Learning Management Systems: Seeking Paradigms for Collaboration
Learning Management Systems (LMSes),
called Virtual Learning Environments by our European colleagues, are no longer
the purview of individual faculty developers. While there are some pioneers
who continue to develop flexible learning software as part of their disciplinary
work, the tide is definitely turning. Learning Management Systems are becoming
enterprise-class software systems.
What is enterprise software? Software that connects and adds value to basic
services that are important to your work. The "work" that is central to teaching
institutions, whether K-12 or higher education, is learning. Our jobs are fundamentally
based on fostering learning among our "clients"—our students. Everything that
supports this process enables the primary purpose of our enterprise. At R1 universities,
we are simultaneously engaged in knowledge creation, pushing our disciplines
beyond the boundaries of what is currently known, along with the transmission
The enterprise systems on which we rely vary. They are basic services providing
security on our networks, such as authentication and authorization; or file
system services that give applications a common place and mechanism to store
information in some common location. Others provide services that tell us who
is a member of our class, or what courses a student we advise has taken. Of
course, the most basic enterprise software d'es what is common to the human
condition: sending bills to students and parents at the beginning or end of
Building enterprise software is hard work. Most of us buy the fruits of that
labor from vendors. We may establish various relationships with our vendors—as
one-time purchasers seeking the lowest price to building partnerships. Our vendor-institution
partnerships may be limited to implementation teams with vendor involvement
and collaborative software development. Unfortunately, the latter rarely happens.
That's actually a type of relationship that deserves careful thought. We need
new and better models for developing learning tools, be they specific applications
or universitywide learning systems.
What Are the Models?
In Eric Raymond's well-known book, The Cathedral and the Bazaar, he describes
software development as following a traditional hierarchical business model.
The alternative in this particular continuum is the freewheeling, independent,
modular development process of the open source world, the bazaar.
Translating these archetypes into more recognizable types gives:
1. Support Sellers, otherwise known as, "Give Away the Recipe, Open
a Restaurant" (e.g., Red Hat).
2. Loss Leaders—Give away the open source, sell proprietary tools (e.g.,
3. Widget Frosting—Invite open contributions to essential software required
for other, more traditional commercial sales (e.g., SGI and its support of Samba).
4. Accessorizing—This is a variation of widget frosting, representing
the commercial sale of things surrounding installed open source software (e.g.,
Of these models, and their various combinations, we need to ask ourselves how
we can participate to influence the process to obtain learning tools that engender
better teaching and learning. We also must challenge ourselves to think about
what else can be done. Are these the only available avenues open to us?
The vendors remaining in the Learning Management System arena are not just
sitting in their cathedrals. They are engaging in various arenas trying to figure
out how to address the issues that their users are raising. They are participating
in the forums where standards are set, such as the IMS Global Learning Consortium.
Beyond contributing to standards development they are trying to position themselves
to be partners in one fashion or another. Of course, their perspectives are
shaped by their efforts to position open source and commercial partnerships
around their software as the hub of the online learning universe. That's understandable.
They have shareholders and profit objectives on which to deliver every three
Blackboard has positioned its "Building Blocks" program as the hub from which
both commercial "best of breed" tools can be added as well as providing local
campus developers a way to add functionality to the core Blackboad LMS. WebCT,
for its part, has established both commercial partnerships to facilitate adding
specific tools to extend their LMS functionality, as well as sponsored an open
source development community hosted off of SourceForge (see www.webct.com/exchange/ViewContent?contentID=2198834).
Leaving things at that, however, would ignore the work going on among many
of our colleagues that are shaping possible futures for learning systems.
Shared Knowledge Communities
There are a number of shared knowledge communities in which we can all participate
in evolving new working models for learning systems and tool development. Some
of these are discipline-based, such as the Harvey Project to build human physiology
course materials on the Web, which uses the Generic Object Exchange community
software forum. Others are multi-disciplinary, typified by Merlot (www.merlot.org).
The most ambitious of these shared knowledge communities is the Open Knowledge
which defines open architectural specifications to support the development of
educational software. In fact, the good news is that there is a mutual recognition
that these efforts can benefit from greater coordination. OKI, IMS, Schools
Interoperability Framework (SIF), and ADL have agreed to coordinate strategy
and conduct common activities in this area (see http://imsglobal.org/pressrelease/pr021031.cfm).
These efforts are attempts to foster conversation around the building, as well
as the sharing and practical exchange of learning software systems and tools.
These are important efforts. While the acronym soup may be challenging, they
are communities you need to learn about and find ways with which to engage.
We aren't all developers, or architects, or faculty, or K-12 teachers. We may,
at times, play some of these roles, however, we are all interested in leveraging
our intellectual capital to make technology more useful to teaching and learning.
Finding a Voice
How do we make ourselves heard in the cacophony of dotcoms, dotorgs, and dotnets
that are working to create the next generation of learning tools? As the saying
g'es, think globally, act locally. Here are some suggestions to help you find
- Seek public forums among your disciplinary societies and professional associations
to express your thoughts about learning technologies.
- Participate in the Educause/National Learning Infrastructure Initiative
(NLII) virtual communities of practice initiatives that are currently addressing
Electronic Portfolio Practices, Learning Objects, Teaching and Learning, and
the New Academy.
- Get involved with the IMS Global Learning Initiative (to become a voting
member is an institutional commitment but individuals can participate without
a membership fee).
- Subscribe to the OKI Announcements list to learn more about their efforts.
- Raise your voice at your own institution that the selection and relevant
design of learning tools need your input.
- Participate in the Syllabus community to meet with your colleagues around
the educational tools that matter to you.
- Don't acknowledge "no" or silence as an acceptable response to your concerns.
William James, the philosopher and educator, gave a eulogy for his compatriot
Robert Gould Shaw on the Boston Commons in 1897. He was speaking to honor not
only Shaw but also express what it means to be a citizen in a great nation.
His ideas are relevant today in thinking about community involvement in shaping
the direction of the world in which we live, including the small part in which
we inhabit educating our citizens.
He wrote: "A great nation is not saved by wars. It is saved by acts without
external picturesqueness; by speaking, writing, voting reasonably; by smiting
corruption swiftly; by good temper between parties; by people knowing true men
when they see them, and preferring them as leaders to rapid partisans or empty
We have an obligation to speak and write reasonably about new models for learning
Open Source Resources
- O-LMS, Open-Learning Management System, Tom Malloy, Gary Jensen, and
Mary Reddick, www.psych.utah.edu/learn/olms/
- Open Source Resources, http://www.openresources.com/index.html
- Free/Libre and Open Source Software: Survey and Study, FLOSS Final
Report, International Institute of Infonomics, University of Maastricht,
The Netherlands, Berlecon Research GmbH, Berlin, Germany, June 2002,
- Open Source Library Systems: Getting Started, 1999, Dan Chudnov, www.oss4lib.org/articles/oss4libarticle.php3
- DSpace, http://dspace.org/index.html
- Open Archive Initiative, www.openarchives.org/
Models for Software Development
Selected Commercial Learning Management Vendors
Shared Knowledge Communities