LMS Week: The Ring & My Hat

OK I couldn’t resist the opportunity to comment on this growing thread of posts. I got CC’d into a tweet

and the more I though about it the longer it got… and turned into this post.

The Ring

Thankfully Brian Lamb put this amazing list and summary together.

My Hat

For most organisations the LMS had come to be the online environment. Not part of the broader world wide web, but the institutions own mini version of it. For the right kinds of reasons the LMS has been driven by administrators and vendors into becoming a closed system.

Rather than being the devils work the LMS is the result of good intentions – trying to increase access to online education in an equitable fashion and at scale. It’s evolved through the process of institutions seeking out scalable online solutions (scalable being the operative word). This search has been driven by a desire to create equity across the institution and bridge a significant technical divide and, as [Kate](https://twitter.com/KateMfD/ points out, build a tool to provide some quality assurance.

What I’d suggest though is that this QA has only ever applied to opportunity and access – not the experience of actually using the system. This had led to administrators choosing, and vendors offering, an LMS based around a feature list rather than the quality of the experience. Yes it has a wiki, by no means a good one, but a wiki none the less. I don’t think you can really blame vendors for this, they’re simply responding to their customers. You also can’t really fight the logic of administrators either as the importance and level of investment in the LMS has grown, decision making about it have risen up the hierarchy. A lot rests on these decisions so there’s an imperative to play it safe.

This is where I see we are now:

  • Vendors who are stuck in a vicious “feature list” cycle that’s almost impossible to break without loosing customers and money.
  • Administrators who are too far removed from the experience of using the LMS and lack the required technical knowledge to understand such a complex system, but are in charge of pretty significant business decisions. Playing it safe and going with a feature list as their primary guide is the smart thing to do in this situation – for their career and their institution – but it’s also the only thing they can actually base a decision on.

Those who are entrusted with those choices and responsible for the accompanying funds you play it safe. And the circle is complete.

However, the LMS isn’t the whole story. At the same time there is an upswell of DIYers, indie hackers, edupunks and bricoleurs who are operating edtech outside the LMS. They’re piecing together an alternative to the closed system by embracing openness. This mode of operation is so profoundly different to the status quo they’ve managed to spawn entirely new concepts for education such as MOOCs and an OER university. They are the avant-garde of edtech, pioneering new and exciting possibilities, and their approach has a focus on the quality of experience rather than institutional opportunity and access.

It’s in this concept of “quality” and the related assurances where tension lies and poses some important questions. There are trade offs and compromises required to balance experience with scalable quality.

Should institutions quality assure the opportunity and access to an online environment across their degree programs or on the quality of that experience and sacrifice consistency and stability?

The reality is that quality assurance has less to do with the binary of technology (LMS vs other) and almost entirely with the people using the technology. My overall experience is that Academic staff just aren’t well versed enough to tackle the broader digital and online space. The LMS provides a closed but relatively safe space for staff & students and one that can guarantees a minimum of opportunity and access. It does this by providing a tool that can be used to assess, manage and oversee what’s being offered. To me the LMS has always seemed like something that provides an academic with a way to get online, but something that you would grow out of eventually. It’s the equivalent of training wheels for the “real” web. Yet the LMS in limits this growth by being cut off from the web. Staff never learn to use a real wiki – just the one that lives in the LMS. They don’t learn about blogging platforms – just the blogging tool. They are never exposed to the real web and so begin to fear it, re-enforcing the safe status of the LMS. This starts with the decisions of the institution, then actions of the staff which directly affects students in terms of the tools, technologies and practices they’re exposed to.

Dealing with the lack of technical prowess and digital literacies in academic staff is much harder and more expensive problem and it’s this – not the LMS – that needs to be addressed. The LMS isn’t inherently evil, I’d actually suggest it’s often the least evil choice an institution could inflict. What makes it bad is that for most institutions it’s the only choice for doing anything online. The web isn’t a part of how learning and teaching works in most institutions. Citing the web is still frowned upon, actually using it means you’re actively breaking the rules.

The fact is that there are only a few good online teachers who are able to craft and wield technology well enough to effectively create and deliver the type of experience they want and address issues around scalability and equity. There can only be one Jim Groom ;-).

We need to empower our staff and students – to show them whats possible but also to give them the literacy and language to articulate their needs and desires so they can offer the best experiences. They shouldn’t have to build the technology – but they need to be able to tell those that do what it is they really want.

It’s in this space though there is so much potential! The avant-grade gives us a tangible vision of the kinds of experiences possible and the alternative technologies available. This is vital because it provides a way for people to begin to articulate the kinds of experiences they too would like to create. They can point and say “I want that” rather than delve in to the technical details. (I’m thinking of Mike Caulfield’s work on Smallest Federated Wiki – technically difficult to explain, easier to show). Bringing the qualities of opportunity and access to the kinds of experiences the avant-garde are demonstrating is where we should be heading. There is no technology binary we need to choose from – to LMS or not to LMS – get them working together. There’s enough space to coexist and learn from one another.

The LMS is still relevant and it could actually form a pivotal component because, whether we like it or not, management is still part of modern education. What the LMS needs to do is to become porous. The experience of learning can simply pass through it. In many ways it needs to be of and for the web – not the “black box” we are used to. Part of this is on vendors to produce products that allow this to happen, the other is on institutions and administrators to recognise their role in this and part of this is on staff to join the conversation and articulate their needs.

There’s opportunities for symbiosis and collaboration between the avant-garde and the LMS. In a modern institution quality assurance actually requires they work together rather than go it alone.


6 thoughts on “LMS Week: The Ring & My Hat

  1. It feels like some ripples on the force are out there, that this tension might break into some new unexpected ground. Maybe.

    It’s not a problem with the LMS, or the LMS vs the open web.

    The problem is us.

    In many ways, the LMS is not a training wheel experience for anything except an LMS. I see little about it that prepares anyone for that scary open web. I do not buy the training wheel metaphor, because, as you describe, institutions are not making clear any pathway to anything beyond the LMS. It’s been made a destination, and end point.

    This worries me: “My overall experience is that Academic staff just aren’t well versed enough to tackle the broader digital and online space.” What exactly do they need to be versed in? I feel like this is a learned helplessness that we reinforce. Combine with a suggestion that you have to be some laser gun edupunking Jim Groom to embrace the open web, and you end up with adults in training wheels.

    The experience I have had at UMW and elsewhere with students is that they get well versed in a matter of maybe 3 weeks. And it has nothing to do with them being young or digitally more adept at this place; it’s more that they have not to learn to fear falling off.

    I think its time we stop under-estimating the capacities of our colleagues. Or we should just learn to love our training wheels so much we will continue to ride with them until we die.

    Sorry, this did not mean to end up as a rant. But I think we have to stop providing this technology fear codependency.

    • Weird coincidence – I must have been watching your storybox video while you typed this 🙂

      I agree with you Alan, but it might not have come across in the post.

      The training wheels concept is how I originally thought the LMS would work – that over time it, or something like it, would evolve to be more like the web or that we would just transition into using “proper” web tools. It didn’t and instead of a road to the future it’s became a cul-de-sac. I’m optimistic that this can change – we’re not stuck with it – and as you suggest there are ripples in the force already.

      I also don’t under-estimate the capacities of our colleagues at all – nor the potential for them to learn the skills required – it is just an observation that they lack them at this point in time. That can change easily, as you suggest, but only IF we and our institutions actually seek to change it. I think the current environment does promote fear – mostly a fear of the failure and fear of the unknown – which is part of the reason why there’s fall back to the relative safety of the LMS.

      In general my view that regardless of the technology we make people awesome. @seriouspony’s tweet today seems pretty relevant to the kinds of relationship and interaction we want people to have with technology.

      – Big difference btw “user-centric” and “UX-centric”. “User-centric” would mean caring about users during the times they are NOT using it

      Edtech should be much more about digital literacies – beyond the LMS – so perhaps these ripple might take us there.

      • Thanks so much for making the effort to link me up to this more recent incarnation of the LMS discussion by way of comment at


        I really appreciate the network update you’ve offered me.

        Your position is soundly put and entirely reasonable. I think it will become the middle ground we will arrive at.

        But I’d like to offer a counter to your argument that the LMS offers safe ground for a threatened academic. To my observations, there are as few people using the LMS well as there are Jim Grooms in the free world. Most instances I’ve seen are a weekly grab back of attached PDF of scanned books pages, broken links and stone dead forums. You could run a better course in email, a calendar app and a Google Drive. I think those who are threatened by networked teaching would feel safe in this arrangement, and would be in the more porous environment you propose.

        The LMS is about institutional accountability – where equity and equality have confused meaning.

        Your depiction of how all this came to be, and why it hardly changes, is spot on. It’s a vein we could track back further though, into the cultural and systemic causes – well covered my critical theorists over the ages, but ignored in the a-historic digital futurist age.

      • Thanks Leigh! I like your counterpoint and it reminds a lot of Mark Brown’s quote – “E-learning’s a bit like teenage sex. Everyone says they’re doing it but not many people really are and those that are doing it are doing it very poorly”. And to be honest I agree with that and your comments. What we’re looking at is a complex problem space which has many facets. I think the LMS represents a very specific way of addressing this problem, but rather than being THE solution, it’s A solution. We need a shift away from the singular and to accept and encourage diversity. I think there’s more potential for change in the more micro elements of education that create better learning, rather than the current focus on monolithic solutions.

      • Teenage sex (or dutiful married sex more like it, no! professional sex) I like it. That’s a perfect analogy.

        Where you say, “…LMS represents a very specific way of addressing this problem, but rather than being THE solution, it’s A solution. We need a shift away from the singular and to accept and encourage diversity.”

        Well, to me that’s exactly open education practices. Using technical open standards like formats and software; freely accessible with reusable copyrights; recorded and documented transparently = the operational standards of Open that allow for diversity, but in a way in which we can all see and learn by.

        Certainly, closed systems and practices are only A way, but we have to acknowledge the political and economic systems that bias that approach, at the expense of the diversity we have come to apparently value.

        In saying that, I do wonder if ‘diversity’ has become an ideology – borne of theories of ecology and a belief in “balance”, where there needs to be more words to needed to drill down into the qualities of diversity…

  2. Only just realised I’ve been commenting with my work account (this job being the first one where I have taken on their account they give me).
    “Everything I think, say and do are my own thoughts and actions, and not those of my employer” – who simply hasn’t yet considered the problems of issuing online identities, implying certain expectations of behavior in that identity, and putting little if anything in the way of groupthink. LMS frame of mind, in other words.

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