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De-coupling Course Content Management from the LMS/CMS

My campus is in the latter stages of switching to a new Learning Management System (LMS) after 6+ years on a "first generation" platform. Over the course of these years, our use of web-based learning has gone from essentially zero to thousands of courses and hundreds of faculty participants. Using the built-in content management tools of our first-generation system, these faculty members have developed a rich set of digital content for themselves and their students. After we got past the faculty chorus of "Why are you doing this to me?" and "I'm just now learning the old system and you're making me learn a new one!" we moved on to the task of bringing the hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of pieces of learning content into thousands of course development areas on the new system (which also has its own built-in content management tools.)

In addition to forcing the faculty to relearn the basics of 'teaching' within the new system (e-mail, discussions, etc.), we had to also show them how to become content managers, using an entirely new set of tools and techniques. For months leading up to the cutover to the new system, our faculty had to learn how to navigate the new system's content management structure and presentation mechanisms. (Needless to say, during the RFP process, all of this seemed smaller in scope and more straightforward.) We have now come to realize that, while IMS packaging or built-in migration tools sounds great on the surface, they fall well short of perfection in the cold reality of thousands of courses packed with individual pieces of learning content.

The harsh reality is that migrating from one LMS to another left us highly dependent on the ability of competing software vendors to provide us with a smooth and clean process for migrating content on a massive scale. I have painfully learned that this requires a great leap of faith and left us forcing faculty to redo work already done. The odd thing to me is not how loudly faculty have groused about what they have been asked to do, but the relative silence of so many given the scope of work we forced  on them.
The metaphor that comes to my mind is that of our breaking into a faculty member's carefully organized classroom, throwing all of his or her material into a moving van, driving it to a new location, and then dumping the materials into a heap in front of the new location... for them to sort and re-organize after we're gone.

We are now wrestling with the question of what we will do in another 5-8 years when it is time to switch again. Will we dump the faculty on the street again with their material? Will our current vendor create a smooth path for eventually leaving them? Will the faculty applaud our selection of a new system for them to teach with? The likely answer to all of these questions is a resounding "No!"

What's wrong with this picture?

The central issue is that generally, when we buy an LMS, we are also buying a content management system. We inherit whatever approaches the vendor adopted with respect to managing content. And, while "transferable" skills sounds convincing at one level, LMS vendors really are quite proprietary at many levels, resulting in steeper learning curves than necessary for our instructors. The 'teaching' tools are generally easy to learn, but the content management portion requires a much greater effort. Ironically, throughout our migration, the one thing that did not change was the course content itself. We have expended vast amounts of planning, energy, and political good-will in moving all of this content from one platform to the other - in spite of the fact that virtually none of it was changed!

At the center of this problem is the fact that in today's world, when we acquire a new LMS, we are also acquiring a new content management system with all of its strengths and weaknesses. This would be a good thing if there was a clear value in moving to this new content tool. In our case, the jury is out on this point.

An alternate approach:

It strikes me that it is time to ask -- or require -- LMS vendors to formally decouple themselves from content storage and management. Instead, they should focus their energies on delivering technology that is unique to the teaching environment -- and do that extremely well. Rather, an entirely different platform should be used to address the management of content and there are a number of technology vendors who do so already. For example, on our campus, since 2003, we have been using a web-based file storage system built on a product from Xythos Software. A number of instructors (myself included) have used this as a content management location, requiring that they simply insert pointers within their new course shell to content already stored within Xythos folders. Xythos is an example of a company that does one thing particularly well -- web-based file and storage management.

In effect, this model is functioning as a prototypical LMS-agnostic content management system (or a Learning Object Repository in the jargon of LMS vendors.) Our IT division is also addressing the need for seamless integration through portal and single sign-on technologies. If all faculty members were to adopt this model, then five years out when we switch to a new LMS yet again, their content would stay right where it is and not need to be migrated. The faculty's learning curve would be limited to the new teaching tools and reconnecting their course shells to the untouched and unmoved content.

Benefits to higher education

By limiting the scope of the LMS vendor to just the teaching tools then we have greatly simplified the task of building a 'complete' LMS product thereby reducing the barrier to entry in the LMS marketplace -- both commercial and open-source. And, the more competitors there are in a given marketplace, the better the products become and the more price competition comes into play -- all of which is good for higher education.

As we move further into the 21st century we will see a steady increase in the use of online content delivery. Even with the massive effort my campus has gone through, what we brought over to the new system represents a relatively small percentage of the total learning content taught on our campus. I can only imagine the volume of content to be contended with during our next migration. An additional benefit of the approach I am now recommending will be to greatly simplify this future effort.

I am calling for higher education technology decision-makers to put pressure on the LMS vendor community to begin to un-bundle their products, with particular emphasis on greater flexibility in terms of content management. These vendors should be establishing strategic alignments with technology vendors who specialize in more generalized areas. If we can successfully persuade (or compel) the LMS vendors, we will be in a much better position for future migrations. We will also be much kinder to the faculty on whom all of this is imposed...

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