as other technologies like PowerPoint or e-mail. My belief is that as long as there is not going to be enough people interested in LMS features, outsourcing is always going to be a challenge, and no real free do-it-yourself web 2.0 alternatives are going to be made available. The automation of routine work that comes from a LMS has real value: it saves Instructors' time.

    Permission setting is also key, as you describe it in your privacy section.

  • Fri, 24 Jul 2009
    Post by Mark Notess

    Clint, I assume you mean that private LMS companies may not invest sufficiently in innovation as compared with companies whose products have a broader use (e.g., Facebook, Google). Certainly they will follow rather than lead. Those educators who want or need more innovative tools will have to look elsewhere. But for many educators and learners, the more mundane tools may be adequate, or would be if we'd insist that they be. While an asynchronous discussion forum is hardly innovative, having a good one in an LMS is rare.

    Jim, I'd love to see the work presented in your poster session if you're willing to share. I agree with what I think you're saying: it isn't necessarily a choice between the institutional LMS and other tools. We can and will have both. My argument is mainly that we can't yet dispense with the institutional LMS, for reasons beyond "control."

  • Thu, 23 Jul 2009
    Post by Clint Lalonde

    I agree that the death of the LMS has been overstated (for many of the reasons you outline), but still have concerns with the dependency institution currently have on this critical learning system.

    Once specific concern (and I could name many) is around funding innovation. Do private companies have the necessary resources to even keep up with the current pace of innovation taking place on the web, let alone afford to invest in really innovative learning approaches? I fear that as the web evolves, commercial LMS's will be, at best, running to stand still and keep users trapped in a time warp where an innovative feature is an asynchronous discussion forum.

  • Thu, 23 Jul 2009
    Post by Jim Greenberg

    Mark,

    I recently had a poster session at AUG (Angel User's Group) 09 in Chicago that was on this exact topic. It seems to me, at this moment in history of LMS anyway, that the compromises LMS require in teaching have many faculty looking for something better. Things like Ning, Wordpress, etc. are better (for teaching anyway). As they improve their utilities for managing privacy, IP, simplicity, focused attention, etc. more faculty will move to these. Unless of course companies like Bb build Ning like functionality into their product soon - (which of course is possible and even likely). I've seen my faculty using Ning and Wordpress VERY effectively - and we also have many who still love ANGEL. Will it have to be one or the other?