Blowing up the LMS

Educause published an article recently about the future of the good old Learning Management System (insert eye roll here). Several of the notable thinkers in our space have had interesting things to say about the article, like Tony Bates, and others have already talked about the concept, like Jon Mott. If you’re reading this blog, there’s a good chance you’ve got a lot of experience with this type of technology. Except for the very early parts of my career as an Instructional Designer, where we posted PDFs of course content to static websites for distance students, (which they also received in massive print packages), the LMS has been a constant for me. I’ve worked with home-grown systems, had the pleasure and pain of implementing Moodle at Royal Roads University back in 2006 when that software was at version 1.5, and over the years I experienced other systems as both a student and an ID. Suffice it to say that the LMS is the ultimate example of ubiquity in ed tech.

I’ve been talking with people for a few years about the future of the LMS. Blow it up into parts that are loosely connected, that’s always been the conversation. A SYSTEM imposes too much of a restrictive framework for the way we facilitate learning today (or the way we want people to facilitate learning, because let’s be realistic about what’s actually happening in institutions). It’s based on a teacher centric model, as the article says. Not to mention, when you start thinking about the way the culture of the designers and developers of systems gets imposed on the way the system works, you’re really locking people into a very particular way of learning. Fair enough, we need to do things differently.

Independently developed apps often have greater potential for better and more functionality than those that are part of a system. One of the challenges however, is going to be linking them together, particularly when we need to assess student learning and report out on that in a way that works for students, employers, future institutions the student might transfer to, etc. As the article states, full adherence to standards will be necessary for all the pieces to play nicely together. Standards. Harrumph. How’s that gone for us in the ed tech world so far? You all using SCORM regularly, are you?

I can’t conceive of what a distributed but loosely connected toolset might really look like when I read the article, especially when we live in a province that prevents the use of lots of apps due to the most restrictive privacy legislation in the country. The article is understandably vague about implementation.


Having spent many years working in a course development shop (and yes, I call it a shop purposely because by necessity, due to volume and limited resources, the work is often like a production line), I think about how we would operationalize this concept in practice. When we implemented Moodle at Royal Roads, the faculty and student training we undertook was a massive effort, and that effort continued with every upgrade. That said, because it was a SYSTEM, many of the tools within it work similarly, the buttons are in the same place on pages, it’s pretty easy to navigate once you’re in there, and there’s a common look and feel that reduces cognitive load on students already struggling to keep up with new concepts and ways of learning.

With a set of loosely connected tools, we would likely get more functionality and more ability to make choices about how learning happens, including enabling students to make their own choices about who contributes to their learning, how they represent their learning for formative and summative assessment and other forms of agency.

Now, don’t get me wrong in this next part, because I’m not saying we don’t need something new and that the LMS isn’t deeply flawed, but how would we, in practice, help faculty make pedagogically appropriate choices about which set of tools to provide to students for a given course? How do we overcome barriers of privacy, both with respect to the law and students and faculty who aren’t comfortable with a more open environment? How do we provide students the flexibility to make choices while supporting overworked faculty whose role is to facilitate learning, not to become technical experts on the huge variety of tools that may become available? How will an Instructional Designer working in a busy course development shop, who barely has time to actually design anything, both learn the new technologies and lead faculty through the process of choosing them, designing associated activities, linking the toolset together and providing a way of representing assessment that is meaningful both for the student and for institutional purposes?

As a person who has often been the implementer of concepts rather than the conceptualizer, I tend to lean towards the current realities, barriers and limitations. I want to help make this change happen, but without full acknowledgment of the challenges, we’ll never succeed.

Next Steps

We’ve had some success at BCcampus with linking applications to each other via APIs due to the magical stylings of the amazing Brad Payne. There’s lots of talk about federated identity and shared services in this province, and those conversations give me hope that we’re getting there.

But, we have a long way to go before we say good-bye to the LMS. In the meantime, there are a few ways of moving forward that would help:

  • I think it makes sense to stick with more open source tools like Moodle, because at least they can be customized to suit specific pedagogies and institutional policies, and can be modified to make the administrative aspects of teaching easier.
  • While asking leaders to provide a 50,000 foot view of the possibilities is necessary and useful, we also need to engage the practitioners. Instructional Designers, Educational Technologists, Faculty and Students should all be engaged in this conversation so we account for all the current challenges, as well as future needs and desires.

What about you? How do you see the future of the #LMS rolling out at your institution? What do you think the challenges are, and how will we overcome them?

3 thoughts on “Blowing up the LMS

  1. The label LMS is associated with such a long list of negatives: course silos, teacher centred, time restricted access to courses, disappearing content, closed environment… As if the technology itself is to blame!

    I’m especially surprised when I hear folks critique flexible and open source platforms like Moodle this way. Although I’m less surprised when it comes from individuals who are several steps away from the realities of teaching and learning in higher education. I think people just need to be more clever, and stop thinking in terms of having to choose one technology (or type of technology) over another.

    Create interesting and dynamic learning spaces, give learners proper access, open it up (or not, you can choose!), integrate whatever tools you need. We can check off a lot of admin and user needs by using the LMS as a home base for post secondary courses, and that’s actually a good reason to keep it.


  2. Hi Mary! – Long time no see! 😉

    Frankly in the BC Public Service Agency, we’ve slowly moved away from a standard LMS (and SCORM) purely because it didn’t fully support everything we’ve needed. Instead, we’ve been developing our learning materials to be open, accessible “resource sites” instead of your traditional linear course model of interconnected slides. We still have those SCORM courses, but new courses are looking more and more like websites instead of packaged modules.

    Arguably, it allows the learner to decide what order they can view the content. We still imply a general order of course, to build concepts upon one another,but this way allows them to scan the material in whatever fashion they want. It also better supports return visits to specific content chunks.


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