21st Century Learning | CT 2011 Coverage

Rethinking the LMS

What's the future of the learning management system? What's its place in higher education environments of the 21st century? Will it even have a place in the coming years?

A panel of educators and vendors delved into those questions during a well attended session at the Campus Technology 2011 conference Wednesday. Of course, they came no closer to a final answer than the rest of the world, but their insights and arguments provided a rich, big-picture view of a question that a growing number of colleges and universities are asking.

"I'm inclined to say that the LMS has no future," said Gary Brown, director of the Center for Online Learning at Portland State University, "unless we understand that there are more valuable aspects of what's happening in instruction than what LMSes have supported today."

Brown was developing online collaboration learning spaces before there was such a thing as an LMS. He was lead developer of TLT Group's Flashlight Online, and he has built several online educational tools. He co-directs the AAEEBL ePortfolio organization and is a senior fellow with the Association of American Colleges and Universities working with the VALUE project.

Brian Whitmer was a bit more hopeful about the prospects for the LMS. In fact, he and fellow Brigham Young University grad student Devlin Daily founded an LMs company called Instructure in 2008 to develop and market their Canvas system.

"We felt that the learning management system had fallen into this rut of static content," Whitmer said. "We felt strongly that the human component had gotten lost. When we developed Canvas, we made sure that the communication between students and teachers would happen, but also that the student-to-student communication would happen on its own, whether or not the instructors were leveraging all of the features of the LMS."

The LMS won't disappear, he added, but it will probably evolve into more of a hub of resources, and that's something that universities are going to continue to want."

Phill Miller, vice president of product strategy for Moodlerooms, said that the LMS has "a great simplification" in its future. He said he expects a schools increasingly to demand solutions that allow them to do only what they do most often, but really well. "At least I hope that that's the future of the LMS because, if it's not, we're going to spend hours and hours and lots of resources trying to extend the LMS to be everything to everybody. And that's a problem."

Moodlerooms is the maker of joule, a learning management platform with open-source Moodle at its core.

Lucy Appert, director of educational technology for New York University, agreed with Miller. She said that the LMS has suffered from a tendency among users to want it to do too much with it.

"The LMS is a place in an ecosystem," she said. "People shouldn't try to leverage too much on one particular environment. I think the LMS has suffered from that. That's how you get a list the length of your arm, and it begins to institutionalize practices and pedagogies.... One of the things that faculty members have rebelled against is how the technology has forced people to think in particular ways."

"It's a legacy of where technology was at the time it was developed," she added. "But with Web 2.0, multiple points of access have opened up for students."

Appert co-chairs NYU's joint faculty and IT task force directing the NYU Sakai OAE project, and she leads the User Reference Group (URG) for the Sakai OAE Community Project. According to the project Web site, Sakai OAE is a new Sakai platform that "re-imagines technology-supported teaching learning and research, creating an open academic environment."

Mark Frydenberg, senior lecturer of computer information systems at Bentley University, said that if educators were honest, they'd have to admit that most use an LMS mainly "as a place to put stuff." He said that alternative solutions that allow students to create materials for classes could supplant the LMS.

"One of the things that concern me about using a traditional LMS in my classes is that the first thing students see on my Blackboard home page is 'Announcements,'" he said. "I'm the only person who can add an announcement. If my students want to share something with other members of the class, they can't do it there. They have to go to the discussion boards three pages deep where nobody is going to find it."

Frydenberg is a technology educator who introduced a new multidisciplinary course at Bentley designed to bring together students in business and liberal arts disciplines to explore the strategic and societal influences of Web 2.0 tech. He's also the author of Web 2.0 Concepts and Applications.

The panel discussion (entitled "Quo Vadis, LMS?") was in some respects a continuation of a conversation started in the July 2011 issue of Campus Technology magazine, noted the panel's moderator and the magazine's executive editor, Andrew Barbour. "It was so compelling that we decided to continue it here," he said.

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