The post-LMS non-apocalypse


Currently we have a funded courseware redevelopment project happening, and I’ve been asked to articulate my views on a ‘post-LMS world’. The odd thing about this is that I should have a multitude of opinions on this issue but this post has languished as a draft for over a week now and I’m still not quite sure where to go with it. I think part of the problem is that I’m not one for ‘grand future visions’ and I’m also not a good use case for scalability.

So where to start?

Currently we (as in ‘higher education’) have a rather ingrained fetish with learning management systems, heavy emphasis on the ‘m’. @djplaner and @timklapdor both do a good job outlining the issues with this as well as potential solutions – here and here respectively. My main problems with LMS implementation are that it leads to a) focus on systems rather than design, and b) homogeneity. To the first point, discussions abound on features and what systems should and shouldn’t have. While I do agree with David’s point that making users fit the system isn’t a great approach, I also think that never getting outside of this features discussion is dangerous. The problem is that when you have a monosystemic (is that a word?) situation the features discussion has to dominate because there are no other options and we are stuck focusing on the system rather than design purely through lack of alternative. When you have something more like the ‘Environment’ Tim describes then you can take each system at face value and move between all of them to find the features you need.

This is why I find it difficult to answer the question ‘what would you change about Moodle?’ or ‘what features do you think Moodle should have?’. Because I’m a bit of an under-the-desk punk (in a nice, legit kind of way), I already operate within my own ‘environment’, of which Moodle is only a part. If it doesn’t do what I’m after I go find something else to fiddle with. To me there’s little point in changing Moodle or adding features to it when it’s just another part of the kit and if it’s not filling a need I’ll just grab another tool. But – I’m not a standard use case. I pay for my own web hosting and taught myself enough web dev skills to be able to install and admin stuff on it. I also know enough to be able to talk to IT guys and make rational cases for what I want to do, and when faced with a new system I’m happy to fiddle on my own until I know what it does and how I could use it to do cool stuff. Those last two sentences in no way describe your average academic, or even your non-average academic.

This is why I have reservations about jumping in and talking about a post-LMS collection of systems or environments that people can cobble together at will. It’s what I’ve thought would be ideal for years and it’s what is working for me right now. And in an ideal world, this would be the case. But. What do you do when your primary users consists of people who are largely not willing to approach new systems without training, who don’t have learning design as their primary directive, who are churned through casual contracts at astonishing rates that in no way correlate to required unit review procedures, and when your primary market (students) demand consistency and homogeneity across learning experiences? I don’t think the one-size-fits-all LMS is the answer but if you start building in choice and freedom something has to give in terms of how universities are currently structured and cultured. But then again – this is only an issue if we assume the centralised university model we currently have will still exist. If the harbingers of doom turn out to be right and the likes of Coursera et al *do* happen to disrupt universities out of business (chortle) then we’re dealing with an entirely different beast.

So at this point I have done an excellent job of not answering the question, which is what my vision of a post-LMS world might be. The upshot is, I don’t know. I don’t think a centralised management model, whether monosystemic or ‘environment’, is the answer, but it might have to be if ‘current university model’ is still the question. I think as long as universities stand in their current form we won’t have a post-LMS world – even if we do move to a more flexible environment model there will still be a focus on systems and management out of necessity. A post-university world, however – that’s the interesting question. I still don’t have an answer but I think it’s a better question to be asking.

18 thoughts on “The post-LMS non-apocalypse”

  1. *saddling up hobby horse*

    I have a major problem with the LMS, but it’s not just the LMS. @timklapdor conception of an environment is closer to my perspective, but it is still possible for this response to be limited. Because it remains a focus on just the product.

    The “elephant in the room” is that every enterprise information systems decision is assumed to be required to follow a plan-driven approach where the requirements are identified up front. And subsequently implemented via a top-down, hierarchical organisational model that employs the wrong types of people in the wrong roles with the wrong inter-connections between them all.

    We have to get over ourselves and our ability to predict what the requirements will be.

    As for my answer to this question, that’s what the ASCILITE paper (have to get that revised in the next couple of weeks) will hopefully answer and in turn is just a small sliver of this (or something like it).


    1. I had a little ‘aha’ moment reading your comment, because I think you’ve hit on what I didn’t manage to in this post – the fact that these systems hinge on predicting what our requirements will be. It’s in a similar vein to my previous ranty post on benchmarking and divergent learning design – we’re trying to predict what innovative learning will look like and design systems and QA around that. Which is also probably why I have such a hard time with questions like this, because I can’t predict what cool stuff will look like down the track (which is a shame because people seem to make rather a lot of money keynoting and consulting on this point).

      So maybe the question isn’t about being post-LMS or post-uni at all – maybe it’s about what things will look like in a post-needs-driven world. Hmm…

    2. Ascilite is going to be interesting this year. I’ve also submitted a concise paper on the methodology we’ve tried to employ in our mLearn project – adopting an approach borrowed from Agile and Lean Startup camps – trying to be more iterative and adaptive rather than prescriptive.

      Look forward to reading your paper too as I totally agree that the methodologies currently employed just aren’t functioning – they’re creaking and groaning and I think the supports are starting to splinter and break away.

  2. Sarah, thanks for this post. In a similar way I am really wrestling with this subject too. What I really want to advocate is the need for discussion and debate around this subject.

    To me we don’t need to necessarily change our systems themselves – but our thinking about them. If we can move away from the ideal of the swiss-army-knife-monosystem and embrace the concept of the Environment we can perhaps move the conversation away from the systems themselves and focus on what they DO for us and what is their value.

    In the education sector that comes back to how we provide and enhance our learning and teaching practices with digital tools. In a follow up to the original post I’ve listed my ideal set of functions. In that list there are definitely things an LMS can, and perhaps should do, because an LMS can and – at this point in time – probably should form part of your environment.

    I won’t hide the fact that an environment throws up new issues and problems – like training, professional development, contracts, changes in practice – these just need to be addressed as part of the change process. To me these are issues that need to be addressed regardless, so this is an opportunity to force that to occur.

    1. I agree that an LMS definitely has a place – they do some useful things and you can hack them to do some cool stuff if you don’t mind thinking outside the box – it’s more the mandating of use I have a problem with.

      And you’re right that addressing the structural/cultural issues needs to happen regardless – in an ideal world this definitely would be an opportunity to force our hand with it but the realist in me suspects it’ll just be another chance for universities to collectively bungle what could have been a cool idea :).

      Tx for commenting, and I must compliment you on your excellent choice of blog theme ;).

  3. For me, how change is thought about/understood drives the silly stuff that goes on in universities and probably in parts of the outside world. The dumbest of these is some kind of crude version of Rogers’ diffusion of innovations. The ideas that have grown out of STS scholarship I find to be much closer to the mark. These accounts underline how tricky, slippery, shifting any innovation actually is. Christensen’s stuff on disruptive innovations is also useful here.

    How technology is thought about is also a key to all of this. Those who think in terms of hardware/software etc. end up in a confused world of binaries (social/technical) that take you nowhere.

    All of this means that universities, at least those not involved in Udacity-like explorations simply don’t and won’t get it. It won’t mean they will disappear. Too much stuff attached. But it may mean a slow and painful decline, particularly if new forms of credentialling appear.

    What is intriguing is how the explorers and monstrously big players (aka Google) dip their toes into this space. The uncertainty about what will or won’t happen gets accentuated. Intriguing to watch. A perfect generator for the snake oil vendors.

    In times of great uncertainty, folk love to hear certainties. This usually means a flourishing of snake oil and given that the underpinning technologies keep on improving exponentially (pesky habit that), I suspect we’ll be swimming in it (that oil) very soon. If you ever need a source that illustrates just how bad the advice about a new technology can be, I’d suggest: Marvin, C. (1988). When Old Technologies Were New: Thinking About Communications in the Late Nineteenth Century. New York: Oxford University Press.

    1. You make an interesting point re: players like Google. Google in particular has a history of starting up new services then killing them off if they’re not adopted large-scale. Which is in direct contrast to most other edtech companies that seem to prefer to flog dead horses until somebody buys them out. But the whole innovate (in rough terms)-beta-kill cycle that Google uses tends to make most people uncomfortable because they want certainty that something they start using is going to still be kicking around in a year or two. Which comes right back to the problem David brings up above, that all of our systems and habits are designed around predicting needs and maintaining the status quo rather than embracing uncertainty.

      Re: new forms of credentialling – we shall sit and wait. Several hundred years of history is a tough gig to contend with :).

      1. In defence of Google though they might kill of a service – but often the technology behind it gets reused and redeployed. So from Wave we got the realtime editing/posting/viewing added into Google Docs.

        In our recent Future Forum at CSU the idea of Evolution came up in some discussions as a way to try and explain our situation. It seems to fit that the reason we are having issues relates to us trying to impose the status quo and predicting needs based on our control – when that reality is false and we live in a world that is evolving around us. The whole survival of the fittest seems harsh and unpleasant (Goole killing off apps) – but it is the reality we live in. Humans have been able to thrive not because of our ability to control, but our ability to adapt.

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