Another dot in the blogosphere?

LMS, LMess, hell MS

Posted on: December 4, 2015

I opted not to speak at an unconference yesterday that focused on learning management systems (LMS). Despite a few reasonable people who reflect on their practice and follow the research on technology-mediated pedagogy, most other people see LMS as a staple.

If I had attended the event, I would have spoken not to the choir but to a group (and maybe a mob) that had already made their collective minds up. If not, then their hands would have been tied by policy makers and administrators who had already decided how to spend a sizeable chunk of the budget.

I am going to sound like a squeaky wheel, but anything worth saying is worth repeating: LMS is often an LMess or a hell MS.

Messy Kitchen by mknobil, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic License   by  mknobil 

When I was in charge of what used to be called the Centre for e-Learning at NIE, my staff and I would collect data on how the institution’s LMS was typically used. In order of most to least use:

  • Content dump (40%)
  • Discussion (23%)
  • Assignments and assessments (14%)
  • Announcements (3%)
  • All other uses (small efforts totalling 20%)

The predominant use of LMS was to store content in a manner akin to Dropbox, Google Drive, or OneDrive. It almost seems futile to point out that the latter are free and owned by instructors and students.

We also analysed the quality of the corpus of content in discussion forums. It fell into two main categories:

  • Teacher asks a question and demands answers of students by a certain date and time
  • Teacher provides an open space for students to chat (the space is barren or unproductive)

Call me narrow-minded, but I do not consider such practices to be discussions or forums.

LMS are not designed for learning, no matter how vendors spin it. They are based on managerial and administrative needs, not those of educators or students. Why else would they be designed to be like a conveyor belt?

Maize seed quality control at small seed by CIMMYT, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License   by  CIMMYT 

There is only so much space on the belt, it moves at a particular speed, and items are removed or fall off at the end. Students have no access to the previous semester’s resources and instructors risk losing their courses if they do not follow LMS rules.

Students typically complain about the usability of an LMS. Their top complaints: Too many course listings, and the difficulty of finding things (hunting and pecking in the content dump).

The degree of integration of LMS with other institutional systems varies by the organisation. A few, like my doctorate alma mater, Indiana University, have their own LMS that integrates processes from beginning to end. My previous workplace had timetabling, class allotment, the LMS proper, and grades submissions separate. The former was seamless. The latter not only made it necessary to have lots of administrative processes, it also stressed out people who could have been doing actual work instead of being busy.

Another effect of LMS is insidious and restrictive pedagogy. Lisa Lane wrote about insidious pedagogy a while back and I was interviewed by eLearn magazine on the same last year. Short version: LMS policies and designs affect human behaviour just like traffic rules and road designs affect driving. LMS make it hard for good teachers to do good and easy for bad teachers to keep doing more of the same.

There is little justification for LMS today. It is no secret that Blackboard is losing its market share to entities that are faster at mimicking the plethora of free tools and social platforms.

They are a mess from users’ points of view. They are not designed for teaching and learning first; they are designed for administrative management. They do not push instructors to teach better or differently. Why institutions still pay good money for LMess and hell MS is beyond me.


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