Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Why Would We Need an LMS Anyway?

This is something that has been on my mind for a while. As more and more people announce the death of the learning management system in higher education and the design work on Sakai 3 moves along, I kinda have to agree in many ways. Here are some of my thoughts on this issue.

A Look Back In Time

As I look back at some of the primitive course management systems I have been exposed to as a student and at the beginning of my career, a couple of things strike me. First, those systems were affordable. You didn't have to cut a six-figure check to run these systems. Some of them were free, others were home-grown, and the commercial alternatives were relatively inexpensive. Developers kept a workstation under their desk to run the software. Back in those simpler days, an LMS was a novelty, something people were experimenting with, not unlike what we are doing now with mobile technologies or virtual worlds. People expected the LMS to fail at one point or another, and the few faculty pioneers planned accordingly, always keeping a plan B in their back pocket.

Another reason why they had some value was because of the absence of real good alternatives to publish to the web. The LMS became a central point to "dump" material to students, a remnant of the "Sage on the Stage" mentality combined with the Powerpoint frenzy of the late nineties (unfortunately, a lot of institutions are still fostering such an online learning environment today). Still, posting material to the web instead of using other alternatives represented a real revolution in knowledge distribution. Photocopies and email attachments could now be avoided, saving money and angry calls to the help center.

The stone age LMS also included some features like discussion boards, mailing lists, assignment dropboxes, and a grade book, tools that were not easily available outside of the LMS. The monolitic LMS included everything in one software package, all that was missing was the clear-wrapped box. Easy enough, its adoption slowly rose, as more institutions joined the recently coined "e-learning" bandwagon.

The Monolithic LMS, Part Deux

As more and more institutions got interested in using an LMS, once academic pilots started turning into big business. Smelling the money because of technology lock-down, commercial products like WebCT and Blackboard started increasing their licensing fees to their current level. At Delaware, our first WebCT license came with a bill of around $3,000 back in 2000. Today, you can now expect a six-figure bill for one of the most recent commercial LMS. We're talking about an increase between 50 and 100 times in 9 years, outrageously ahead of the inflation rate for the same period (roughly 25% - see Teaching with an LMS is now a core higher education activity, and no serious academic institution can really live without one.

What was the alternative? Starting an LMS from scratch? That required a lot of resources and a lot of time... Some institutions have gone down that road, and have been pretty successful. But then, as users demand more stuff to be included, bug fixing becomes the focus as feature creep starts to appear... And then how do you keep up with all these requests? Users see these things on other systems and sites that work so smoothly, yet your system looks like it's from the middle-age, just like in Eric Burke's cartoon!

Then came open-source. Noticing the success stories behind different open-source initiatives like Linux, Apache, and MySQL, higher education institutions started fiddling with Moodle and Sakai, but those system were considered for the longest time way too risky... What if there is a security breach and that our user data got exposed? No way, I'm sticking with Blackbox, ... I mean Blackboard! They know how to protect my data, they don't even show me how their system works, so how would a hacker know?

The End of the LMS (As We Know It)

As it is the case in many areas of life, we are now beginning a new cycle. A cycle of fragmentation. Instead of the classic Taylorism that created wealth for generations, we are now entering the era of on-demand, customized, buffet-style web publishing. As more and more sites, apps, widgets, and devices enter our everyday lives, we become exposed to new ways of interacting with information. And since academia is primarily an information industry, changes will become more noticeable.

Commercial LMSs are the new home-grown systems, without the control. As much as they would like to control, analyze, retain, track, and integrate everything, there is always a web startup that does it better for one part of the process. And guess what? These services are free or nearly free (fremium), as defined by Chris Anderson in his latest book (which I recommend by the way). How can you compete with free?

So, now that all the fun stuff in in the cloud, what's left of the LMS? It's still somewhat useful, right? Not everyone's an Edupunk yet, right?

All Boxed In

I had an interesting email exchange with an instructor about a month ago. He was asking me why he wasn't allowed to keep all the files for his course (including some huge screencasts exported from Keynote) IN his course site in Sakai. I answered that there was a storage limit set on each course site, and that his screencast could probably be hosted on our flash video streaming server or on YouTube, and linked to from his Sakai course. He came back with the following remark:

I tought of WebCT as a place where I stored a course. I guess I now have to change this vision with Sakai.

That made me think of how boxed in a lot of us still are when we think of the LMS. It should have never been that way, but this false perception is something that needs to be dissipated in order to really push the envelope and really leverage the use of technology for teaching and learning.

The Core LMS is Now a Layer...

I believe there are some basic features to the LMS that still have value. Indiana University's vision, as defined in an ECAR research paper, follows.

It is true that Web 2.0 is gaining significant attention for providing some of the major tools, including wikis and blogs, which encourage social networking and support collaborative learning. But Web 2.0 is not a substitute for the CMS. Online structured learning environments must be able to connect to student data, registrar information, scheduling, and other enterprise information systems. Itself an enterprise system, the CMS provides the framework on which to innovate; it offers cohesion to the flurry of innovations developing around Web 2.0 and the core institutional systems and data to which they must link.

I think the main point here is that stuff can be stored and worked on collaboratively anywhere in the cloud, but only in a structured environment can you automate processes and collect data that makes sense to higher education institutions (this is especially true when it comes down to student portfolios and institutional assessment of learning). That structured environment could also be outsourced to Google, Microsoft, Apple, etc., or hosted outside your institutional walled garden, following rSmart's or Moodlerooms' model. It all depends on your institution's policies and local regulations regarding student privacy. There is still a layer of protected data that needs to be controled internally, like student grades, exams, papers, and instructor feedback for instance. Automating processes and protecting data are not necessarely very high pedagogical goals that are likely to get educational technologists excited, but they are the bread and butter of higher education institutions at this point in time.

A side point to Indiana's message is innovation. As discussed earlier, I don't believe a lot of companies in the world have what it takes to keep ahead of the curve all the time when it comes to web development. Open source software offers the opportunity to experiment with innovation as fast as its community of users wants it to go.

The LMS, without being a one stop shop, is still a pretty decent gathering point, an aggregator of learning content and activities. Students and faculty only have one URL to remember, access is granted by the system automatically through a unique identifier. The ability to create learning objects and activities, and embed web pages, widgets, and rich media from all sorts of sources is going to become more and more important, as the LMS becomes the wrapper that gives a context to content, the guide on the side(bar).

To visualize the LMS as a layer, I doodled this during a presentation to some faculty members a couple of months ago:

The LMS as an Aggregator

LMS native tools are not perfect. They will never fully rival with Web 2.0 alternatives; they will always be a step behind. Yet, they might be good enough for the majority of instructors, who will prefer to keep everything in one place, sometimes simply because it's convenient. For those who prefer to be on the bleeding edge, the Web 2.0 is an incredible educational sandbox to experiment with.

So, what is your vision of the LMS of the future?


Kajiai said...

Without going into too much detail, let me say that I agree with you, Mathieu. I think that is actually one reason why the open source alternatives have been gaining ground--they are more nimble in terms of being able to add more sources into the LMS layer. The commercial offerings often seem to be trying to recreate the service within their environment as a paid-for extension, rather than simply opening up a channel into the system.

Mathieu Plourde said...

Thanks for the comment Kajiai. The LMS toolset definitely has to evolve into something less static and restraining. Commercial products seem to lag in stepping up and adjusting their business model to this new reality.

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