I answered another question by saying that the LMS, with multiple billions invested over 17+ years, has not “moved the needle” on improving educational results. I see the value in providing a necessary academic infrastructure that can enable real gains in select programs or with new tools (e.g. adaptive software for remedial math, competency-based education for working adults), but the best the LMS itself can do is get out of the way – do its job quietly, freeing up faculty time, giving students anytime access to course materials and feedback. In aggregate, I have not seen real academic improvements directly tied to the LMS.
In response, Mark gives "a personal view of my own journey towards LMS nihilism" in a post titled "How I lost my faith in the LMS" that has some excellent points (first go read his whole post, I'll wait).
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Mark describes how the LMS market in Australia changed dramatically - mostly towards Moodle - due to Bb / D2L lawsuit, end-of-life for WebCT, and Moodle release of 1.9, noting:
There were, I believe, a variety of reasons that Moodle was so successful during this time, but one of the most common things that I would hear during this period was that, compared to incumbent LMS, Moodle simply ‘got out of the way’ and let academic staff do their thing. It helped the LMS stop being a barrier, and moved it closer to being an enabler, which is exactly what it should have been.
During this time Moodle was booming in popularity, and the transitions I was involved in by and large went as well as any other campus-wide technology platform change can, but one big question (and I must send out a thank you my friend and sounding board James Hamilton for planting this seed) was lurking in the background – how do we measure the success of the implementation? How do we know that the LMS in and of itself is making any difference whatsoever?
The answer he comes to is that no, the LMS in and of itself does not change outcomes and that:
The specific LMS that was in use paled into insignificance next to the innovation, dedication and craftiness of the person using it.
Here Mark makes one of the best points I've seen in the LMS discussions of late [emphasis added].
In a commodity market, the argument often turns to cost. In the case of the LMS, like any piece of campus-wide technology, the cost of the service in technology terms often pales into insignificance when compared with the cost in terms of time spent (wasted?) by academic and administrative staff being forced to use a system designed to try and satisfy a large set of complex requirements. Perhaps this was one of the most compelling things about Moodle back in its heyday – the perception that it simply ‘got out of the way’ of teachers wanting to do their job – and the significant ‘switching cost’ in terms of managing a large-scale change program that is needed to swap out an LMS was deemed worth it in terms of the longer term reduction of burden on users.
That was then, however, not now.
Where we slightly differ is in the conclusions. The lack of evidence of LMS usage directly impacting academic results does not make the LMS a commodity and is no reason to go nihilist1.
Two measures of value in a traditional LMS can be thought of as how well it 'gets out of the way' and how well it enables apps that can directly affect student learning. From my experience, the various LMS options differ greatly in these two attributes. I have seen examples at campuses where an LMS adoption led to one that was much more intuitive, reliable, and easy to adopt to the point that training resources were diverted away from 'here's how to migrate a course and which button to push' to 'here are some pedagogical improvements to consider using online tools'. I have seen schools benefit simply from having reliable systems that don't go down during exams. In other words, and LMS solution can significantly reduce the "cost in terms of time spent by academic and administrative staff". And by the way, that choice might not always be the same LMS - it depends greatly on course design and pedagogical models.
While I detest most RFP processes, there are examples (typically involving creative compliance with purchasing rules or active support from an enlightened purchasing guru) where the planning process itself leads to increased collaboration among academic and administrative staff. If done well, a vendor selection process can enable greater focus on teaching and learning effectiveness and cross-pollination of ideas.
Update (hit publish too soon): I have also seen situations where an LMS is so painful to use that faculty don't take advantage of tools that are appropriate or useful. While there is risk in broadly looking at depth of LMS adoption as a net positive, the wrong LMS choice or implementation can prevent faculty or instructional designers from doing what they'd like.
While I might be misreading Mark's nihilism reference, he makes some great observations based on his personal journey. In the end, however, I do not see the LMS as a commodity.
- Mark's conclusion is "So then, in my mind, while the LMS may not quite yet be considered a commodity in terms of features and functions, it might as well be a commodity in terms of the overall impact it has on student learning outcomes. [↩]