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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 of knowledge.

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 each term.

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., Netscape).

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., O'Reilly Associates).

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 months.

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

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 (

The most ambitious of these shared knowledge communities is the Open Knowledge Initiative (, 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

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 a voice:

  • 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 quacks."

We have an obligation to speak and write reasonably about new models for learning software.


Open Source Resources

Models for Software Development

Standards Efforts

Selected Commercial Learning Management Vendors

Shared Knowledge Communities

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