WHAT DO WE DO about Learning Management Systems? Do we need them? Are they an asset to elearning or a hindrance?
Looking back, it’s not so controversial to suggest that learning management systems (LMS) have actually had a detrimental impact on elearning.
These centralised commercial systems were the digital products of the 1990’s.
The two most successful were WebCT and Blackboard. At their peak, millions of students globally were enrolled in them. In 2005, Blackboard acquired WebCT, thus eliminating a competitor.
The word management to describe these systems was not arbitrary. As students connected to the Internet for their learning, it was deemed necessary administratively to provide a closed, secure, and supposedly all-encompassing environment and to track their student’s involvement – to record the number of times they opened and downloaded files, when they sent their assignments and the communication events between teacher and student.
However, the systems were mostly conceived and built around a programmer’s view of the world; not an educationists.
Whilst administrators liked the data coming off them, which proved investment decisions in ‘elearning’ were paying off (these software systems are expensive to licence), teachers and students found them cumbersome to use and that they added very little to the learning experience. Basically, PDF or Word documents were uploaded (learning resources / text books), the teacher made announcements and sent group emails, and students used the ‘dropbox’ to upload their digital assignments for assessment.
In this respect, the trademark Blackboard is not a misnomer. It conjures up images of the 1801 invention used over 150 years by teachers to provide instructions to students. The blackboard was one of the first learning technologies, and it reinforced a disciplinarian approach to learning.
The digital Blackboard was no less authoritarian.
As external technologies came on stream, the LMS attempted to incorporate them into their rigid interface structures. HTML pages could be built, although the code was locked in making it difficult to modify and maintain. More communication tools were added, including blogs and wikis, but these were difficult to access and use, and therefore, rarely used dynamically in the learning context.
Their inflexibility is even more evident when compared with complex but simple-to-use social networking tools. (See Facebook as a technology system.) The legacy of their initial programming structures remained, despite the many versions and upgrades that they rolled out.
In a survey conducted in one Victorian TAFE college in 2008, it was revealed that the LMS was the main reason for teachers not engaging with elearning. What had to be pointed out to them, to their great relief, was that using an LMS does not necessarily equate to elearning.
Interestingly, Victoria created one of the first learning management systems, called TAFEVC 1.0. It was a dynamic system build around a model of just-in-time teaching, with a robust relationship between instructions (lessons), resources and learning activities / assessment. Unfortunately, after the initial government investment, no further modifications were made to the system, and it was jettisoned in favour of WebCT.
Moodle, an open source product, is now challenging Blackboard as the leading LMS.
Moodle, an abbreviation for the rather geek Modular Object-Oriented Dynamic Learning Environment, came online in 2002. As an open source product, it has advantages that other propriety systems did not: a more open base code and a community of developers who continue to add ‘modules’ and innovation to the basic system, thus strengthening its credentials as an open learning environment.
Martin Dougiamas, who wrote the first version of Moodle indeed claimed:
The use of Open Source software to support a social constructionist epistemology of teaching and learning within Internet-based communities of reflective inquiry.
Quite a mouthful, but most adopters agree that it is at least pedagogy neutral.
So do LMS still have a role to play in elearning?
On the one hand we have a plethora of specialised, dynamic and mostly free tools that a teacher can draw on in order to engage with and motivate their students’ learning. (See Yes, it’s now available.)
Selecting freely from the software smorgasbord, however, raises other important issues of login integration, usage tracking, version upgrades, network security, professional development and lack of strategic consistency across an organisation.
In making the decision to use an LMS, we need to be confident that it is a open door through which teachers and students can easily enter, that opens up seamlessly to the whole range of elearning experiences. That is, it is an enabler; not a controller, hindrance or limiter of learning. This is its real test.