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The minimal L in LMS

Posted on: May 2, 2019

Let’s not kid ourselves — learning management systems (LMS) are not designed for student-centred learning.

This is how LMS are typically procured by educational institutions: Administrative and IT staff first attend technology roadshows or the vendor area of conferences. Then the LMS vendors court these staff over meetings at their respective offices.

Rarely, if ever, are academic staff or students involved in such meetings and decision-making. The implementations are thus administratively and delivery oriented.

Optimistically, the LMS set ups are often designed with distant memories of what classes look like. Realistically, they are driven by efficiency instead of effectiveness. Checking all the boxes during an audit matters more than if learning happens or if it matters.

How might the L and LMS be minimally reinstated given these practical realities?

Consider two different institutes of higher education (IHL), A and B.

Both rely on an LMS to host courses for undergraduate and graduate courses. Both have policy that instructors use the LMS as the primary (or only) platform.

IHL A has 240 students taking a course. All students need to access shared resources from a “mother ship” course in the LMS (this mimics lectures). Each student is also assigned to a “baby ship” along with 19 other students within the same LMS (this mimics tutorials). This results in 12 baby ships and one mother ship in the LMS.

The reason for the mother ship is administrative efficiency. It is easier to populate and update one course than to do this 20 times. But a result of this design is that every student sees TWO listings for each course — one mother ship, one baby ship — when they log in to the LMS. Since they take several courses, their course listings get unnecessarily long and potentially confusing.

IHL B also has 240 students taking a course. Like IHL A, all students need shared resources but separate class spaces. However, students from IHL B see only ONE course listing for each course. This is because the class spaces are created within the main umbrella course.

LMS designs.

Rising above, IHL A’s design is like parallel train tracks that run close to one another, but never overlap. IHL B’s design is like an umbrella with spokes. IHL B’s design of courses in LMS is better because students see only one course (the umbrella) while still being able to access their own class space (spokes).

IHL B’s design is also better because it sees how students might be confused with two listings per course. When there is more than one listing, errors like where to submit assignments or hold discussions happen.

IHL A has a less student-centric view of learners and learning. It is driven by a sense of everything-in-place without considering the learner experience. Its IT group might also not know how to create “umbrellas” or be held hostage by the LMS provider because such a feature invokes a subscription cost.

The change in design is matter of financial priorities, empathy for students, and learning about better alternatives. As challenging as this might be, it is no match for the next issue.

Like most IHLs, both A and B remove access to courses from learners after a semester or two. This is the traditional walled garden mindset: Students need credentials to access the courses and their access is limited. Both seem reasonable until you decide to be more learner-centred.

Students do not always learn on a university’s schedule. The need or context for learning might not be real. Just because a course is ready does not mean that the learner is.

More importantly, progressive IHLs wishing to stay relevant will jump on the “lifelong learning” bandwagon. While one approach is to keep offering new courses, this is not possible or sustainable over the long term. Courses take a long time to create and much effort to facilitate and maintain. Access to existing courses is key to promoting lifelong and lifewide learning.

My suggestion to provide indefinite access to courses will fall on deaf ears because of an assortment of reasons, storage constraints being one. This is where IHLs need to learn from YouTube and Amazon. From YouTube they might learn how to leverage on user-generated content and open hosting; from YouTube and Amazon they might learn how algorithms suggest content.

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