Thursday, July 06, 2006

Current Thinking On LMS

Its been a while since I’ve made a post about Learning Management Systems and it seems appropriate to do so now, less than a week away from the WebCT Users conference in Chicago. Given the acquisition by Blackboard, I’m certainly interested in learning about company tone and upcoming plans. But I’m equally interested in strategic analysis of the broader industry and how Blackboard sees their company positioned in that respect. So let me begin with that and how some internal discussions in my IT organization are happening now ( I assume those mirror conversations on peer campuses) and then I’ll get back to my sense of where there are threats to the LMS and where the LMS natural advantage lies.

In our organization we’re at the talking stage, not yet the doing stage. One of the big things in this talk is “messaging convergence” meaning voice, data, and video services coming together in one interface or, perhaps in a better description, coming together via some “broker services” so that the user can have an interface of his or her own choice. How this gets done, of course, remains a bit of a trick, but what’s most interesting to me here is that the big telecom players clearly want into this game and they’re beginning to have offerings that will compete, perhaps quite aggressively, with vendors of placeware software. I did a quick scan of Blackboard Partners Web page and while they have an impressive array of partners, telecom companies are not listed there. In contrast, several publishers are listed. I had always assumed that at some point one would see integrations between publishers and LMS vendors. Perhaps that is not to be and the integration will be with telecom companies. Hmmm.

Another big thing in this talk is outsourcing, particularly of email. I don’t know how this will play out and for those on campus it should not be inferred that I’m saying we’re going to do this, because we simply haven’t reached that decision point yet. But it is straightforward to make the argument. There are some very big and highly recognizable names in this space: Microsoft, Google, and Yahoo and if they compete for hosting student email the packages they come up with might very well be much more feature rich than anything we can offer on our own. There are some arguments against regarding the protection of student privacy and keeping student email and related services free from advertising. So, again, I don’t want to say how it will play out.

But I do want to note the following. If email does get outsourced, then the cat is out of the bag and CIOs will be asking about outsourcing the LMS or at the least outsourcing some of the functions that are currently in the LMS and then trying to bargain down license costs for those remaining functions. The most obvious function here is content management and distribution. One doesn’t really need an LMS to get a PowerPoint presentation or equivalent to the students. iTunes U is an example of an alternative. If one were to peel of the content management and distribution function entirely, would there be enough left to sustain the demand for LMS? Alternatively, if one makes the argument that the LMS should still be in the content management business because it can achieve tighter integration with other internal LMS functions (calendar, assessments, announcements, etc.) doesn’t one still have to convince CIOs that this is true?

My own view is that the LMS will be a mission critical application for some time to come because there is a huge current dependency on it and there are not obvious alternatives that would satisfy most of our current users. But there are a variety of pressure points which if the LMS is to remain viable in this mission critical role, it must address. I provide an annotated list below.

Student Time Management/Convenience

Data from our most recent annual technology survey of students in Campus Housing (this survey over samples first year students since upper classmen tend to move off campus) shows that cell phone usage is ubiquitous and over 70% of those students are using their cell phones for text messaging of some kind. Let’s say for the sake of discussion that the typical student does this via forwarding out of Gmail. And then let’s say that in WebCT Vista, the typical student has set up mail forwarding to their email account. What’s left to do on mods in the LMS side that would enhance this type of use?

The answer seems obvious to me. Students in their course sites should be able to email subscribe to other functions – announcements, calendar, discussions… and then those send either as they are delivered or reminders are sent near when a deadline is approaching. So one enable would be this type of subscription function between the various other tools in the LMS and email.

But now consider an alternative since, after all, at least in Vista, the email is on a class by class basis. The student has set up Google Calendar for use and has her cell phone set up to get text messaging from that source. This student might prefer therefore to be able to export their calendar from across all the classes in which they are enrolled and then import that into Google calendar.

Perhaps there are yet other ways that the LMS can accommodate messages and alerts on a student cell phone. If so, thee LMS should take a do it all approach, since how the students manage this will be idiosyncratic and it works overall if they all can be accommodated.

Openness/Accommodating Web 2.0 Applications

I’m involved in a fledgling project with our Undergraduate Library to build a virtual space for our new Learning Commons. And at the outset what I want to do is have some focused conversations on among a selected group of people but have that open to the community for anyone to comment. I didn’t know how to do this with WebCT Vista, so we’re setting up a pilot Movable Type server and we’ll try to create Mother Blogs from individual blogs as suggested by Barbara Ganley. If that works in a community setting, and if we’re trying to put a sense of community into the classroom setting…

My sense of this is that blogging (and wikis too) are sufficiently far along that as with student cell phones and messaging, they need to be accommodated by the LMS. How might that happen and would an English Instructor like Barbara use the LMS? Well, I think they might if they found it useful. Vista has a reasonably nice group function. Might Barbara want to use that in conjunction with her blogging? Might se want to evaluate some of the work done one a group basis rather than an individual basis? Might she want to evaluate not just each assignment but also the trajectory of writing as the students get a sense of each other’s voice and get further engaged into the subject of the course? These all seem like real possibilities to me and while I don’t have a sense of how the underlying integration would occur, it certainly doesn’t seem outlandish to me that it might.

Even with that, however, I assume that the integration is tighter with built in tools in the LMS and one might equally want to expose them to the outside world, for example a discussion board that outsiders can make comments in. This sort of things has been a wish for a long time. If it doesn’t materialize more and more instructors will move away from the LMS and use Web 2.0 apps and not avail themselves of the tools inside the LMS that might be useful to them.

Designer Capabilities For Students

We are not doing this at present, but I can see a point in the near future where on demand we’ll give students a site in the LMS where they have designer access so they can build learning objects (I’m interest in assessments) that might be administered to others. I know Vista 4 has the elements of this with students being able to contribute links that the instructor can incorporate into the site. But pedagogically we need to go beyond that. We need to put students into a situation where they design things and then have the students evaluated by how others react to their design. This type of activity is crucial in producing the type of critical thinking we want our graduates to be able to do.

The LMS offers a general framework for doing this with assessments, where a student or a group of students writes the assessment and other students take it and in the ultimate question give their reaction to taking it. This can then be reciprocated so that student assess each other and the designs receive an experiential critique. This can then become the basis of in class discussion, where the students are more likely to be engaged because they’ve invested themselves beforehand.

This type of activity is possible now but it is clunky to do and training the students to be designers in the LMS might prove to be a distraction in the class. So what needs to be done is to make this much more user friendly and give the students a sense that the authoring function is do-able and even fun.

Data Ingest and Data Manipulation

Larry Summers, before he put his foot in his mouth that cost him the presidency at Harvard, was making an argument that I generally agree with to the effect that our students need to educated to think about data, how to get interesting results that are data driven, and more generally how to be empirically based in what they come to believe is true. Summers was arguing this more or less at the same time as the book Moneyball appeared, and the success of that book helped to convince me of the validity of Summers point. But I think it is still generally true and we should be encouraging that type of teaching.

The LMS is potentially quite useful in this regard because one can have class “experiments” where each student inputs his/her observations and then those can be aggregated/pooled. The survey tool is the natural place for this sort of work. But there are two clear needs to make this possible. First, consider the individual student who is data gathering. That student might take data that is spit out of some apparatus, or might make several recordings of a particular variable and only report the average. So, in general, it makes sense to assume the data created by the student resides somewhere else, say in an Excel spreadsheet. It then needs to be transferred to the LMS. Of course this can be done one entry at a time but that is clunky and time consuming. The LMS already has the ability for an instructor to import a column (or multiple columns) of grade data. There is a need to give the students a similar capability for entering their data.

Second, students need direct access the submissions of the class as a whole if they are themselves to perform analysis on the aggregate. At present, the instructor can access all the submission, download and post for the class to view. But why should the instructor play this intermediary role instead of having the instructor simply click a checkbox that says make results available to the class? And if the LMS goes the extra mile of produce some bivariate graphs and analysis of numeric data of this sort, that too should be made available to the students in the same way.


The LMS is an environment for managing course logistics and for promoting learning. Changes in IT that we’re all observing can threaten and ultimately defeat the LMS, if LMS vendors don’t adapt appropriately to that changing environment. There are some fairly straightforward changes that need to be made on the convenience front that will make information housed in the LMS accessible by student when using their cell phones, which is their preferred mobile device. But the real case for the LMS will be made for what it delivers directly to promote learning and we need to see modifications of already existing capabilities to push these environments in that direction. Regular readers of my blog will note that these are changes I've suggested before. The point of bringing them up again here is to buttress the argument that things can be done to make the LMS more an environment about learning and thereby differentiate it from Portals and other tools that have a broader base of use than higher education.


Tony Karrer said...

I agree with a fair amount of what you are saying in your post, but I think that LMS products generally are falling prey to being Enterprise IT (big and hard to adapt). I'm not so sure that adding features is going to help. I've written some more thoughts up on my blog:

Moving from One to Many - LMS Products are Two Generations Behind

Lanny Arvan said...

There is no question that there are individual apps, such as Blogger, that do its one thing well, better than how it is done in the LMS, but my own view is that the LMS is still the best bet for what we want overall and further that more advanced features can't survive unless one has an application that is moderately complicated.