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Posts Tagged ‘lms

A rose is rose is a rose. It is what it is.

Likewise an LMS is an LMS is an LMS. It is where progressive pedagogy goes to die and it does not smell as nice.

You can rename an LMS all you want, it will still suffer from the same problems (e.g., insidious pedagogies) and inadequacies (limited access).

I can rename a part of my body to Waste Aperture and Release Point (WARP) to anoint it with a fancy name or give the impression that it is futuristic. But it is still the terminal end of my alimentary canal.

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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.

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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
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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.


If you cannot help the few, how do you expect to help the many? Are you actually helping anyone at all?

I ask these questions of local schools that subscribe to LMS (learning management systems) or CMS (content) and teachers who use it only sporadically or superficially.

Parents must pay for each child’s access to CMS/LMS. We do not feel the pinch because subsidies make annual subscriptions very low [example 1] [example 2]. CMS and LMS companies have it on easy street because there is guaranteed clientele and lock-in.

Since parents are not financially burdened, there is no harm done, right? No. Not when you realize how such systems are underused or misused.

Schools rarely use these systems for actual learning. To this day, e-learning is relegated to e-learning days or a week while mainstream teaching still happens face to face the rest of the time.

The “e” in e-learning is still associated with “emergency” or “extra” instead of enabling learning. Challenge schools to completely replace face time with screen and computer/phone-mediated social interaction for an extended period and they will likely fail.

How much confidence do school administrators and teachers have in their LMS or CMS? Very little.

I know of schools that require teachers to “stand by” in schools while students stay at home. Other schools conduct e-learning days or weeks in batches so that their LMS or CMS is not overloaded. Even the confidence for emergency learning is not there.

That is how such systems are underused.

Now consider what happens when a teacher goes off on reservist duties or maternity leave. There is no confidence in e-learning as one or more relief teachers must step in (much to their not relief).

When the original teachers return, they might find that they have to re-teach or undo damage. They typically offer extra classes before and/or after school to make up for their absence.

I know of a Secondary school student who has to undergo psychiatric treatment at a local hospital. He has a curfew: He has to make his way to hospital and stay there after school. His single mother quit her job to pick him up from the hospital early every morning to escort him to school. This student’s mother was the sole bread-winner of the family and also supports the student’s sibling.

Teachers have to bend over backwards to accommodate the needs to this one student. You have wonder why an e-learning system is not utilized as an option.

If you think about it, these exceptional cases are becoming more common. Consider absences from school due to long term illness, family problems, juvenile crime, etc. Why should these children and their families suffer further by not having access to school?

CMS and LMS should be readied and positioned to provide experiences equivalent to that of school so that they are not put at a disadvantage. Schools and CMS/LMS providers have this social responsibility since such systems are being paid for and maintained ultimately by public or donated funds.

On the surface, a subscription to CMS or LMS seems to help many because schools can claim that every teacher and student has an account. But this does not mean CMS or LMS address the authentic needs of students such as learning when they legitimately cannot attend school.

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I tried watching the Apple event ‘live’ stream on Sep 9 (it was 1am on Sep 10 here in Singapore), but it did not go smoothly.

I could only watch the video using the Safari browser. The video would freeze ever so often. When it played, I could hear three voices at once as there were least two simultaneous audio translations of what was being said on stage. The brief text and photo updates at Gizmodo and TechCrunch were less media rich but clearer.

The last time the video stream froze, I tried reloading the page. I received a cryptic message informing me that I had done something illegal. I did not realize that watching an Apple event broadcast by Apple on my iMac using Apple’s Safari browser was illegal. Perhaps it was illegal to expect the quality and reliability of YouTube.

Some folks who experienced the same problems watching the event online took to Twitter and their blogs to vent [example]. I am not using this blog to vent. This is not because I am an Apple fanboy (I own Android devices and a PC in addition to my iOS devices and Macs).

I just sighed and thought how much the experience was like using most learning management systems (LMS).

The ‘live’ stream only worked on Safari. Most LMS rely on proprietary systems that often do not play well with others. This helps LMS companies control their processes and products, and create lock-in among their clients. They might tell you are are compliant to SCORM or some other standard, but the fact is that it is very difficult to move from one system or platform to another.

If you used some other browser like Chrome, you received text updates and no video of the Apple event. The updates were much slower than the ‘live’ pages or tweets from tech blogs. LMS tend to be inflexible that way. Most providers have little choice but to open themselves up to social media and Google Drive in order to stay relevant, but their core is based on giving IT folks and conservative policy makers a false sense of control.

It is very reassuring to the people who are not actually designing and/or teaching courses to hear how “feature-rich” or “secure” the LMS is. Those who need to design and/or teach are forced to learn the LMS ropes instead of relying on good instinct, educational research, and reflective practice. Learners just go with the flow because their grades ultimately depend on compliance and they might not know any better.

But more and more educators and learners do know better. They are fed on diets on cloud computing, social media interaction, YouTube videos, and Google Doc editing. The sands are shifting, but LMS providers will have you believe that their castles will stand.

They will not. Most LMS providers will refuse to admit they are wrong (has Apple apologized for their streaming gaffes?). Just like Apple is unlikely to admit that the other more open, more social streams were also more reliable and just as accurate.

LMS are unlikely to admit that providing feature-rich options (like Apple’s simulcast translations) are actually distracting, noisy, and harmful. They dissuade risk-taking, good pedagogy, and deep learning.

Let us not kid ourselves into thinking that LMS are about learning, much less managing it. Take e-portfolios for example. They could be about alternative and progressive forms of assessment, platforms for reflection and career-long learning, and students taking ownership of their own processes and products of learning. An LMS provider can tell you that because someone else has done the research or critical pedagogy or distilled that wisdom at a keynote. There are some LMS providers who will incorporate e-portfolio tools because it means more accounts, storage space, training, and maintenance.

Apple and LMS providers are entitled to make money off of you. They do not force you to buy-in and buy outright. Instead, they skillfully convince you what value they bring.

The difference is that when you buy an Apple consumer product, it is typically for your own or your loved ones’ use. When you buy an LMS, you are affecting hundreds or thousands of people. Can you claim to know what they all struggle with, need, or wish to be? If you cannot, you should go where they already are. They are using solutions that are social, open, and mobile.

I watched the video of Michael Berman sharing his thoughts on the evolution, revolution, and extinction of LMS. He shared his video at his blog.

The video is 25 minutes long and done in the style of a talking head, so it took some ploughing through to watch it in one sitting.

Berman made a few salient points about LMS before getting to the main topic:

  • LMS might only offer new ways to do the things we have already done before
  • The people who decide which LMS to adopt tend to favour the least disruptive solution
  • Those who create LMS grew up at a different time and have different expectations compared to the learner-users of LMS
  • Complaints about LMS: complex and clunky (unnecessarily complicated ways to do simple things), good for content repository but not for interactive pedagogy, closed environment (info does not flow in or out of the course)

You need to need to get to 13-minute mark of the video before getting to the heart of the topic.

LMS are likely to evolve to be more user-friendly and more mobile-friendly. At least, that is the promise that providers like Blackboard make time and time again. Slower moving LMS providers could also play catch up by relying on cloud architecture for more responsive updates and including “big data” analytics.

However, for a revolution to take place in LMS, there must be a truly learner-centric focus and design. For this to happen, the central element is not the course but the learner who can seek out learning resources. The revolutionary LMS functions to help make those connections. It becomes less hierarchical (instructor to student) and flatter instead.

This led Berman to suggest the possible extinction of LMS. Such a connective tool already exists; it is called the Internet! So why do we need LMS? Instead, he posited that we could rely on the “power of pull”. I see this as just-in-time, just-for-me creation of ad hoc groups and resources for learning.

Berman cited an exciting example from University of Mary Washington’s Domain of One’s Own where all users get their own space and connect with each other if they wish to. It was the closest thing he observed to a revolutionary LMS.

I have never been a proponent of LMS because they place too many limits (logical, pedagogical, infrastructural, financial, etc.) on an institution. They are slow ocean liners trying to navigate multiple shallow tributaries when what most people need are nimble boats.

Here is data to back my claim.

Phil Hill created this graphic on the state of LMS in “the Anglosphere – the US, UK, Canada and Australia”.

The players that are growing include Canvas, Moodle, and Desire2Learn. These are open source and/or have adopted more social and mobile strategies.

Blackboard is still a dominant player. But even without expanding the graphic above (dark grey), it is evident that its market share is shrinking.

Berman and Hill present just two perspectives on the state of LMS. They do so with research and data-informed conclusions. These are processes that any of us would use before we invest in something like a house or car, so why not an LMS?

So if you are from an institution that already has an LMS, give some serious thought about the likely evolution of the LMS and see if you can live improved usability but the same lock-in and pedagogical stagnation over the long term.

If you are from an institution that has yet to adopt an LMS, I advise you not get one. Contact me and we can have a chat on how you can skip several legacy problems and deal with the problems worth having. These are the problems of learner-centric design and being part of a new solution instead of contributing to an old problem.

I may wear the pants of the house, but I also mop the floors of my home. I do this once a week and I have developed a system of cleaning. So I think I know a thing or two about the humble mop.

Mop heads wear out and get dirty so they need to be replaced. My latest purchase seemed like a good idea at the time. I thought I could get a mop head from a reputable brand and attach it to the handle I already had.


It was only after I bought it that I realized that the new mop head had an extra piece (in photo, left) that required it to be paired with the same brand of handle with a hollow end (right). I was forced to buy a handle I did not need.

That was not all. The handle was shorter that other handles I had. I am of average height and this handle seemed to be designed for a really short person. Perhaps the company had in mind who mopped floors and designed for them only. When I use it, I bend over unnecessarily to have both hands on it. Using it one-handed, I grip the very end because it is so short.

I prefer a previously purchased adjustable-length handle. It allows me to shorten the mop in tight corners and lengthen it when reaching under beds.

In short, the new mop package was from a reputable brand, made me pay more than I had to, and was one-size-fits-all. I think you see where I am going with this analogy.

I was until recently the Head of the Centre for e-Learning. I understand learning management systems (LMS) even better than mops. Most LMS are just like the new mop I bought.

Most LMS often have proprietary elements that are not driven by teaching and learning needs. Instead they are driven by profit and administration.

Instructors and students have to learn to use and live with the limited affordances of most LMS. If we are honest, I am being kind with that statement. I do not know of any organization that sings praises of its vendor-provided LMS. The exceptions are organizations that create their own so that it is highly customized and integrated to other systems.

Just like how the brand name handle came up short, so too do LMS providers in the e-platform world. They realize that they have to try to keep up with more social, open, or flexible tools. They also cannot exclude their more mobile users. But they tend to react to these changes instead of designing for them in the first place. The result is often a Frankenstein monster of mish-mashed parts.

Unlike a mop, an LMS is an expensive investment that tends to get more expensive to maintain over time. I can find a better mop, but an organization cannot just drop an LMS because it has invested too much money and effort into it. The inertia is just too great and it becomes greater over time.

What are solutions for this problem? Do not adopt an LMS in the first place. Understand the needs of teachers and learners and address those needs with a variety of meaningful platforms or tools. And listen to people like me who you can bring on as experienced consultants. Do not be penny wise and pound foolish by not paying for good advice.

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Sometimes I am consulted by agencies outside my own about adopting “future ready” platforms.

While there are many ways to address this issue based on different contexts, I find myself repeating one answer. I tell them to avoid an enterprise learning management system (LMS) like Blackboard.

LMS tend to be expensive and their cost will only go up over time. Even without extras they are bloated with features most instructors will not need or care for. Where there are missing features, you will pay handsomely for them to be included. Upgrades will tend to become more complicated rather than easier to use.

Your buy-in will eventually lead to lock-in. The LMS will be the go-to place even when it ceases to be relevant. It will influence pedagogy (instead of the other way around) and entrench itself so that your organization will find it hard to let go.

You will likely end up with a closed system that is great for administrators or technical-minded staff. This does not serve the needs of learners or instructors who may require lifelong learning or more open resources.

Providing more open resources and services is not just being future-ready; it addresses what is needed here and now!

To adopt a traditionally oriented LMS is like adopting Singapore’s paper coupon parking system even when electronic forms exist.

This ridiculously antiquated system requires you to tear tabs from paper coupons to indicate the date and time you park, and leave the correct number of coupons on your car’s dashboard based on 30 or 60-minute intervals.

Such a system allows people to cheat, does not take into account the actual time you need, is a source of litter and a waste of paper, and when you consider the policing mechanism, is unnecessarily human resource intensive.

On the other hand, the electronic reader system can charge you more precisely or in the same blocks of time, does not generate paper waste (with the exception of top-up receipts), and is more convenient for the user.

An LMS is like the paper-based parking system. It is designed not for learner needs but to satisfy what an administrator wants. Like the parking authorities/companies who make a profit, the only ones who are really happy the LMS are the ones who make money from it.

To be future-ready, we should refine the electronic parking system and abandon the old paper-based one. To be future-ready, we should avoid LMS that are designed with a different time and purpose.

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