On False Binaries, Walled Gardens, and Moneyball

D’Arcy Norman started a lively inter-blog conversation like we haven’t seen in the edublogosphere in quite a while with his post on the false binary between LMS and open. His main point is that, even if you think that the open web provides a better learning environment, an LMS provides a better-than-nothing learning environment for faculty who can’t or won’t go through the work of using open web tools, and in some cases may be perfectly adequate for the educational need at hand. The institution has an obligation to provide the least-common-denominator tool set in order to help raise the baseline, and the LMS is it. This provoked a number of responses, but I want to focus on Phil’s two responses, which talk at a conceptual level about building a bridge between the “walled garden” of the LMS and the open web (or, to draw on his analogy, keeping the garden but removing the walls that demarcate its border). There are some interesting implications from this line of reasoning that could be explored. What would be the most likely path for this interoperability to develop? What role would the LMS play when the change is complete? For that matter, what would the whole ecosystem look like?

Seemingly separately from this discussion, we have the new Unizin coalition. Every time that Phil or I write a post on the topic, the most common response we get is, “Uh…yeah, I still don’t get it. Tell me again what the point of Unizin is, please?” The truth is that the Unizin coalition is still holding its cards close to its vest. I suspect there are details of the deals being discussed in back rooms that are crucial to understanding why universities are potentially interested. That said, we do know a couple of broad, high-level ambitions that the Unizin leadership has discussed publicly. One of those is to advance the state of learning analytics. Colorado State University’s VP of Information Technology Pat Burns has frequently talked about “educational Moneyball” in the context of Unizin’s value proposition. And having spoken with a number of stakeholders at Unizin-curious schools, it is fair to say that there is a high level of frustration with the current state of play in commercial learning analytics offerings that is driving some of the interest. But the dots have not been connected for us. What is the most feasible path for advancing the state of learning analytics? And how could Unizin help in this regard?

It turns out that the walled garden questions and the learning analytics questions are related.

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Helix: View of an LMS designed for competency-based education

Within higher education, we tend to talk about LMS solutions based on an institutional perspective – which systems can serve as the official LMS for an entire institution. While this view is important and forms the basis for my LMS graphics, the emergence of new educational delivery models has led to the development of some interesting program-specific LMS models. One example that I have already written about is 2U’s platform (built on top of Moodle and Adobe Connect) for their specific Online Service Provider (OSP) business.

One educational model that is becoming more and more important is competency-based education (CBE). One of the challenges for this model is that the traditional LMS – based on a traditional model using grades, seat time and synchronous cohort of students – is not easily adapted to serve CBE needs. As described in this CBE primer:

OBE [Outcome-based education] can be implemented in various modalities, including face-to-face, online and hybrid models.

Competency-based education (CBE) is a narrower concept, a subset or instance of OBE, where the outcomes are more closely tied to job skills or employment needs, and the methods are typically self-paced. Again based on the Malan article, the six critical components of CBE are as follows:

  1. Explicit learning outcomes with respect to the required skills and concomitant proficiency (standards for assessment)
  2. A flexible time frame to master these skills
  3. A variety of instructional activities to facilitate learning
  4. Criterion-referenced testing of the required outcomes
  5. Certification based on demonstrated learning outcomes
  6. Adaptable programs to ensure optimum learner guidance

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Opening Up the LMS Walled Garden

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.

walledgarden

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LMS and Open: The false binary is based on past, not future markets

D’Arcy Norman has an excellent blog post up titled “On the false binary of LMS vs. Open” that captures a false framing issue.

We’re pushed into a false binary position – either you’re on the side of the evil LMS, working to destroy all that is beautiful and good, or you’re on the side of openness, love, and awesomeness. Choose. There is no possible way to teach (or learn) effectively in an LMS! It is EVIL and must be rooted out before it sinks its rotting tendrils into the unsuspecting students who are completely and utterly defenseless against its unnatural power!

While D’Arcy is a proponent of open tools, he rightly calls out the need to understand institutional responsibilities.

But. We can’t just abdicate the responsibility of the institution to provide the facilities that are needed to support the activities of the instructors and students. That doesn’t mean just “hey – there’s the internet. go to it.” It means providing ways for students to register in courses. For their enrolment to be automatically processed to provision access to resources (physical classrooms, online environments, libraries, etc…). For students’ grades and records to be automatically pushed back into the Registrar’s database so they can get credit for completing the course. For integration with library systems, to grant acccess to online reserve reading materials and other resources needed as part of the course.

This is an important point, in that the institutional LMS is important and will not, and should not, go away anytime soon. I have pointed out recently that the LMS is one of the very few technologies now used in a majority of courses within an institution, and the institutional responsibility described above helping to explain why. Continue reading

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Pearson’s Efficacy Listening Tour

Back around New Year, Michael wrote a post examining Pearson’s efficacy initiative and calling on the company to engage in active discussions with various communities within higher education about defining “efficacy” with educators rather than for educators. It turns out that post got a fair bit of attention within the company. It was circulated in a company-wide email from CEO John Fallon, and the blog post and all the comments were required reading for portions of the company leadership. After a series of discussions with the company, we, through our consulting company, have been hired by Pearson to facilitate a few of these conversations. We also asked for and received permission to blog about them. Since this is an exception to our rule that we don’t blog about our paid engagements, we want to tell you a little more about the engagement, our rationale for blogging about it, and the ground rules.

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