LMS | Viewpoint

An Island No More: A Game-Changing Application Suite for LMS


The LMS (Blackboard, Desire2Learn, Moodle, Angel, Sakai) is an enterprise-wide and critical platform, but has mostly remained unconnected to the cloud and to the social Web. Not any longer. A new major management platform, plugjam from CommonNeed, makes the LMS into a truly seamless member of the Web while retaining LMS security.

People complain about the learning management system (LMS) used at their campus the way they complain about flying: lots of hassles but essential to their lives. I have been watching plugjam develop for a couple of years and was excited about it a year ago, but when I reviewed its new capabilities this past week, I was stunned: The suite of modules in plugjam brings so many new capabilities to the major LMS platforms--Blackboard, Moodle, Sakai, Desire2Learn, and Angel--that my own view of LMSes went from the ‘airline-complaint’ category to the ‘wow’ category.

Consider the modules, or sets of functionalities in plugjam:

- Business intelligence reporting of data in the LMS--a way to see usage trends and indications of engagement and other important metrics reported to you graphically (in visual displays of the data). It provides a “Google Analytics” for the LMS.

- Open education resources--perhaps the most revolutionary aspect of plugjam, allowing both students and teachers to intelligently search open educational resources (OERs) maintained by Merlot and 10 colleges and universities through the new OER Global Consortium inspired and supported by MERLOT, including Johns Hopkins, MIT, Notre Dame, The Open University, Universidad Politecnica de Madrid, Stanford University, Delft University, University of Massachusetts Boston, The University of Tokyo, and Yale University. Other institutions offer additional OERs, such as Carnegie Mellon, Rice, and others.

- LMS mashups and social network integration--essentially allowing faculty and students to create a portal with a live instantiation of the LMS interface on the same page as social software and other functionalities, literally putting your LMS into the social Web.

- Developing applications from your LMS--for the more technical faculty or students, a way to add widgets and gadgets and other functionality to enhance the LMS.

- Open standards and data portability--plugjam uses a representational state transfer (REST) architecture API.

Plugjam can do all these things through a secure plugjam server that interfaces through its secure API with SIS data, ERP data, LMS content, and Web 2.0 resources.

I don’t normally write just about one application, but because this technology offers the potential for a quantum leap in LMS functionality that would add such amazing new dimensions to the most common academic software in higher education, I felt I needed to make a stronger endorsement than usual.

More about the OER functionality: open educational resources burst onto the scene in the past decade with the advent of the Creative Commons (through the vision of Lawrence Lessig et al.) and a set of new Creative Commons IP licenses emphasizing attribution and not ownership. Out of this “information must be free” impulse that is native to the Web, free software and/or open source software proliferated and now provide much of the important functionality of the Web. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_free_and_open_source_software_packages to get a sense of the vast scope of open source and free software.

For a small subset of this list of open source and free software, a foundation exists, or an official set of developers manages the application, or commercial companies sell services--that is, support--for the software and sometimes help manage the ongoing development of the software.

Of course, we also saw a rapid growth in open content: At the same time that open source was proliferating and becoming an important part of the Web 2.0 landscape, MIT surprised academia by stating that its course materials would all be made available on the Web for free. The MIT OpenCourseWare (OCW) initiative began and soon other universities followed suit. OCW describes itself this way:

“MIT OpenCourseWare is a free publication of MIT course materials that reflects almost all the undergraduate and graduate subjects taught at MIT.
 - OCW is not an MIT education.
 - OCW does not grant degrees or certificates.
 - OCW does not provide access to MIT faculty.
 - Materials may not reflect entire content of the course."
(from http://ocw.mit.edu/about/)

This OCW movement is gaining momentum and getting organized to be more easily searched, thanks to the encouragement of MERLOT. MERLOT defines itself:

“MERLOT is a free and open online community of resources designed primarily for faculty, staff, and students of higher education from around the world to share their learning materials and pedagogy. MERLOT is a leading-edge, user-centered, collection of peer reviewed higher education, online learning materials, catalogued by registered members and a set of faculty development support services.” (from the MERLOT Web site)

Why is all this important? The campus book library of 10 years ago has changed radically: It is now augmented (and perhaps surpassed) by the library on the Web, more easily searched, portable to any Web site, and potentially a broader-based, more up-to-date set of resources than was ever available before to the campus community. With many more Web academic resources becoming available everyday and the LMS, with plugjam, capable of becoming its own “lending library,” each course can be content-rich beyond imagination.

For several years, campus IT leaders have dealt with the challenge of how to protect the privacy of data on campus, as required by law, while at the same time being open to the most dynamic new options emerging on the Web. As a result, Web 2.0 energy and creativity has often been stopped at the campus border. Campus-based software, therefore, has often seemed pale in comparison to sites on the Web.

But, now a perfect good storm is underway: a combination of academic Web-based resources becoming organized and searchable while at the same time, a new technology emerges to bring these riches to the LMS.

CommonNeed was formed by former senior staff at Sun MicroSystems (before it was acquired by Oracle) who wanted to get serious about academic software. I understood their commitment when they were at Sun, and now, a few years later, I can hardly believe what they have created.

Plugjam is being deployed at several institutions. Those campuses that hold an annual review of their LMS--the cost of LMS software generally makes an annual review wise--might consider not just the major 5 platforms (Angel is, for the moment, still maintained by Blackboard) but also the possibility of an LMS+plugjam option, adding so many new features that faculty and students may once again get excited about the campus LMS.

To learn more about plugjam modules and functionalities, see (videos):

 - Business Intelligence Reporting
 - Open Education Resources
 - LMS Mashups and Social Network Integration
 - Developing Applications from your LMS
 - Open Standards and Data Portability

[Graphics used with permission from CommonNeed]


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