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Posts Tagged ‘lms

I would rather use any platform other than an institutional LMS. Over the years, I have reflected on why. Most recently I mentioned a paradigm shift in edtech.

But here are some simple and pragmatic reasons why I prefer to operate outside an LMS.

Reliability: Platforms likes Google Sites have near-perfect uptime. It would take a catastrophic failure for them to be unavailable over a long stretch of time. They operate over redundant servers so that the end user does not ever see “scheduled maintenance” notices.

Transferability: It is a chore to export courses from one semester to another. Even as LMS providers make this process easier, the fact remains that course resources are not available indefinitely and importing them to a new section can result in accidents. This happens most often when an LMS “upgrades”.

Indefinite access: Nothing lasts forever, but open platforms that stand the test of time have it in their interest to keep users and customers. I have resources from over a decade ago that are still online and occasionally still referred to. How do I know? I get email notifications when this happens.

Mobile responsiveness: Most LMS providers are not mobile responsive. Instead they create feature poor apps for things like notifications, announcements, polling, and attendance-taking. But when I create a course site in Google Sites, content is automatically adjusted for smaller mobile devices.

Flexibility: I can use and embed just about any other edtech tool in an open platform. I do not have to rely on LMS API or be be held back by backward IT policy. The edtech world changes quickly and features come and go, but this also means I learn to be flexible instead of simply relying on LMS inertia or repetitive practice semester over semester.

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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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This parody Twitter account on what an “ass dean” might say to higher education faculty declared:

The 20+ direct replies so far by educators say otherwise. These educators count themselves in the minority. The majority know no better, fear the unknown or authority, or are resigned to being compliant.

I recall saying the opposite when I was in a similar administrative position in a university. My department tracked LMS usage and it dropped drastically in favour of alternative platforms and tools.

My rationale was simple: Do what is best for our learners, not what is good for blind policy and indiscriminate pockets.

We are not beholden to vendors. We do not serve them; they serve us. We pay a lot of money for their services and if they do not enable the type of experiences our learners need, we need to send vendors a clear message.

Sometimes it is not the fault of vendors. They provide the tools to institutions of higher learning, but administrators pass policies and managers implement them in confusing or convoluted ways.

Faculty feel like they are jumping through hoops and taking winding paths with LMS implementation. If they see how other platforms or tools work better, and if they listen to their learners, they might also respond to the tweet: Yes, we can!


Sometimes I need to remind myself why I choose not to rely on institutional LMS.

I might use the scheduled announcements and assessment submission, but I would rather site everything else outside of it.

Why? The reasons vary from course to course and institution to institution. But here are the two reasons that apply to most contexts.

LMS are designed to be closed. My learners do not have indefinite access to the resources I might put in an LMS. I have resourced house elsewhere that are a decade old and still used by former students. If an institution claims to support lifelong learning, it must go beyond LMS policy.

Institutions claim copyright to material submitted to an LMS. I rely on open or CC-licensed resources but cannot share them in a course housed in an LMS because they already have predefined usage rights. These rights are open and not owned by the institute or the LMS.


It is not often that I have ponder whether or not to use an organisation’s learning management system (LMS).

Whether or not the organisation “requires” it or “advises” its use, I normally do not. I reflected a while ago that LMS past and present are rarely ever about learning, management, or systems.

If I do use an LMS, it is for the parts I cannot avoid or the tools that make sense, e.g., a time-released quiz that is built on a question bank in the LMS or an assignment submission system that helps users avoid plagiarism.

But LMS, no matter how they might have progressed over the last decade, are still about what a vendor offers and what an organisation’s administrative arm want. In that order.

Pedagogy and meeting the needs of learning and learners are distant motives. Any critical user should see that. How, for example?

Course content and listings expire after a semester or so. LMS operate like broadcast TV of old — watch the programmes when they are aired over a season. They are not like streaming services (free or for a fee) that are on-demand.

Activities that are intertwined (like projects) are siloed into sections like announcements, instructions, resources, submission systems, etc. They are arranged like textbook chapters or an accountant’s spreadsheet instead of a pedagogical scaffold that accounts for learning design.

So my original question — to LMS or not to LMS — is a false dichotomy. It is not one or the other, but both. I rely on the bare minimum of LMS that makes sense, and depend largely on free and open tools and platforms for the rest. I am not here in service of vendors; I am here to facilitate learning whether is happens now or later.


I am disappointed that I have not received replies to my tweets to administrators of a university’s learning management system (LMS).

The system went down unexpectedly last Tuesday afternoon and then again on Wednesday. The second outage was much longer. I still could not access the LMS shortly after midnight (Thursday).

An LMS should be a core and always-on service if a university is to consider itself world-class and first-class. After all, it is a repository of information, and in the course I facilitate, for assignment submission and feedback.

The outage meant that students could have missed submission deadlines. Facilitators like me had to compress the assignment-related tasks: Reading, providing feedback, grading, re-processing, etc. We had less time to do the same amount of work. This elevated stress for all of us.

I question the wisdom of providing social media channels (Twitter and Facebook) if they are not manned and therefore do not respond.

It was about a year ago that I used to get prompt responses from LMS support via Twitter. That continuity has not been sustained and I suspect that loss of positions and/or changes in leadership are to blame.

To be fair, other more open platforms also go dark or are subject to periods of maintenance. However, these platforms are subject to larger use and the downtime is minimised by relatively quick backend responses.

Take my use of Padlet, for example. It was down for maintenance about two hours before a morning class. I was ready for a contingency, but when I tested it again right before class it was back up.

Platform reliability creates trust. LMS downtime and a lack of communication breaks that trust and broods aversion. If I have to outsource some of the trust I build with learners to some other party, I will continue keeping resources platforms other than 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.

Messy Kitchen by mknobil, on Flickr
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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
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.


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.


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