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Looking Beyond the LMS: Why a Single App Won't Work

What does the next-gen learning management system look like? Educause's Malcolm Brown envisions component-based architecture connected through open standards.

What will the next-generation learning management system look like? Will it just be the next iteration of Blackboard, Canvas or Moodle? Malcolm Brown, executive director of the Educause Learning Initiative (ELI), said his group started researching the topic and decided that was the wrong question.

"We soon realized the thinking that prompted that question was old and in a box. We needed to step outside that box," said Brown. He recalled talking to Randy Bass, vice provost for education at Georgetown University, who said, "If you are talking about a single application, I don't want to talk any further about that."

Speaking last week during a lively Future Trends Forum video chat hosted by Bryan Alexander, Brown said that his conversation with Bass got him thinking about the huge diversity of needs in higher education. There is an increasingly diverse student population in today's colleges and universities, and a wide variety of modalities and course models. "Try to imagine a single application like an LMS that could possibly do justice to the wide range of needs," Brown said, adding that ELI also was influenced by how high a priority personalization and customization of the digital learning environment is in higher education. "Again, that takes you away from the idea of a single application being able to fit the bill for all comers," he said. "We decided an 'uber application' is not going to work."

As it tried to envision the next-generation digital learning environment, ELI started using metaphors such as Legos or a smartphone to describe a component-based architecture, in which individual applications, including an LMS, could all be "swimming around in this space connected through open standards and able to exchange data. That would be the platform," Brown said.
Alexander asked if there was any precedent in educational technology for this approach of multiple applications in a distributed architecture. Brown responded that we are starting to see the basis for connections between applications with open standards such as IMS Global Learning Consortium's Learning Tools Interoperability (LTI) specification and Caliper Analytics, a framework that enables the collection, storage and transport of data about learning. "That is the Esperanto of learning data that now can go from point to point and create a 'learning records store' for the campus," Brown said. "Once it is aggregated, you have a rich source of data you can run analytics on and get a much more focused idea of what your learners are doing."

This approach also allows you to bring in the customization and personalization that institutions have needed for years, he said. At its 2014 annual conference, Educause brought together 50 thought leaders and asked them to imagine what a new learning environment such as this would allow them to do, and they voted on their highest priorities. The No. 1 vote-getter was being able to add discipline-specific applications. "For chemistry or philosophy, they say 'I need to fine-tune my learning environment, and that includes the tools that I make available to my students that work for them and work for me as the instructor.' That was really eye-opening," Brown said.

Alexander asked if major commercial vendors in the educational technology space were on board with the concept. Brown responded that the idea has been well received and is working its way toward realization. Universities in the Netherlands and Spain are working on versions of platforms that are component-based.

He noted that the Unizin collaboration is seeking to innovate precisely in this manner. "You can have a confederation, a looser association of various components," he said. That gives its members the freedom to plug things in and pull them out again, and allow their environment to evolve with open standards.

Brown admitted that there are lots of practical challenges to be worked through. "It is easy to say let's all hold hands and obey the open standards and everything good will be ours. But people have different interpretations about implementing the standards, and sometimes they can be partially implemented. We have been having conversations and everyone seems enthusiastic about it, so the question is how do we get it to move forward."

The LMS would still have a role to play, Brown insisted. "You could still have the LMS as the sun of your environment around which all the planets orbit," he said. "You could have it partially obscured, so the user interface is largely through the LMS, but augmented by side applications." Or the other applications could form the basis of the user experience, and those applications could hook into the LMS as a hub for them.

Lynn University in Florida has done away with the LMS entirely, he added. "The nice thing about this idea is that it is not prescriptive. It says if we can get our applications to talk to each other, then we become the architects, and we are not reliant on someone else to provide architecture for us."

A video chat participant chimed in to illustrate Brown's point. Michael Slade, a faculty member at California State University Monterey Bay, helps CalStateTEACH, a statewide teacher preparation program, with technology implementation. He said the program is starting to put content for a course into a multi-touch book, which has direct links to Canvas. Assignments are submitted through Canvas. "We are using Canvas for collecting material from the students, and the faculty are using its SpeedGrader app," he explained. "We are using Canvas as a thin layer and laying apps on top of it. For instance, we needed a better way to record video, so we developed an app to record video on an iPhone or iPad. Once you upload it, it automatically gets bounced into your Canvas account. We are using Canvas as the core glue to hold together a bunch of other things."

Brown said that sounded like a nice example of the basic idea of the next-generation learning environment. "It sounds like Canvas has become thin, which is one metaphor for it. Or we can think of it as receding into the background. But it sounds like the students' primary learning experience is not through Canvas, but through this application you have built. That is where the reading, thinking, posting of notes takes place, but Canvas still has a role and remains a hub. But the learning experience is invested elsewhere."

When asked how this new paradigm might impact the role of the CIO and the IT department, Brown said, "I think there is a huge role. I don't see that role changing. IT is still going to be in charge of the infrastructure, but also, given their technical expertise, they are the most informed about what is plausible to connect and what is not, and to encourage open standards," he said. Procurement is another important factor, he added, because an institution can say, "We are looking to buy x, but one of the requirements for x is that it needs to adopt open standards." Brown said no one understands the strategic importance of technology better than the IT folks. "Their role is not diminished in this, because there is a lot we need to figure out."

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