03 June 2016

No LMS - an argument for when your institution comes to reviewing their Learning Management System

It's amazing to me, that after all this time, this argument still needs to be made. But of course it does, the struggle it falls under is ages old.

Train wreck at Montparnasse Station.

Have you ever wondered if there is an end to the list of contradictions between university rhetoric and actions? At best, I guess, they are a result of well meaning change efforts, presenting perfectly reasoned argument against a cultural institution that has a large population and political magnitude that simply can’t accommodate even the most well meaning efforts to change.


  1. One size doesn't fit all = we all must (which is implied) use the Learning Management System to teach, learn and assess
  2. Accessible, relevant and engaging learning = digitised and locked in a system that resembles nothing like the rest of the Internet, or what you might experience in life after school.
  3. Looking for efficiencies and putting an end to the silly stuff = we pay huge amounts of money to license, train in, and manage a system that locks us in by design, when perfectly good and reasonable systems and alternatives exist for far less cost and far more gain.
  4. We need to personalise learning to individual student needs = we subscribe to systems that offer little to no opportunity to achieve this, that are designed to reinforce the paradigm we'd like to change.


The list goes on, and I'm not even sure I’ve picked the best examples. Safe to say, there are many more examples just a search, or conversation with the right contrarian, away.


Best arguments for LMS

The “best” arguments I've seen for using an LMS are:


  1. When used well…
  2. When used well, they provide the sorts of data we need for internal and external auditing.
  3. When used well, they offer students a reliable, one stop, private and secure online environment for learning


When used well…

I’ll leave the questioning of what “when used well” means for the reader's imagination, but I do suggest criteria around relevance and transferability - beyond the relatively short time we offer “learning” to people we tend to class as “students” or worse, clients, customers or consumers.


Data for auditing

If arguments that wag their dog don't frustrate you, then open a conversation with someone in student services. Those poor meats in the sandwich play a big role in gathering the information needed for audits. Aside from not being familiar with the term “LMS”, the person I spoke to recently wanted to tell me how complex audits are. The Student Management System naturally plays a very big part in audits, as do systems like a Course Repository (meaning the systems that store the course and program descriptions, requirements and sometimes curriculum and assessment types and descriptions). What I’m trying to suggest is that it's highly doubtful to me that the LMS plays much of a role in auditing at all, not least because it is hardly ever used well - even after all this time and money. If you find that it does, then ask does it need to.


The one stop, reliable, private and secure

This argument generally comes from people who know and use an LMS well, because they’ve complied. I haven't met anyone who makes this argument who then says that a one stop convenient, reliable, private and secure online learning environment can’t be achieved using common every day online systems. Gaining this perspective is really just a simple exercise in removing the LMS from the equation (in thought only, if action is too radical) to begin imagining how all these elements can be achieved without it. The skills gained immediately transfer to other areas of academic work, such as community and industry engagement, and other contact groups that typically have no need for an LMS and much more need for people who expertly know and understand the Internet.


The No LMS argument is well over a decade old

But people have been making this argument for more than 12 years! (not counting the early resistance to the LMS when it was first introduced by central administrators and like minded people in the late 90s, early 2000s). The most cited article that I have written on the subject from that long ago is: Die LMS Die, You Too PLE!


Thankfully the PLE developer community seemed to listen to arguments like that and ended their attempts to bring personal learning into one system. They switched focus to articulating and demonstrating it as a concept, a framework, a keyword to counter the idea of system-managed learning. It became Personal Learning Network.


It was too late for the LMS however, having by then convinced most institutions to sink millions/billions into LMS licensing, policy and support. No escape plan was ever devised, and we keep paying the exorbitant price of that poor leadership to this day.


But if my style of argumentation puts you off, or if you think I'm merely alluding to substance without offering much directly, just do a cursory search for debates over the LMS yourself (keeping in mind that there are an awful lot of people whose only source of income and self esteem is from supporting an LMS). You should hopefully see that almost no one thinks they are a good way to teach and learn. Disregard feature comparisons between different LMS, that side track is futile and small minded. The disagreement is whether or not an LMS is necessary! Anyone in the field not entertaining that debate is just being overly pragmatic under muddleheaded leadership.


In 2009, Educause published an article that summarised the anti LMS position, and suggesting an already abundant alternative: Envisioning the Post-LMS Era: The Open Learning Network. My link to that goes via a blog post I wrote about the article - a shameless and demanding act of self aggrandisement.


The LMS is in the way

The ideal in my mind at least, and if we are to persist with our simplistic ideas and designs for how people teach and learn, is that it ought to be a seamless and richly useful experience between the stages of becoming inspired, finding a topic to learn, learning it, and if necessary demonstrating knowing it or doing it. If we can agree on that very broad ideal, then we might begin to see that the LMS (and the perspective that enables it to exist) is a massive obstacle to approximating that ideal today, or building toward it for tomorrow.


I'd just like to acknowledge at this point that there are some areas of knowledge, some ways of knowing, that are not conducive to this ideal of technically accessible and seamless learning and knowing. But I would say that these areas are an exception, and that the LMS, or even the Internet, may not be good ways to facilitate learning in these domains...


Here's a proposal for escaping the LMS. It applies at any stage, but most obviously if or when you're migrating from one LMS to another such halfway house. If you’re already outside the LMS, good for you! Keep it that way. Help others out.


More for before, or later - a time that never was


If for some reason you're interested in what I've done, written about or referenced in regards to the LMS and the Internet over the years, I primarily use the tag #InternetAsThePlatform to organise my contribution to all the wonderful noise.

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