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The LMS Debate

Use of Learning Management Systems (LMS) in higher education is widespread, popular with both online and traditional institutions. Most schools have adopted a commercial product like Blackboard or Desire2Learn, tweaked an open-source solution such as Moodle or Sakai, or developed something in-house, a proprietary LMS, to deliver online courses.

An LMS provides a mechanism for organizing an academic course and structuring its content for delivery online. Often the features and functions have been created to mirror the pieces and parts of a traditional course. At its most basic level, the LMS allows for a point of access to course materials, communication tools, internal navigation, and data collection.

While an LMS can meet a number of administrative needs, there is a lot of current debate about perceived shortcomings. Opportunities to explore informal learning are limited within the parameters of an LMS, which is better suited to a formal learning environment. Opportunities for social learning and collaboration within an LMS are also limited, but as social media platforms evolve, there are new alternatives and enhancements available.

Who needs and LMS?

From my experience, there are four user groups to consider when evaluating the need for, or selection of, an LMS. Each group is affected by the utility of features and has different needs, expectations, and priorities.

  • Student – Students need to be able to access all of the components of a course to include content, instructions, and communication tools. They need the resources and support required to achieve desired learning objectives.
  • Instructor – Instructors need to communicate with students, facilitate the delivery of content and instructions, access student work and return of feedback in the form of grades.
  • Developer/Tech Help – Course designers and developers, as well as technical "help desk" personnel work with the back-end administration of the LMS, loading content and adjusting settings for courses. They also answer user questions and troubleshoot user problems.
  • Administration – There are a host of administrative roles that rely on the LMS to collect all sorts of data to track usage.

Developing a list of functions required of such a system is critical. While most of the items listed above are logistical in nature, there's more to consider. The standard LMS has some deficiencies.

Formal and Informal Learning

Academic courses are examples of formal learning – structured, with a time frame, and with instructors and students. Informal learning takes place outside of this structure – conversations with other students, consuming Internet and other media, and participating in social networks.

Both formal and informal methods are part of the overall learning process for each of us. This is particularly true in workplace training environments where there's more to improving performance than attending training sessions and workshops (Formal). People are also learning while they work, on-the-job, using available references, resources, and working with others (Informal).

There is a social component of learning that is powerful and unfortunately often overlooked or discounted in the push to create and package content and then track its use. The features of a standard LMS are not inherently good at encouraging informal, social learning. Harold Jarche's LMS is no longer the centre of the universe post literally draws a picture for us and calls for management not just of content, but also of collaboration.

The concept of managing learning also draws fire. If instructors and administrators are managing learning, students don't have much input on the process. How might we expect to manage collaboration and social interaction that results in learning? Would it be desirable to do so?

If not an LMS, then…?

Clark Quinn reminds us to focus on the learner and the learning experience. If we look at the process of learning via a collection of tools, then ideally we should be able to use a set of tools that are effective for each of the tasks required. An LMS has limitations here as well. Most have a set list of features that cover the logistical needs, but not much of the social aspects. Many LMSs also don't work well with outside tools, making it difficult to modify and expand their use. Changes are happening though…

Adapt and Overcome – A Modular LMS is an approach that may help move us, and LMS systems, forward. This approach suggests pulling together select components of various platforms to create customized systems. Every institution might be different, every program or course might be different.

Add-on and Plug-in – More systems are also allowing for partnerships with third party companies resulting in plug-ins and additional packages that open the door for more social learning interactions. Learning Objects, Inc. is one such vendor, working with existing LMS structures to expand options for collaboration such as adding wikis and blogs. 

Go Social – Open Sesame predicts that social media platforms and learning management systems are merging, becoming more like each other as the capabilities on both sides grow. As this happens there is increased interest in moving from LMS to social media. Facebook is one social media tool already popular with colleges and universities and being used more and more on the course level. Could Facebook be used as an LMS? WordPress, a popular blogging platform, is also gaining popularity as a tool for gaining ground as a tool for delivering courses and managing content.

The Debate Continues

The "debate" itself seems not so much "for" or "against", but about using the set of tools as effectively as possible. We should as students, educators, developers, and administrators consider the complexities of how people learn and demand more than just content delivery.

There are a lot of voices in this debate. I've linked to a few above, but you may also want to read more from Jane Hart (The Future of the LMS), Harold Jarche (A Unified Performer-Facing Environment), and Dan Pontefract (The Standalone LMS is Dead).