By Phil Hill
In yesterday’s post I described where I (and many others) see the LMS market heading in terms of interoperability.
At the same time, the LMS does a very poor job at providing a lot of the learning technologies desired by faculty and students. There is no way that a monolithic LMS can keep up with the market – it cannot match functionality of open internet tools especially without adding feature bloat.
I would add that part of the cause of the “false binary position” that D’Arcy points out is that much of the public commentary focuses on where the LMS has been rather than where it is going. There is a significant movement based on interoperability that is leading, perhaps painfully and slowly, to a world where the LMS can coexist with open educational tools, with even end users (faculty and students) eventually having the ability to select their tools that can share rosters and data with the institutional LMS.
Coexistence and interoperability, however, should not imply merely having links from the LMS to external tools as is too often the case.
The Walled Garden
The LMS (which George Station rightly points out was really called the Course Management System in the early years) started out as a walled garden with basic functionality of syllabus sharing, announcements, gradebook, email, and a few other tools.
Over time, as both Jared Stein points out in his blog post:
Flash forward to 2005(ish), when “Web 2.0” was on many educators’ minds as a new wave of services that made it easier for anyone to express themselves to anyone who was interested in participating. New web services and social media made the legacy LMS look like what it was: A slow-moving cruise ship that locked passengers in their cabins. It didn’t care about user experience. It didn’t care about integrating with social media. It didn’t care about encouraging novel practices or experimentation. But those were really just symptoms; the sickness was that the LMS vendors didn’t care about what was happening in our culture and in our communities as connectivity and multimedia exploded through the open web.
The LMS vendors did not just ignore these new services, however, but they tried to eat their cake and have it, too, by creating poor imitations of the external tools and stuffing them inside the LMS.
As Web 2.0 tools proliferated, this approach of maintaining the walled garden was one of the primary causes of feature bloat and poorly-designed learning tools within the LMS.
False Binary – A Choice
This situation – a walled garden LMS with feature bloat and inelegant tools while multiplying external tools become available – represents the bad side of the ed tech market as it has existed. Despite the weakness of this design approach, the vendors themselves were not the only ones at fault. As Mike Caulfield points out in his description of the “elegant and extensible Prometheus:
A number of years later I asked a person I knew who worked at Prometheus why Prometheus failed. Did Blackboard crush them?
His answer was interesting. No, it wasn’t Blackboard at all. It was the educational institutions. With the slow, resource-intensive and state-mandated RFP processes, the interminable faculty commitees, and the way that even after the deal was signed the institution would delay payment and implementation as long as possible (or suddenly throw it into an unanticipated ‘final review’) it was just not possible to grow a stable business. The process institutions followed was supposed to ensure equitable access to contracts, but what it did was made it impossible for any company not sitting on a pile of cash to stay in business. (I’m extrapolating a bit here, but not much).
I would add that the RFP process also encourages a feature checklist mentality, elevating the importance of being able to say “we have that feature” and minimizing the ability to say “this design doesn’t suck”.
Many institutions have reacted slowly to the proliferation of tools and officially support only the enterprise LMS – often due to FERPA / student privacy concerns but also due to perceived inability of central units to provide support to faculty and students on multiple tools.
But this is a choice, even in the current market with limited interoperability. There are other institutions that support not only the official enterprise LMS but also multiple learning tools. While institutions have a responsibility to provide baseline LMS services for faculty, there is a strong argument that they also have a responsibility to support the innovators and early adopters that want to explore with different learning tools, whether or not they integrate with the LMS within a course.
Moving Beyond the Wall
But can the market progress such that the enterprise LMS can coexist with open tools even at the course level? The answer in my mind is yes, and the work to move in this direction has been in progress for years. Thanks to LTI specification, and in the future the Caliper interoperability framework, the vision that George Kroner describes is getting closer and closer.
But the LMSs today won’t be the LMSs of tomorrow. Rather than being a “dumping ground” for content, maybe one possible future for LMSs is as Learning Management Scaffolding – metaphorically supporting learning no matter its shape or form – with content being viewed and activities taking place inside and outside of the LMS. Maybe content will be seamlessly navigable around the LMS and the web – and perhaps in other types of systems like LCMSs – Learning Content Management Systems. Maybe learning tools of all types and sizes – but external to the LMS – will support every long-tail instructional desire imaginable while assessment results feed back into the LMS gradebook. Maybe the LMS will be the storage mechanism for leaning analytics as well, but it is more likely that it will become only one source of data feeding into another system better-suited for the task. But try as I might I fail to imagine a future in which some centrally-managed, instructor-accessible system stores rosters and grades, enforces privacy and security policies, and provides some form of starting-off point for students.
In this developing future market, coexistence of LMS and Open will include not just links or grudging institutional support, but it will also include information sharing of rosters, data, and context. Open tools that will start with the class roster in place, data of user activity shared between apps, and the ability to external apps to be run in the context of the course design and recent class activities.
There will be painful implementations – caused both by LMS vendors and by institutions – that will prevent a smooth transition to this breakdown of the walled garden, but it will become increasingly difficult for LMS solutions to survive over time if they don’t adapt. There will also be market niches (e.g. specific online programs) that will retain the walled garden LMS approach, but in general the markets should change.
I personally see the realistic future as having more of a choice of tools rather than a minimal LMS. LMS vendors will continue to have reasons to develop (or acquire) their own internal tools, and there will even be cases where the tight integration and focused development will lead to better tools in the LMS than outside. The key change will be the ability for integration decisions – which tools to use in specific classes or in specific institutions – to be made closer to the faculty and student end users. From LMS vendor to central IT to academic program to even individual faculty – moving closer to those who know the specific needs of the class. Central IT and the institution will remain important in setting policies and permissions to protect student privacy and provide guidance to faculty and course designers who are more conservative in their ed tech usage. But either way (minimal LMS or swappable tool LMS), I think the long-term trend is moving in this direction of LMS and Open tool coexistence.
Update 9/19: Updated graphics to add LMS label, CC license and logo to facilitate sharing outside of blog.