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Sit down, we need to talk about the LMS

Big news this week when it was announced our university will be looking for a new LMS to implement in 2014.

While I am a great supporter of our LMS (Sakai), I have never been a big user. I’m not an academic so I don’t have any learning to manage and with a background in web development I never had a problem getting content online. It’s in these two areas that have been the big wins for our university – managing our complex enrolment profile and getting people and their content online.

So at the moment the question is what replaces the current LMS? Is it another LMS or should we be looking for something else?

Lets start by talking about the current technology landscape because a lot has changed since our first implementation:

  • For starters the world of the web has changed dramatically over the last 5 or so years. The extensible servers of the Cloud and the anywhere, anytime access that mobile brings are huge shifts in how we build large-scale systems and how we access them.
  • At the same time our web ecosystem has broadened. So many new best-of-breed tools are now available that its hard to justify the centralised Swiss army knife approach of the traditional LMS.
  • Finally, there is a push for universities to provide a more personalised and customisable learning experience. The traditional LMS does not provide that, instead it offers a cookie cutter approach that’s easy to scale, maintain, deploy and sell.

At this point I’d recommend some reading to understand that this is a big issue for higher education across the globe – first this article by David Jones especially the discussion in the comments. This series of articles from Canada a are extremely relevant. Finally this presentation from Whitney Hess on framing the problem.

OK finished? I hope that helps frame my thinking – let’s move on.

The dilemma that we face is one where we need to define what it is we are trying to offer in the online space: Are we looking for a Single System or an Environment?

Single System vs Environment.

The Single System approach continues the paradigm of the LMS. A centralised hub that provides a defined set of tools. There is limited customisation available to the teacher, the student or the pedagogy. It provides a management approach to learning and teaching where things are controlled, standardised, measured and scheduled.

The Environment approach instead looks to create a suite of separate tools that operate as a cooperative ecosystem. This approach is highly customisable by both teachers and students and allows each subject or course to be developed and delivered to match the content and context. Rather than a structured approach the Environment provides organisation and a way to navigate.

Reality is…

The reality we actually find ourselves in is… even if your university has the latest and greatest LMS you’re probably still running a patchwork of separate systems to provide all the functions for your university. Despite best intentions technology moves too fast and there is no one size fits all approach. Yes, it would be nice to have a system that can do everything, but it’s not a reality. Despite what an LMS offers the reality is that it is a jack of all trades master of none. To get the quality and performance required you end up with is a patchwork environment of specialised tools and single systems.

So the solution? Well take it as a given and embrace the fact that whatever you deploy it is going to end up as an environment. So take the time to design and plan it properly, make sure it can talk to each other and use the best systems and specialised tools to provide the core functions.

For higher yields and healthier fruit you plant a garden that is symbiotic and complementary rather than throwing seeds to the wind.


By Tim Klapdor

Passionate about good design, motivated by the power of media and enchanted by the opportunities of technology.

18 replies on “Sit down, we need to talk about the LMS”

It will be interesting to see which approach CSU ends up with. Will they take the safe route – e.g. probably Moodle? Or will they go the brave route – something like your environment argument? Or perhaps, a silly route and partner with a publisher?

I like your argument for seeing it as an environment, reinforced by a presentation I saw last week outlining all the different components that make up the environment here. However, I do wonder if organisations that take the environment approach are up to recognising the full possibilities/implications of such a decision, or whether they would retreat to the practice of treating the environment as if it were a single system?

i.e. there is a single appropriate way to use it, rather than allowing flexible customisation of the environment in new and interesting ways.

Thanks David for the comment (and your original article). I guess the concept of single appropriate use scares me given the depth and breadth of the course profile at CSU. We are lucky enough to have Educational Designers embedded within the schools to assist – but I think that ongoing engaging professional development is key to this new environment thinking.

While not wanting to reduce the importance of “engaging professional development”, I think it’s only half of the equation. Arguably, professional development is at least partially about changing the people and what they do to suit the system. Rather than change the system to suit the people and what they do. For an environment approach to work there has to be at least as much focus on tweaking the environment in response to what people are doing.

I agree – the thinking behind the Environment needs to ensure that it is flexible and adaptable to what people are doing. In terms of professional development – it’s not just teaching people what TO but what CAN be done and opening them up to the possibilities.

It would be odd if CSU went to Moodle as you would be replacing the LMS with another of the same thing and gaining nothing.

It sounds like what you need is a portal to provide the level of customisation and personalisation that people are after and then for the LMS to be tightly integrated into it.
LTI is being added to a huge number of systems to allow this interconnectivity to happen seamlessly. It reduces the ‘visibility’ of the patchwork of systems and allows for a richer user experience with better tools doing what they do best.

The number of these systems in the patchwork is likely to grow, not reduce, as people stop reinventing the wheel each time they need some new capability and leveraging existing tools. The way they are integrated is the key, the number of systems doesn’t really matter too much, especially if they are provided in the cloud and you dont need to worry about keeping the systems humming.

If I was designing a system I’d be looking seriously at uPortal 4, a migration to Sakai CLE 2.9 (and making sure your Sakai customisations are portable to newer versions), and uMobile on top to provide the campus mobile application. Then adding LTI support and a web service layer to your existing systems (SIS, HR, library et al) and thinking of ways to allow users to mash it all up into their own experience. This has been my vision for a number of years, there is so much potential. It is then simple to add and replace tools and connect them all together.

Thank Steve, I agree that swapping out one LMS for another wouldn’t add any benefit to the university. I think it’s an opportunity to evaluate and improve the way we think and the way we work.

You’re right there is a need for a portal or hub – a central point of access – where the user and systems can meet, exchange and share. In an Environment you still need a way of organising and navigating the various systems in a usable way otherwise the pain/value proposition becomes too much.

I think you outline a pretty robust Environment there – and one that would play nice with our other systems. It would also create something that is sustainable and extensible to match our specific needs as time goes on. I think the Environment model accepts that technology is not static – there will be always be change and most likely at a more frequent pace – and adopts some of the thinking by the Future Friendly group

Steve, given the level of “rationality” involved in most large organisational decisions around IT, I can see a number of possible paths that could see CSU adopting Moodle. Most are probably not likely given what I assume is the entrenchment of Java infrastructure and people at CSU. But still possible.

I would really like to keep the focus on the main question for CSU – what role should the LMS play in our strategy- and not what vendor do we need to choose. As was in the Whitney Hess presentation – “If I had one hour to save the world, I would spend 55 minutes defining the problem and 5 minutes finding the solution.” Albert Einstein

I am an acknowledged luddite – close to 60 and probably tinker around the edges of most systems and use my computer like a fancy word processor…no perhaps selling myself a bit short there, but…..I do receive complaints from students who cannot navigate the systems or are too lazy to do it themselves and simply want a quickie fix. I also don’t think that we make the most of the tools available within the LMS and appreciate the ideas of creating a wider environment but know I will probably never use it to its capability.

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