The Trouble With Learning Management

Bogged Down Scooter

Originally published in EdSurge on April 8, 2016

By Adam Finkelstein and Mike Goudzwaard

If you’ve been an instructor or a student in a class in higher education in the last 10 years, you probably used a learning-management system or LMS. There are plenty to choose from, including Blackboard, Canvas, Sakai, Moodle and D2L. Many of these systems started as small, nimble startups but have grown into large “learning-technology” organizations as they have matured.

One of the biggest challenges with LMSs is that they are designed to support everything. From content organization to discussions, assessments, lecture capture and synchronous learning. This results in an overbuilt system with too many features that you may never use. It’s an 80/20 problem: You need 20 percent of the features, such as a standard webspace to point your students to a roster and gradebook, but 80 percent of your LMS just gets in the way.

Is an online synchronous chat room needed for a face-to-face class? Most instructors just leave that chat room in the menu, unsure of its purpose. The result is that this bloated software locks learning into restricted choices between suboptimal versions of features. There are many options for interactivity not included in your LMS you could choose, but the defaults are still there getting in the way. The problem with the LMS is the “M,” management. Learning software should facilitate learning, not manage it. Learning management reduces teachers to middle-managers between students and the registrar.

Micromanagement Migraine

Most institutions will change from one LMS to another specifically to improve upon their learning tools. At most institutions, a switch to a new LMS provokes two reactions: 1) it’s better than the old one, and 2) it’s more complicated and not intuitive. These reactions are both correct. Sure, software built from the ground up will incorporate new features that the old LMS scrambles to shoehorn in with software patches, but both are overbuilt and lock in choices about how learning should happen.

Michael Feldstein explains why our institutions keep repeating the same choices as a procurement problem in the recent piece,“What’s Really to Blame for the Failures of Our Learning-Management Systems.” We have been through a couple of LMS migrations at different institutions and see what Feldstein describes: the committee evaluation and procurement process drive the discussions and decisions of which bloated LMS to buy next. That’s why the emphasis on a learning-management system needs to go.

All LMSs, both new and old, are overbuilt and lock learning into a complex suite of features that administrators and teachers spend too much time trying to figure out, customize and disable. In“What’s Next for the LMS?” Brown, Dehoney and Millichap offer a framework of five primary functions of an LMS and call for a “Lego approach” where components can be fit together and pulled apart to customize the LMS. They are on the right path, but what we really need is not another LMS, but something very different. We need to focus on three features: agility, simplicity and interoperability and ultimately form a new learning operating system.

Trim the Fat

In a recent post, The LMS of the Future is Yours, Mike identifies three features and principles of openness (on the software side) that your next LMS should have. With further discussion, we both propose that your LearningOS just needs two features: a roster and analytics. That’s it.

The roster is the connection to the student information system (SIS). It manages roles and permissions of everything in the online environment. This is a function that every course uses, even if it isn’t currently using the LMS for anything else.

Analytics happen in two domains. First, what has happened, as in time that students spend on tasks, clicks and downloads. Second, what does it mean for a student’s learning, as both formative and summative assessment. This has traditionally been the role of the gradebook, however most lock assessment into letters, points, percentages and maybe a few comments. Analytics will require an API (application program interface) to connect the data from the LearningOS to dashboards and transcripts, much like what is being proposed by Caliper. The Caliper Framework suggests a standard method to capture, display and transport learning analytics.

All of the other tools in the LearningOS are plugins. The good news is there is already a mature standard for this, Learning Tools Interoperability (LTI). This means that all the learning tools out there designed to support LTI already work with your LearningOS. Projects like EduAppCenter already provide over 200 tools that can be implemented using LTI.

How is this different than adding plugins to your existing LMS? LearningOS promotes depth rather than breadth by starting with the basics and allowing for teachers and students to plug in the rest.

Are there concerns? Absolutely. Are providers really offering LTI-compliant environments? Are extensions really LTI-compliant or just “mostly compliant”? Is data safeguarded? How will support work in a multi-tool environment? These are among the challenges that institutions will face with the LearningOS.

Some might wonder if LMS providers would support external plugins when they’ve been creating competing toolsets. By allowing for specialization, providers can accommodate for best-of-breed tools built by people with expertise in these specific capabilities, instead of growing a feature set until the platform becomes bloated and static. This move also puts the choices back in the hands of the pedagogs. Don’t want features from one tool? Find another that is compatible and works better for your learning environment. This would ultimately drive greater adoption at an institution, where instructors have greater flexibility of tool choices within an interoperable framework.

LearningOS isn’t just your current LMS stripped down, it’s a new approach that favors well curated plug-ins over vanilla features suites. LearningOS will handle the learning in your classes and probably more, depending what teachers, students and institutions choose.

Mike Goudzwaard (@mgoudz)is is the lead instructional designer for Digital Learning Initiatives at Dartmouth College. Adam Finkelstein (@adamfdotnet) is an educational developer Teaching and Learning Services at McGill University.

To Slack, or not to Slack



There’s been this debate growing in my office and maybe yours about whether Slack is the email replacer for team communications. Haven’t heard of Slack? It’s the instant-ish messaging platform being used by big and small teams for stream-like communications. You can dip in and out of a conversations. Messages live in threads that anyone on a team can read unless it’s in a private group or a direct message. No more flagrantly cc’ing mailing lists. If I need to know/read/act, you tag me. If your message is a FYI, I can catch up whenever (or get notified based on preferences). Context is baked in to the channels. #knowledge_share #work_around If you have a frequent topic, you create a channel so the sender chooses the context of the message when posting. Email has subject lines, sure, but there is not a pre-agreed upon lexicon of approved subject lines, making them at best summaries and at worst, meaningless.

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The LMS of the future is yours!



Do you remember your very first LMS (learning management system)?

When I started grad school nine years ago, my classes all had sites on something called FirstClass. FirstClass was not modern in appearance or function, but the bones were good. It had integrated email, file storage, a listserv, and course sites for files and messaging. Everyone in the university system had and used FirstClass. There were even such useful features such as chat, online status, and email recall (what a life saver!). During my two-year masters program, FirstClass was replaced by Gmail for email and Sakai as the learning management system.  The community mourned the loss of our beloved FirstClass. Now, early adopters were on Gmail, holdouts on FirstClass email. Some courses used Sakai, but there was no standard look or placement of materials from class to class. The listservs, once a vibrant spot for idea sharing and debate (my first exposure to this was “Blueberry-gate” in 2007), were now defunct and replaced by some bulky mailing lists filling up your inbox.

When I started teaching college, I was handed Blackboard. I had to quickly shift and adapt my LMS knowledge as a student to developing a course site as an instructor. This was more complicated than I expected, and I was a frequent visitor of “open office hours” offered by the LMS support team. Did I set up calculating columns correctly in the gradebook? After a few semesters, Canvas offered a free trial to any faculty. I jumped on the chance to try this new LMS that seemed more intuitive. My students agreed. My view of the LMS shifted a third time when I became an instructional designer and was asked to helped the college consider switching to a new LMS: the requirements of institutions, the concerns of administrators, and choosing a technology for the common good (and hopefully lowest cost). Before that transition was complete, I took a new job at an institution that was launching a switch to Canvas, only its second LMS in 244 years.

As much as I’d like to think I’m a tech radical, I, like most people, judge the new system based on my experience of the last one. There are minor swings of the pendulum between feature-rich complexity or minimal simplicity. Sakai was not an email system. Canvas didn’t have a blog or journal tool. Now we have several bloated softwares with tools no one uses (Canvas chat, anyone?). These unused features are not just an annoyance, they pre-determine how learning should happen, wasting too much time and brainpower on opting-out. In What’s Next for the LMS? (EDUCAUSE Review 2015) Brown, Dehoney, and Millichap offer a framework of five functional domains and call for a “Lego approach.”

What would this LMS look like? In my view, it would have three things:

1) a course roster with stellar SIS integration

2) a gradebook

3) a rock-star LTI and API

That’s it! Oh, except it would also be open source, students would control their own data, including publishing any of their work or evaluations to the block chain, and you could host it locally, distributed, or in the cloud. Never mind the pesky privacy laws (or lack thereof) in the country hosting your server, because the LMS is back on campus. Not connected to the internet? That’s okay too, because there is a killer app that syncs like a boss (like Evernote. Has Evernote ever given you a sync error? No, I didn’t think so.)

Who wins with the new LMS? Students because they own and control their data and it costs less to buy and run. Instructors because they have a solid core with the option to plug any LTI into a class hub. Institutions because costs are lower and the system more secure.
Who loses? The EdTech companies. Or do they? Without standard wiki features and discussion portals, startups and the old standard barriers can invest their R&D and venture funds in really great tools.

So what about all the content? Have you heard of Domain of One’s Own (UMW, CI Keys, Davidson)? We’d all have places to write online, host video, discuss, play games, build games, and code. We’d chose the platform that works for us, agrees with our privacy requirements, and is priced for value (sometimes and hopefully often open source).

The LMS of the future is yours. It is light, simple, secure, and gives you all the choice of plug-ins. The time for the LMS of the future is now!