Tuesday, July 29, 2014

LMS Futures: Evolutionary Change

I began this series promising to speculate on three possible futures for the LMS - evolution, revolution, or extinction - so let's start with evolution. An evolutionary path assumes that the LMS as we know it today basically got it right, it just needs to get better. If the user interface can be improved and simplified, if mobile access can be an assumption, if outside tools can be better integrated - maybe that's all we need.

I was somewhat amused when I arrived at the BbWorld keynote address and heard CEO Jay Bhatt outline his priorities for the Blackboard Learn product:
  1. Improve the user interface
  2. Mobile first
  3. Cloud infrastructure
  4. Big Data
Now, after we get done chuckling over "mobile first" being the second item on the list, what we have here is a recipe for incremental, evolutionary change. Some people I respect spent a lot of time looking at the new user interface and came away impressed. Bb claims they are moving to a fully responsive design, and from what I saw it appears to use a timeline as the key organizing principle for the interface, which seems like a promising approach to me. 

Providing a better interface and better mobile access can potentially improve the user experience for Blackboard - and perhaps help catch them up with the competition - but does nothing to address the essential nature of the critique I've developed here. Any LMS built around the model of a closed course has severe limitation and implications that I think have negative consequences (elucidated nicely here by Michelle Pacansky-Brock).

I don't have a lot to say here about cloud infrastructure - I think this is a move that Blackboard needs to make to be competitive but it has no inherent impact on the student or faculty learning experience. Big data... I don't want to go there right now. Just for the moment, let me say my optimism about the potential for big data is balanced by some pretty big doubts about the value and concerns about the risk.

This is Blackboard's plan and the list might be different for another LMS, but an evolutionary change means we've accepted what an LMS is and what it can do, we just want it to do it better. That might be the most likely path for the near future, but it's also the least interesting, so I'm looking forward to my next post on revolutionary change.

(photo credit: Bert Hakim @flickr cc-by-nc-nd/2.0) 

Monday, July 28, 2014

LMS Futures: The Charge Against LMS

For my talk at BbWorld, I contemplated what it is that people hate about LMS's in general. I summarized these issues in the visual shown here.
The topic "What people have about X LMS", where X is often, but not always, Blackboard, is one I chose not to get into at BbWorld. There's plenty that's been written and spoken on that topic.

Are there other things about the LMS that aren't captured here that you think are important? Or does this pretty much cover the difficulties that make you, your faculty, or your students frustrated with your LMS? If you think I've missed something I'd be grateful if you'd comment below.

I'm particularly interested in the third topic, which I think is the most interesting and the most deeply imbedded in the fundamental design of the LMS.

LMS's are closed because they were designed to be that way. As I've argued here before, the LMS mimics traditional classes, and traditional classes are closed. In a future post, I'll consider what an LMS might look like if the design was centered on the student rather than the course.

Friday, July 18, 2014

LMS Futures: Paving the Cowpaths

I want you to imagine you're a higher ed CIO or Provost in the year 2000, and you get the follow two sales pitches for a learning (or course) management system.

  1. If you buy LMS A, it will open up wonderful new possibilities for your students to learn using online technology. It will require your faculty to completely rethink their role, they will need to adopt new strategies and redesign their courses, but at the end they will have radically better results.
  2. If you buy LMS B, it will help enable your faculty to do what they are doing in the classroom now, but they can do it online. This will enable you to reach new students and engage your existing students using technology, without requiring any major disruption in the role of the faculty.
Is it any surprise that #2 was the winning strategy? Organizing the LMS around the course and modeling it like a closed classroom, was the right strategy for selling the product. But today we find ourselves "inside the (course) box". In a future post I'll discuss how a course-centric model implies a particular software design that's part of the frustration so many of us have with the LMS 15 years later. 

Thursday, July 17, 2014

LMS Futures: Live in Vegas!

It was a real pleasure (and a relief!) to make my presentation at BBWorld. I really enjoyed the energetic and engaged audience and was flattered by the standing-room-only crowd.

As I admitted at the start of the talk, it all started with the title ("Three Futures for the LMS: Evolution, Revolution, or Extinction"). It was clearly a title that got people's attention, but what I thought would be a fairly simple thought piece turned out to be all consuming for several weeks. In fact, this is a topic probably more suitable for a Masters Thesis than a 45 minute talk.

My goal was to leave the audience with more questions than answers and I hope I succeeded. I got lots of good ideas during the talk and encouraging tweets as well. If you were there, thank you for helping to make it an enjoyable experience!

Besides my presentation I had quite a few very interesting conversations at Bb World. It's clear that the team that has been built in the last year is different in philosophy, approach, temperament and talents from the "old" Blackboard. Time will tell whether or not they can overcome the inertia and ill-will left behind by the old guard. I'm an optimist (an optimistic curmudgeon?) and I wish them well. Thanks to everyone who took time to make new connections and renew old ones, and see you on the Twitters.

I promise more discussion to follow, including both selections from what I presented as well as related thoughts I've had over the past few weeks that just didn't fit into the talk or are still just too half-baked to present (but always ready for blogging!) Thanks for reading, your comments, tweets, and attaboys are more motivational than you know.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

LMS Futures: So What Does an LMS DO anyway?

vintage advertisement for a "Ditto" machine
Despite the constant drumbeat of complaints about LMS's over the last 15 years, they continue to be used, so someone must think they are good for something. In fact, the LMS does solve several problems for instructors and for institutions; furthermore, it's proposed that it will solve at least one new one.

Content repository: at its core, an LMS is a place to keep stuff and distribute it to students. In a sense, the LMS is the descendant of the "ditto machine" via the photocopier.

Administrative Tool: An LMS allows an instructor to maintain an accurate course roster and record information about students in the course, e.g. attendance and grades.

Single Point of Contact: To the extent that all or most of a campus uses a common LMS, students can expect to go one place and find everything they need for all their classes.

Faculty/Student Communication Tool: A closed (like a classroom) environment used for faculty-to-student communication (often), student-to-faculty communication (sometimes) and student-to-student communication (rarely).

Learning Tool Portal: An LMS is often used as a way to authenticate students for the use of learning tools such as blogs, video servers, proprietary data bases, textbook related materials, etc. The IMS Learning Tools Interoperability (LTI) specification makes this easier although it still remains a challenge.

A key feature, driven directly by the classroom metaphor, is that this is a closed space. You're in the class, or you're not, and typically if you're not in the class you see nothing - although some LMS's have begun to develop more granular access models. Certainly there are advantages - particularly related to student privacy and copyright management - but also significant limitations imposed by the closed classroom model. In later postings I'll focus on the limitations.

Do you agree? Have I missed something important that isn't obviously related to one of these five attributes? Please let me know!

Monday, July 14, 2014

LMS Futures: About the course, the instructor, or the student?

In my last blog entry, I argued that the metaphor of the online course has been the driving force behind the development of the LMS. In a thoughtful email, Casey Green offered an alternative perspective, which I quote with his permission:
With due respect, I’d argue that the focus of the LMS (or course management systems) has really been less about the course and more about assisting faculty. Admittedly, I know this will be a controversial claim, given continuing, almost two-decades long rants and rage of faculty about the design and functionality of various LMS applications.  But I think it is far to say that the  CMS/LMS emerged as a way to assist faculty, who had few technical/coding/HTML skills, to post course resources online.   We focused on "the course" because that was the arena of obvious and recurring need.
I can't really argue with that. There was certainly a sense that creating your own online materials was just "too hard for faculty" and they needed a "Web Course in a Box" as described in this lovely vintage page. But that was the goal, it's tough to argue we've been very successful. Nearly every educational technology conference I've been at in the last 15 years has included a talk about "How we convince our reluctant faculty to use the LMS." Typically, it seems to revolve around food and, sometimes, a little money. However, only rarely do those responsible for educational technology ask whether the technology they provide is part of the problem rather than part of the solution - see "It's time to stop blaming the faculty" for more on this topic.

Regardless of the intent, I would argue that the core construct of the LMS is the course. Look at the challenges and the hacks created to help instructors manage multiple courses, or migrate materials from one course or semester to another. A (traditional) course:

  1. starts and ends, and
  2. has enrollment - you're either in it or out of it
  3. has one, or perhaps a handful of instructors, with a special role that's distinct from that of a student
  4. students that complete a course get credit and a grade
These are essential features of a traditional course, and the very success of the LMS, as well as the greatest limitations, come from tightly integrating these features. The irony is that the LMS was built to support the very features of learning that could be irrelevant - or at least, much less relevant - in a web-connected world. The model of a course is based on scarcity of space, time, and information, at the moment that the Internet revolution has made all these factors less deterministic than ever in history.

(photo CC by stanfordedtech via flickr) 

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

LMS Futures, LMS Past: It's all about the COURSE

The Learning Management System as we know it is a relatively new phenomenon. There's a wonderful graphic created by Phil Hill (@PhilOnHigherEd) that's worthy of study as it recapitulates visually much of the history of the LMS in Higher Education.

Let me stop for a minute and rave about how great this graphic is. It's incredibly useful and I'm grateful to Phil for creating is as well as licensing it with Creative Commons so we can all share it. Thanks also to Casey Green (http://www.campuscomputing.net/page/kenneth-c-green-director) and George Kroner (@georgekroner) for collecting the data.

A couple of things to note - with the exception of Canvas and eCollege, all the major LMS's had their original roots in universities. {Casey Green pointed out to me that Canvas started as a student project, so while it didn't last long in the academic environment, it did start there as well.} Looking at the names of the earliest systems gives you a clue about their origins: WebCT is "Web Course Tools", Blackboard was launched by the merger of "Web Course in a Box" and "CourseInfo". These were tools for managing courses and were commonly called "Course Management Systems" or CMS's at the time. Even the name "Blackboard" suggests a place to put information about a course - where the teacher puts next week's homework and the date of the midterm.  As more functionality was added, the name "Learning Management System" became popular, but if you consider what these systems are used for by most instructors most of the time, they are about managing classes and mostly not about managing learning at all. (Note, too, the not-so-subtle difference between a "Tool" and a "System".)

I researched EDUCAUSE's online resources to find their earliest references to "Course Management System". A couple of interesting ones are Julie Parmenter and Jay Fern describing Indiana University's "OnCourse" system in 1999, and a presentation by Fred Siff on the use of Blackboard at the University of Cincinnati from the EDUCAUSE Conference in 2001. The IU presentation is from CUMREC, which is a conference focused on "Administrative Computing", and there's that word "course" again. Siff's presentation is entitled "The New Core Business System: Course Management Systems" and includes the telling quote:
New course management systems are too important -- and too powerful -- to be relegated to academic computing.
You can see where this is going to end up...

I was surprised to find out that the LMS terminology had emerged by that time, and there's an interesting article from 2001 by Phil Long, Vijay Kumar, and Jeffrey Merriman on open frameworks for education that refers to "learning management systems." But my point is that from the beginning it's been all about managing COURSES. We even see this most recently in the term MOOC, where C stands for course. In my next installment, I'll discuss why the focus on the course was one of the most important decisions for encouraging the adoption of LMS's and simultaneously one of the biggest roadblocks to creative learning.