Thursday, February 09, 2006

The future of LMS and evolutionary biology

I’ve been “offline” the last few days tending to other things. I did a tad of catching up this morning and wanted to chime in on this future directions issue, because it seems to me that everyone is looking at this too narrowly. But before I get to that and as I warm up let me ask a more drill down question.

Suppose your shop that supports the LMS is thinking about supporting some Web 2.0 application(s) as an alternative to the LMS offering and to keep the folks who want to try something else from getting too restless. The question is this. How important is having a built in WYSIWYG editor as part of the requirements. I had thought it was a big deal, for user convenience and for helping those who are still early on in trying these technologies. But then I stumbled on this free editor that is like a desktop email client. It deals with images on the Web in a very nice way – allows those to be dragged into the message with no need to know the url of the image – and in general looks familiar enough that it should be easy to learn. I tried it on my test blog and it was simple to set up and easy to publish. Might we start seeing more of these utility like applications on the desktop and outside our server based environments? And, in particular, has anyone else tried Qumana and if so what do you think of it?

* * * * *

Now a quick lesson in evolutionary biology courtesy of Steven Jay Gould. The right metaphor is that of the bush, not the tree trunk that you may have seen in your high school biology text. With the bush lots of branches are growing and viable. Then random factors, meaning that they are not predictable ahead of time, select some branch for continued growth and enhancement while the other branches wither and die. I think we’re still in this bush stage with the LMS and most of the insiders are looking at deterministic factors (features within the current offerings) as determinants of the path. It maybe human nature to do this, but it is bad biology. And it is bad industrial organization. Gould and many economists have made a strong parallel between evolutionary biology and how industries evolve. (Microsoft did not become dominant because it had the best offerings.)

So what other things should we be looking at? Let me point to two that seem obvious to me because they are both within the domain of campus CIOs. The first is email. Depending on where you are, email has been around for perhaps 7 or 8 years longer than the LMS. Most campuses I know are at present supporting big email systems, but many of the students are not using them, opting for gmail, hotmail, or some other commercial alternative that is free to them. I know that we are hearing from some of these vendors about offering us a hosting solution of some sort that would be branded with the University of Illinois and offer a variety of their current features. And I know we have some issues with this regarding information security. So we have not as of yet jumped at this opportunity.

But there is another possible path. That is to get out of the email business. Simply provide a forwarding service and let the users fend for themselves with what has become a commodity service in which we can’t compete in terms of service quality. (And then there is the hybrid version of this where we get out for the students and offer a more boutique service for the faculty.)

I don’t know of campuses that have made the leap on this yet and surely there is a lot of risk in doing so. My point is that how this plays out will have a big impact on how the LMS evolves, and how this plays out is not knowable now. So why aren’t we in the learning technology arena talking about it rather than leaving it to the techies to decide how it should play out?

The other side of this sandwich is the ERP system. At my university, which includes the Chicago and Springfield campuses, we are in the process of moving from Banner 6.x to Banner 7.x. And unlike with changes in the LMS system that usually take place over the summer, the move here is happening right now in time for students to register for their fall courses in the new system.

The ERP, of course, represents institutional lock in to a big system and a more massive expenditure on IT than the LMS. But there does not seem a way to outsource these functions (though I do think if we looked at our business practices for things like how many majors students have and how add/drop dates are managed we have ourselves to blame for the lock in). I know very few people who speak positively of the ERP. To most it seems like master rather than servant and it is a master nobody wanted beforehand. For CIOs who are not learning technologists themselves, the ERP may be a metaphor for the LMS and hence the CIO decision about the LMS may be guided accordingly.

What does that mean? I don’t really know, but again my point is that there is unpredictability here and that may very well come from outside the narrow LMS space. I do know that as an IT organization (our division of labor has the University supporting the ERP and all other administrative apps while the campus supports the academic apps) our back end is looking more and more like the back end needed for the ERP. At a big institution such as mine, that on the one had might signify we inside IT are “doing it right” but it also might signify from the CIO point of view, “this job is not fun.” Hmmmm.

Let me make one more observation to indicate yet another source of uncertainty. Right now in the CIC (the Big Ten Universities plus the University of Chicago), there are several CIO positions that are opening up as the current CIOs have announced their retirements or have moved on. So we’ll be seeing a new crop of folks in these positions in the not too distant future and it will be this next generation of leaders who make the decisions that will drive these outcomes. But who are these folks? And, assuming they have fire in the belly, what is their passion? That has got to matter.

So we can keep talking about the tools inside the LMS, but we are naïve if we think that will drive which approach becomes the branch that sustains.

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