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Learning Management Systems | Feature

Quo Vadis, LMS? Trends, Predictions, Commentary

A panel of leading technologists, educators, and vendors discusses the future of the LMS and the innovations needed to make it integral to 21st century learning.

The LMS market is in flux. According to a 2010 survey conducted by the Campus Computing Project, Blackboard's dominance of the higher education market declined from 71 percent in 2006 to 57 percent in 2010. Open source alternatives Moodle and Sakai have continued to make inroads, as has Desire2Learn--together they now control over 30 percent of the market. The entry of Instructure, whose Canvas LMS recently scooped up the business of the Utah Education Network, provides an additional plot twist. And hanging over it all is the imminent migration of hundreds of legacy Blackboard clients to new systems as their existing platforms are retired.

Often overlooked in the numbers game, though, are more fundamental--even philosophical--questions about the evolving role of the LMS and its ability to meet the needs of higher education today. If the debate of recent years has been between open source and proprietary systems, the focus is gradually shifting to how all of these systems will tackle the thorny issues of informal learning, social networking, assessment, and a mobile learning environment.

To gauge what the future may hold, CT asked leading educators and vendors for their thoughts on the evolution of the LMS in higher education.

LMS Panelists

Josh Baron
Senior academic technology officer
Marist College (NY)

Michael Feldstein
Senior program manager, MindTap MindApps
Cengage Learning

Mark Frydenberg
Senior lecturer and instructional software specialist
Bentley University (MA)

Matt Leavy
CEO, Pearson eCollege

Ian Smissen
Director, eLearning Strategies

Brian Voss
Vice chancellor for IT and CIO
Louisiana State University

Brian Whitmer

Campus Technology: What is the most important issue facing LMSs today?

Voss: Getting faculty to make use of it. If people don't use the LMS--or don't understand it or perhaps need help learning how to use it fully--then its value is decreased. I think we must continue to focus less on the LMS itself and more on how to help our faculty make use of it. Then, through their use, shape its development in support of teaching and learning.

Whitmer: LMSs need to embrace openness. We've seen a little bit of this, but there's plenty of work left to do. The traditional LMS is a walled garden. It's data in, nothing out. There are powerful tools all over the internet, and education companies need to learn how to work with these tools instead of trying to rewrite and replace them. This means that LMSs are going to have to become more open and flexible, because the walled-garden approach won't work anymore.

Baron: The LMS must evolve from systems that simply automate teaching, learning, and research collaboration to technologies that also facilitate, and even drive, true innovation--innovation that fundamentally changes how academia works. The ability to post a syllabus (a staple automation function of any enterprise LMS) needs to be complemented with capabilities that embrace the participatory culture of our students and faculty. Ultimately, if the LMS cannot evolve beyond a tool to automate education, it will likely become extinct.

Smissen: The biggest challenge for LMSs today is the tension between being a one-stop shop for e-learning (incorporating the tools and features required by most teachers and learners) and providing the flexibility and extensibility to enable easy access to a range of third-party and custom-built learning tools--all in a scalable, reliable, and secure package.

Gary Brown, an assessment consultant at Washington State University, discusses the challenges facing the LMS in an educational environment that increasingly stresses learning that is not confined to a classroom. Read it here.

CT: How will mobile tech influence the LMS?

Feldstein: Mobile is going to be a struggle for LMS developers. These systems were designed with the PC in mind. On a deeper level, we have to ask what teaching and learning tasks make sense on a tablet or a mobile phone. So far, LMS developers have been working to make their discussion boards available on the iPhone and the like. That's important foundational work, but I haven't seen any indication yet that they have ideas about what's unique about m-learning.

Smissen: Mobile technologies offer the opportunity to get closer to the "anytime, anywhere" claim so frequently touted as a benefit of e-learning. An LMS needs to be accessible from mobile devices, be they media players, phones, tablets--or whatever device the future may bring--to really enhance the learner's ability to interact when and where they need to.

Frydenberg: LMSs will need to create a user experience that takes advantage of the features of cell phones and tablet devices. Learning exercises may include more simulations and multimedia, and fewer multiple-choice questions. Mobile LMSs will need to give students the ability to work offline. While most students using smartphones have data plans, and students use wireless internet access for their tablets, netbooks, and laptops, there are still many places where internet access is not always available.

Whitmer: Mobile technology is going to give birth to new forms of communications and collaboration that will impact online learning. Since typing on a mobile device is hard for long messages (writing a term paper on an iPhone sounds like an exercise in futility to me), I think we'll start to see video messaging become more common. That's one very basic example, but it is probably just a hint of the kinds of change that will happen in communication as web-enabled mobile devices become ubiquitous. It's exciting to see geo-location and video chat take off in the mobile ecosystem where they didn't so much in a desktop environment. I look forward to seeing how these technologies affect interactions in an education setting.

CT: How will electronic learning content affect the LMS?

Feldstein: This is actually linked to the question about mobile. The development that is finally making e-textbooks feasible is the tablet, where LMSs don't really play well yet. Furthermore, the LMS isn't well designed for sustained content interaction. What we're likely to see is LMSs providing services (e.g., discussion, homework drop box, quizzes, etc.) that can be presented in an e-reader, and e-textbook activities will return grades back to the LMS.

Leavy: The LMS as a technology tool is nearly valueless without high-quality electronic learning content. And electronic learning content is of limited value without the functionality associated with an LMS, including assessment, social interaction, outcomes management, academic structure, measurement, and reporting.

The future of the LMS and electronic learning content are entirely intertwined in a model that looks more like the exploding market for assessment-driven learning applications rather than the PowerPoint posted to a website/LMS (which is still all too common).

The demands of electronic content are already driving much of the development of the most serious LMSs. The impacts range from simple functionality like streaming video to more sophisticated development around building outcomes-management systems, content repositories, assessment and analytics systems, standards-based data systems, and content exchange/rating systems. As the sophistication increases, the authoring process is being developed to eliminate friction, so that faculty, instructional designers, students, and publishers can all make use of sophisticated tools as well as inject teach-ready courses or modules into their environments.

CT: How will the LMS change the nature of instruction and assessment?

Whitmer: I actually don't think the LMS should change instruction. I think good teaching is good teaching, and technology shouldn't get in the way of that. Really great educators, whether they're in a classroom or on YouTube, know the best way to share knowledge with their learners. We should be focusing on giving them the right tools to do that, rather than asking them to shift their approach to accommodate flashy new technologies.

Voss: I believe LMS is already changing the nature of instruction, as teachers begin to see the power of such tools to expand the ways they teach. They can gather more information into a more usable structure, and thus improve access to materials and content. They can make the routine matters of instruction more automated, allowing them to focus on scholarly transfer of knowledge. As for assessment, I'm not sure this has been addressed yet. But I firmly believe that LMS is not the solution--though it could be a tool. Fundamentally, academia must wrestle with what assessment is and how to do it; then we can look at whether LMS is a useful tool for that purpose.

Baron: Today's learning, whether on the ground or online, tends to take place in fairly closed learning environments that are isolated from the real world. If the LMS begins to embrace the movement towards openness in education, it will begin to break down this artificial barrier, allowing knowledge and learning experiences to flow more easily across it. A secure but permeable LMS of this nature would facilitate regular interactions between students and experts from industry as well as peers from other cultures and societies. At the same time, it will promote the use of Open Educational Resources (OER) as well as the dissemination of student-generated content for use by those outside the institution. And the integration of the LMS with electronic portfolios, particularly those that support structured assessment, will provide instructors with powerful tools to assess student learning in more authentic ways than traditional multiple-choice tests. We may be entering a new assessment era in which students will graduate not with a single-page transcript but a media-rich portfolio that provides direct evidence of their achievements.

CT: Do LMSs inhibit innovative curricula?

Frydenberg: In Blackboard, the first button on most class pages says "Announcements"--and only the instructor can add them. If my students want to share relevant events, blog posts, websites, or videos with their classmates, the LMS doesn't offer them a way to announce this information to the class. Many LMSs place the teacher in the role of creating content and the student in the role of consuming it. This is contrary to a web 2.0 world that relies on user-generated content.

Some of today's LMSs integrate many different technology tools: Blogs, wikis, and podcasting tools are often standard collaboration features of LMSs. Teachers must determine which to use as applications within the LMS, and which are better left to "real world" web applications. Should students learn to use a blogging or wiki application that is unique to a particular LMS, or should they learn WordPress or Blogger or Google Sites to develop skills in these technologies that they might use beyond their college courses?

CT: How will the use of analytics in LMSs change the educational experience?

Leavy: Analytics have the power to drive the evolution of pedagogy and the student experience. There are two principal axes along which analytics will propel learning. The first axis is toward personalization. The real-time evaluation of learning and activity data allows our systems to adapt to provide a learning experience that is individually appropriate to a given student. The current state of personalization tends to be based on tracking the development of online work and identifying interventions that have worked in the past for students with common data patterns. As we advance into whole-program and learner-lifecycle systems, sophisticated learner profiles are being developed from which more precise and efficient learning paths will emerge.

The second axis is toward content and pedagogy improvement. Not all learning experiences are created equal and we can evaluate the difference through analytics. By tracking carefully developed learning objects in repositories and using analytics to measure the impact of exposing learners to those experiences, we will be able to demonstrate quality at a very granular level.

There are a couple of keys to advancing the effective use of analytics. The first is developing some commonality of teaching practice--i.e., if all variables are distinct between sections and courses, then the data doesn't mean much. The second is that the larger the data set, the more powerful the data. In other words, data landlocked in a particular course or campus are less powerful than data held in the cloud. Currently, the most effective analytics are gathered from common learning applications or those programs based on the master-course model that serve millions of students.

Smissen: Good analytics tools provide both a rearview mirror and a predictive look into the future to enable LMS users to make decisions about themselves, their staff, or their systems. Students will be able to monitor their own progress against discipline-based, generic, and self-generated learning objectives and compare their performance against class, institutional, state, or national averages. Instructors will be able to develop predictive models of indicators for success or for students at risk of failing--and manage their content, assessment, and interaction with students accordingly. Academic administrators will be able to analyze courses and/or instructors that consistently do well or poorly in student satisfaction and evaluation surveys, allowing professional-development and instructional-design efforts to be directed where they will be most effective. Institutional IT directors and managers will be able to see which tools are being used by whom, when, and where, in order to make decisions about infrastructure maintenance and improvements.

CT: What will LMSs look like in 10 years?

Frydenberg: LMSs will adapt to a student's learning style, actually managing learning more than learning materials. They will know in what areas a student needs help, provide additional relevant evaluation exercises, and suggest they see their instructors in person for help. Perhaps students will be able to speak their responses, and the LMS will be able to evaluate what they say.

Smissen: It is difficult to predict what educational technologies will look like in two years, let alone 10, but I expect the most significant changes will come from connectability. Mobile and WiFi technologies will merge, and bandwidth and connection speed will continue to improve exponentially. With these will come opportunities for multistream communication with multimedia, audio, and video on a single device. Resources will be managed in cloud-based repositories that will allow authenticated users to access approved content from anywhere in the world. Interoperability standards will ensure that technology providers can develop tools that will plug and play with other tools. Authentication and accreditation systems will enable students to enroll across multiple institutions, selecting courses to build a program to meet their individual needs while still meeting employability and professional registration requirements. In this world of the future, the LMS will provide a secure, scalable, and extensible backbone upon which institutions can construct virtual teaching and learning environments from a suite of tools and global resources to meet their needs.

What LMS Developers Can Learn From Facebook

For many people, Facebook is the embodiment of what web 2.0 tools are all about: the social interaction, the user-generated content, the sheer scope of the connections possible. It's a phenomenon that has swept the country and energized revolutions a world away. CT asked the panel to weigh the lessons for the LMS of Facebook's success.

Baron: For decades we have known that there is a social component to education, so it should come as no surprise that connecting people with common teaching, learning, and research interests across our institutions has significant implications. We are also coming to understand that efforts to push academics into this new social dimension of students' lives is similar to attempting to lecture at the bar on Friday night: Just because students spend a lot of time on Facebook socializing doesn't mean that they want their courses to be held there. These realizations should push LMS developers to incorporate new forms of social networking that are designed specifically to enhance academics. These would also provide students and faculty with a protected environment to network with their peers and instructors--much as our physical campuses do today.

Frydenberg: Integrating social-networking features in LMSs could be useful. LMSs may take on additional features of social networks, allowing students to post profiles and connect with their classmates. Teachers and students could post to the class's wall page, share ideas, interesting blog posts, videos, or other online resources. There could be group pages for group projects. Imagine going to your LMS to see which of your classmates are logged in and working on homework, so you can chat with them. This could change the in-person classroom dynamic as it becomes easier for students and teachers to know their classmates. The social LMS may extend beyond the physical classroom, allowing students to connect with peers in similar courses from other universities. On the other hand, it creates the possibility of a popularity contest in the classroom. Do we want really want students to "Like" our lectures?

Whitmer: Facebook is teaching us that communication needs to be at the forefront of web interactions. Facebook is all about conversations, and how interactions between individuals can bring about significant, sometimes surprising results. Meaningful communication, both structured and unstructured, is one of the most powerful tools for effective education. We're seeing examples of the power of communication from Facebook, and also from startups like OpenStudy, Piazzza, and Inigral. Presentation of content is important and useful, but if that's all the LMS has to offer, it will be replaced by Wikipedia or Google Search.

Feldstein: It's not what you know. It's who you know that can help you expand what you know.

Voss: Ease of use and intuitiveness certainly are big draws to Facebook. But there are many factors that I don't believe allow for a direct transfer of "coolness" between the two. Let's also remember that LMSs can be viewed as a social network, but usually as a society tightly defined to a given class. What many people also miss in the rush to Facebook-ize the LMS is that Facebook does have issues--privacy being one. And while good sense should govern our privacy concerns in Facebook, there are laws (FERPA) that dictate privacy with the LMS.

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