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The Wait is Over: The LMS and the ePortfolio Merge to Serve a Culture of Learning

"The CMS became the IMS became the LMS became…"

A few short years from now, what will we tell our children about the storied past of the LMS? What will it become? In the 1990s, the course management system (CMS) emerged to help faculty manage their courses through the Web. The name morphed to IMS (instructional management system), and then to LMS (learning management system).

Historical LMS/ePortfolio Distinctions

Under any name, though, the LMS was always distinctly different from another promising technology: electronic portfolios.

- The LMS is course based; ePortfolios are learner-based

- The LMS is faculty-centered; ePortfolios are student-centered

- LMS content disappears after the course; ePortfolio content persists

- An LMS is 'owned' by the institution; ePortfolios are owned by the student

- The LMS supports the status quo; ePortfolios anticipate the future

In past conversations I've had with educators, it seemed to me that the LMS almost always took on the reputation of a "necessary evil." Still, there was no sign of this technology going away. And ePortfolios, it seemed, held the place of a minor player on the stage of education technology. But all that is starting to change.

A Culture Change Puts the Focus on Learning

As part of the general cultural shift to a dominant knowledge economy driven by information technologies and attendant changes in expectations of college graduates, the conversation about higher education has also changed. In this conversation, the trend now is away from teaching to learning, from learning in an academic course to continuous learning, and from classroom-centric to learning-centric designs; away from tools for the individual learner to social learning, from lecture to activity, from artificial to authentic, and from testing to evidence. It makes one wonder if we will retain, over time, the word instruction, or even education? Or will we just use the all-encompassing term learning?

These cultural trends and the demands of the knowledge economy lead educators to recognize the values of the ePortfolio over the LMS--especially considering the commonly held understanding of the distinctions between the two technologies as outlined above. The LMS is the legacy technology; the ePortfolio is the anticipatory technology.

The trends we’re seeing now toward a focus on learning and on the learner provide a context for understanding the significant shift in how these two technologies are evolving and realigning: LMS and ePortfolio technologies appear to be in the early stages of a major re-imagining.

Sakai OAE: New Directions

Sakai's OAE (Open Academic Environment; formerly "Sakai 3") provides an excellent example.

- In OAE, all users--students and faculty--have equal privileges, except within the more discrete "membership" category of a course (one can have dozens of memberships, all treated equally)--but even there, the instructor has only slightly more weight.

- The new architecture behind Sakai OAE is "learning centered," that is, not course centered.

- OAE easily incorporates apps, plug-ins, and widgets. Within rSmart Academic (based on OAE with extra functionality), you'll find a kind of "app store" with technologies that can be incorporated into the institutional instance of OAE. [See http://www.rsmart.com/sakai/sakai-3 for more about rSmart's version of OAE.]

- Content can be placed in a library that can be shared on campus with all or with a select group. The library persists over time and thus takes on the nature of a local OER (Open Educational Resource) repository. 

- Through one's "profile," users can now create an "almost-ePortfolio." The profile, however, can immediately be used for promotion and tenure documentation.

- New features are being added that will flesh out the ePortfolio capabilities as OAE continues to be developed by the community.

The LMS and the ePortfolio: Removing the Distinctions

Sakai OAE now encompasses the learner's life and at least potentially all learning. It reflects the fact that the culture now owns learning--and OAE can manage ambient learning, not just parsed blocks of learning tied necessarily to a particular program or course. Probably the most profound statement that OAE makes epistemologically is that "knowledge," as in the libraries and in the Piazza discussion forum, is a continuing process. Knowledge is not a thing that can be chopped into discrete segments as in the classic course structure but is, instead, a flow. These new directions of OAE technology, to the extent they indicate a broad trend, are beginning to overturn the stark distinctions between the LMS and the ePortfolio mentioned above.

The rSmart instance of the Sakai OAE in particular actually completely eliminates the old distinctions between LMS and ePortfolio. By enlarging the problem space almost infinitely (because it's open to including apps from the Web), it is more than the sum of LMS and the ePortfolio, but something much larger.

What we see in all this is a conceptual breakthrough in LMS thinking that brings the LMS closer to the epistemology behind ePortfolio technology. This new thinking--and I know it is not limited to the Sakai development community--is a watershed moment in the history of education technology. We see both the influence of the social Web and of our accumulated knowledge about learning in this new architecture.

Playing Out the Future of Learning Technologies

OAE is a new part of the larger trend and cultural focus on learning, that at least in the rSmart instance completely eliminates any vestige of the old LMS-ePortfolio distinctions. Some other LMS providers also have incorporated an ePortfolio system and, in some of these multi-centered systems, LMS features and ePortfolio features overlap, content is available for both purposes, and we again see less of a distinction between the LMS and the ePortfolio. Some traditional ePortfolio systems have, as well, added LMS capabilities.

Still, we're at the beginning of a transitional process. I learned during a demo of rSmart Academic a couple of weeks ago that OAE does not yet have the learning outcomes backend that Sakai CLE has. It is still evolving. That's why NYU, University of Michigan, Indiana University, Berkeley, Cambridge, and Charles Sturt University (AU) still use CLE even while they pilot OAE.

And, as is often the case, the technology, and our attendant understanding of learning are ahead of academic practice. For intelligent comment on this phenomenon, see a recent article by Randy Bass entitled "Disrupting Ourselves: The Problem of Learning in Higher Education" at https://blogs.commons.georgetown.edu/cndls/2012/03/29/article-by-randy-bass-published-in-educause-review/

And while it's not a clear-cut path to the engagement of the LMS and the ePortfolio to support learning, the trend toward unified systems that better fit the cultural conditions I mentioned above is well under way.

The move from the traditional LMS of the past 15 years toward architectures represented by Sakai OAE also coincide with other major new movements in our culture such as MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) and badges. If the traditional course and the traditional academic curriculum are no longer the "primary center" of learning, as Bass claims, then the traditional design of the LMS can no longer be geared toward the course and the traditional curriculum. The LMS, like the ePortfolio will necessarily be geared toward the life-long learner.

What we used to call the education technology industry, but which now should be called "the learning technology industry," has wrestled with the terminology "LMS" and "ePortfolio" for a while.

Ramesh Sabetiashraf of RCampus said:

"During the development of RCampus, we were faced with a terminology dilemma. RCampus merged course management and ePortfolios, and a proper term for this combo would be 'Learning Management,' but the term 'LMS' is commonly used to refer to 'Course Management.' As ePortfolios gain acceptance as viable learning tools, and as new features in various solutions evolve to cover a wider range of learning activities, the industry needs a term that encompasses this broader view of learning. By redefining the LMS as the umbrella for various learning activities, we also embrace the emergence of new tools for learning." [Personal e-mail 5-8-12]

And, Heather Hiles, CEO of Pathbrite said:

"Students today like to think of themselves as whole people and not some composite of non-overlapping silos. Next-generation portfolios should reflect the whole person, enabling an individual to assemble and curate all of the digital breadcrumbs from a life's work and accomplishment into a single, beautiful expression of both achievement and possibility." [Personal e-mail 5-6-12]

I'm a long-time advocate of ePortfolios. I was Chair of the Board of the Open Source Portfolio Initiative funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation that resulted in OSP, the Open Source Portfolio, which became the ePortfolio platform within Sakai. I have waited a long time for the predominant learning technologies to support new learning designs. It seems the wait is over.

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