After many years working in higher education publishing and sales, I was hired in 2014 to work as an "Instructional Technology Specialist" at a mid-sized comprehensive university. (Don't even get me started on how much I hate any title that has the work "specialist" in it, I often refer to myself as an Instructional Technologist). Ostensibly this role is to support all instructional faculty and staff on campus in the careful integration of technology to complement their existing pedagogies. A large part of the role is to support use of our campus LMS. We are a Brightspace adopter, one of the first actually. Around the time that I was hired, Brightspace was rebranded as an "Integrated Learning Platform" (so long LMS?), but the change in brand is only semantics as far as I can tell. Our LMS is no more about learning than it was before - I always emphasize the "management" - it is a great administrative tool, one that becomes familiar to students, and certainly there are instructors who use it to the best of its design. But. Here's the thing, it is still a walled garden.
This is something that has been written about extensively on the blogosphere and beyond. Phil Hill (2014), in a blog post called "Opening up the LMS Walled Garden" notes that one of the biggest issues with today's learning management systems is that they have failed to evolve with the proliferation of social and web 2.0 tools. More, that instead of working towards interoperability with these tools, LMS vendors tried to 'solve' their 'problem' "by creating poor imitations of the external tools and stuffing them inside the LMS" (Hill, 2014). Anderson (2016) notes that "[the LMS] handles document dissemination, quizzes and grade books with ease, but many of the networking, social capital building, open content dissemination and crowd effects are eliminated by the closed institutional firewalls behind which the LMS operates". Ultimately this means that many of our current LMS options suffer from feature bloat. They end up doing a LOT of things, but only a few really well.
All of these issues are compounded by the fact that most LMSs are built on aging code, and so changes for the better often require vendors to start from scratch. To complicate matter further, a change in LMS is no small feat. As noted by Wright et. al. (2014) the selection and implementation challenges are many: leadership, stakeholder buy-in, alignment with institutional strategy, congruency with instructional methods, infrastructure, training, culture of the organization...the list goes on and you can access it in full here. Additionally, the reality of the situation is that many institutional RFP processes are self-limiting in that rubrics often focus on the feature and function bloat, which we have already underlined as problematic above (Hill, 2014).
The LMS is dead. Long live the LMS. On Canvas, NGDLEs, and PLEs.
One of the most recent developments in the world of the "traditional" LMS is Canvas by Instructure. Launched in 2011 after an apparent road trip around the US conducting a needs assessment, Canvas is a self-described "breath of fresh air. It's an educational revolution" (About Us, n.d.). And it is hard not to get caught up in the hype as their marketing resonates. The propose that institutions do away with the feature rubrics and ask a single question, 'will it get used' - and it's a good question. And Canvas isn't without its features. I was asked just over a year ago to complete an evaluation of the product, and admittedly I was impressed. A large Canadian institution, which will remain nameless, recently (1-2 years?) completed an RFP process in which Brightspace and Canvas were the final choices. They chose Brightspace, and I won't lie, I was confused. When I asked one of the people who led the committee on the decision, he said that when the process started (and in addition to the other limitations of these processes mentioned above, RFP can also be looooong) it just seemed like a risk to take a chance on, what was at the time, a start up. Regrets? Maybe. Canvas is definitely the one to watch though, they are taking market share slowly but steadily. If it were up to me, we might make the switch, in particular because it is a) open source b) is the best in terms of interoperability and integrations and c) because it offers the option to apply a Creative Commons license to your course and open things up....how amazing is that?
And then there are others dreaming up the future and see the LMS as evolving towards a NGDLE - what is a NGDLE you might well ask? Brown, Dehoney and Millechap (2015) have adopted the term Next Generation Digital Learning Environment to describe the LMS in a post-LMS world. In an Educause Learning Initiative while paper, they propose that it will be a confederation of IT systems, built upon "five critical domains of core functionality":
Interoperability and Integration
Analytics, Advising, and Learning Assessment
Accessibility and Universal Design
It is well worth reading the article in its entirety, and it can be found here. At the moment, only time will tell whether a NGLE is the answer to the question "what comes after the LMS?", and indeed some would argue that it is not the right question. And while on the surface, it sound like a pretty amazing idea, there are some cautioning against jumping on the bandwagon too quickly. Two excellent posts about the ELI piece have been written by Tony Bates (here) and Michael Feldstein (here). What do you think?
So what did I learn?
Surprisingly (to me), a lot. I have read all of these articles before. This conversation, again, is nothing new (note to course designers for MDDE 610, it might be time for an update). But, I have never been forced to synthesize all of "this" and put in to words my own thoughts and feelings about it. There in lies the learning. See? What they say about ePortfolios IS true!
So what is an instructional technologist to do? I think what I have realized (perhaps for a while, but never quite "accepted") is that the LMS is here to stay. At least on my campus. Not only is it unlikely that we would entertain a move away from the LMS, but it is doubtful that we would seriously entertain a change without some significant shifts. And, maybe this isn't a bad thing, in fact perhaps it is a good one as there are many affordances provided by the adoption of a centrally managed platform, for example consistency of student experience. More, some elements really do belong behind the wall for reasons of privacy, for example grade information, and even discussions in some contexts may happen more effectively in a closed and supportive community of learners.
And, maybe this consistency in LMS experience will allow us to focus on finding creative ways to move beyond its walls. Perhaps our LMS will evolve and offer new opportunities for integrations - finally becoming the "integrated learning platform" of promise? Instead of grumbling, maybe we can shift our focus to emergent tools, and way more importantly, emerging digital pedagogies. All of this not to say we should be chasing shiny balls, or sticking our hands in the air every time the wind blows. More, it is to acknowledge the ways the LMS does work, and to harness that power. And then, were it doesn't, to not feel constrained to "make it work". Move on and find a better way.
So much more to read on this....
Beasley, Wm. (2012) Infiltrating the walled garden. Hybrid Pedagogy. Retrieved from http://www.digitalpedagogylab.com/hybridped/infiltrating-the-walled-garden/
Brown, M., Dehoney, J., & Millechap, N., (2015). What's next for the LMS? Retrieved from http://er.educause.edu/articles/2015/6/whats-next-for-the-lms
Feldstein, M. (2014). Dammit the LMS [blog post]. Retrieved from http://mfeldstein.com/dammit-lms/
Norman, D.L. (2009). On openness, walled gardens, community and ownership [blog post]. Retrieved from https://darcynorman.net/2009/07/15/on-openness-walled-gardens-community-and-ownership/
**Given the "age" of these readings, for the most part, I might argue this is OLD news. Done. Dusted. But here's the rub. These conversations are *still* ongoing at most bricks and mortar institutions (if not online ones) - while the "early adopters" and "innovators" have moved on - the "middle" is still struggling. How do we overcome?
Anderson, T.(2016). Three pillars of educational technology: Learning management systems, social media, and personal learning environments [blog post]. Retrieved from http://teachonline.ca/tools-trends/how-use-technology-effectively/three-pillars-educational-technology/three-pillars-educational-technology-learning-management-systems-social-media
sciondriver (2010). Garden gate lock [photograph]. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. Retrieved from https://flic.kr/p/8FxsyT
Hill, P. (2014).
Wright, C. R., Lopes, V., Montgomerie, C., & Reju, S. A. (2014). Selecting a learning management system from an academic perspective. Educause Review. Retrieved from http://er.educause.edu/articles/2014/4/selecting-a-learning-management-system-advice-from-an-academic-perspective