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Outside the LMS Box: An interview with Ashley Tan

By Ryan Tracey / April 2014

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Dr. Ashley Tan leads the Centre for e-Learning (CeL) at the National Institute of Education (NIE) in Singapore. NIE is the only institute in the country responsible for preservice teacher education (the preparation of student teachers prior to full-time employment as beginning teachers). The CeL is responsible for supporting and enabling technology-mediated pedagogies at the institute.

Hoping to gain insight into his work, I posed the following questions to Dr. Tan. His responses in relation to the movement of instructors away from the institutional LMS, toward open social platforms such as Facebook, can serve to inform your own work and improve your business outcomes.

What are you researching?

My latest research effort has focused on one aspect of eLearning, blended learning environments, at the NIE.

Like most educational institutions, NIE has physical classrooms and a learning management system. A few years ago, most of our classrooms were transformed into "collaborative classrooms" (CC), which were designed to promote discussion, knowledge sharing, and collaboration both face-to-face and online. We also adopted more open and free online learning platforms like iTunes U and Google Apps for Education. Our overall eLearning strategy has been to blend our face-to-face activities with online learning.

I have started to analyze survey, interview, and LMS usage data to find patterns of instructor behavior in our blended learning environment. For example, I have examined instructor perceptions on the use of our CCs, as well as their levels of use of open resources and platforms.

My research is led by this overall question: How (if at all) have instructor behaviors and strategies changed in our blended learning environment?

What has your research revealed?

My preliminary data shows the CCs are popular among our teaching faculty, as they allow for greater instructor-learner and learner-learner interaction.

However, both the instructors and the students seem to be unhappy with the LMS because it is a closed system and less user-friendly than other tools or platforms. Over the last three years, the use of the LMS for social learning has dropped to 50 percent among our serious users of the platform, and the more innovative instructors have moved to open social platforms like Google Sites and Facebook. The use of our LMS is mostly for relatively low-level tasks: content repository, basic online communication, and assignment submission.

The adoption of social, open, and mobile tools has led to more innovative strategies, such as game-based learning, location-based learning, social media-based learning, flipped learning, and career-long learning.

How can an eLearning practitioner apply your findings to their own work?

It is important to go where the instructors and learners are to meet their needs.

Typically, supporting additional platforms would cause an increase in budgets and stress. However since initiating social, open, and mobile learning when the CeL was formed a little more than three years ago, we have actually trimmed our annual budget. Spending is down almost a third and we do more with just three-quarters of our original staff strength. We have been successful thanks to three main strategies:

  1. Leveraging free and open tools or platforms.
  2. Providing free and on-going professional development for staff.
  3. Decentralizing eLearning efforts so there is greater ownership of the content, platforms, and pedagogy.

Leveraging free and open tools does not remove the cost of professional development and worker salaries, but it relieves the pressure from subscription costs and server maintenance.Money aside, this movement promotes more open sharing and career-long learning, both of which are better in the long run. Moreover, instructors tend to explore less didactic and more interactive and collaborative strategies when operating outside the LMS.

When blending learning with an LMS, instructors and eLearning practitioners often focus on content repositories or delivery. The didactic model is dominant. When blending learning with open and social systems, the focus tends to shift to interaction and negotiation. The facilitative model comes to the fore.

Put another way, with an LMS the pattern is often content first, social interaction last (if at all). With alternative platforms, instructors learn to put communication before content delivery. eLearning practitioners must design for human communication in these open, social, and mobile systems if they are to leverage them effectively.

In short, eLearning practitioners must think and operate outside the LMS box.

Where can we find out more?

To find out more about CeL's blended learning initiatives, visit our Services and Portfolio web page. To learn more about our other initiatives, explore the other areas on our website and visit our Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and YouTube channels.

Dr. Ashley Tan blogs at Another Dot in the Blogosphere, and can be found on Twitter as @ashley.

About the Author

Ryan Tracey is an Editorial Board Member for eLearn Magazine and an E-Learning Manager in the Australian financial services industry. His work focuses on adult learning in the workplace, and he maintains a particular interest in blended delivery, informal learning, and social media. Ryan has worked in corporate e-learning for over a decade, following several years in the higher education market. He holds a master's degree in Learning Sciences and Technology from the University of Sydney, blogs as the E-Learning Provocateur, and can be found on Twitter as @ryantracey.

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  • Sat, 12 Apr 2014
    Post by Ashley Tan

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Glenn.

    Indeed our preliminary findings are not that surprising. Much of research is quite mundane. So why do it? To rely on evidence in one or more contexts instead of relying on anecdotes or conjecture. I can make a claim and I can back it up. :)

    I won't identify the LMS we use, but if you were to guess, you would probably get it correct.

    I agree with the two types of LMS you described. I think that the utilization of LMS is a function of what its built-in affordances are, what users expect it to do, what users want it to do, and what users negotiate.

    I think critical barrier lies in what LMS providers provide as affordances and user expectations. LMS are designed and used in relatively traditional ways. I think of it this way: The medium changes, but the methods do not. We can very slowly change the expectations and behaviours of users by providing professional development, but we cannot dictate what the LMS affordances are.

    Add to the fact that our LMS users bear with or simply do not like it. They are more comfortable, productive, or inventive elsewhere. I say we go elsewhere strategically to not only promote innovative pedagogy and meaningful learning, but also save money by needing less from an LMS. We have done this by unsubscribing from LMS modules.

    Tin Can/Experience API is very exciting, particularly from an analytics point of view. However, depending on an institution's set up, it may be a seamless implementation or one fraught with red tape.

    Over time, I'd like to see Tin Can as a given in LMS. But I am not waiting for other people to overcome their inertia. I would go where the learner and the brave instructor are at.

  • Sat, 12 Apr 2014
    Post by Ryan Tracey

    Thanks Glenn.

    I recognise two schools of thought on LMSs. The first is that an LMS is a "learning management system" in its truest sense. It handles registrations, progress tracking, completion statuses and grades. It's a one-trick pony because it's meant to be.

    The second is that the LMS is a comprehensive all-in-one educational platform. Not only should it handle the above, but also social networking, web conferencing, user content generation, etc, too.

    A couple of problems with the second school of thought, IMHO, is that the typical LMS doesn't do the more sophisticated stuff very well (or as well as the open alternatives), and even if it does, that functionality is often not activated in the institution's account for whatever reason (usually incremental cost, as far as I can gather).

    My read into Dr. Tan's response above is that, regardless of the capability of the LMS, an LMS-only mindset tends to restrict your pedagogical potential. On that I agree, as it doesn't make much sense to limit your view to *any* one platform or tool.

    I also think there's merit in going to where your target audience is - whether that be Google Plus, Facebook, or wherever. They are already comfortable with the platform and won't get hung up with technical issues that always seem to plague the first several weeks of class. Having said that, however, I see potential equity issues for students who *don't* use Google or Facebook, and how much of the student activity do you want to be outside of the institution's infrastructure?

    On Tin Can, I'm surprised that so few LMSs are currently compatible. I'm not necessarily a supporter of tracking every little learning interaction in one's life - as I think that unnecessarily formerlises the learning process and promotes activity over outcome - but that doesn't preclude other possibilities that the xAPI opens up.

  • Sat, 12 Apr 2014
    Post by Glenn Hansen

    Thanks, Ryan, good questions.

    It's nor surprising, though, is it? I'd like to know what LMS they are using, but it certainly looks like it's either one of the traditional ones that is good at hosting and tracking content, and little else; or the staff and students have been acclimatised to using it only in the most traditional way. If that's the case, then someone on staff needs to unleash the full power of their LMS to support and encourage true social learning.

    From personal experience, option one seems most likely. There are still a wealth of LMS' on the market that treat 'learning' as providing access to a course, marking results and recording them against a 'student' record. My role as an enabler of workplace performance means I really detest the term 'student' when we're talking about supporting adults to get the most out of their efforts in the workplace.

    Still, there is light at the end of the tunnel for those who are willing to put in the work to challenge that traditional view and limited purpose of the LMS. The new version of SCORM, which used to be known as Tin Can, but has now been updated to the Experience API, allows an LMS to store just about any kind of activity in a user record. This really opens the field - discussions, delivering conference talks, reading, participating in meetings, and almost any other activity can be recognised as part of someone's development. While the API itself doesn't ensure that any of this is done well, it does provide the opportunity to go well beyond the standard compliance functions of the old one-trick-pony LMS.

    So, for any learning professional out there, if you decide you need an LMS, or that it's time to invest in a new LMS, one question you need to ask is, 'Does it work with the Experience API?' That's after you take the time to learn about the API's capabilities and how to best make use of them. The good news is that you don't have to be a tech wizard. A simple Google search will provide you with a wealth of info.

    Keep learning!