At this time of year University programme teams will be introducing their learning management systems (LMS) to their new students, outlining all the mandatory and optional features available to support their studies. The LMS (aka VLE) is the workhorse of educational technology world, serving teachers, administrators and managers with a panoply of tools for teaching, assessment, placements and course administration. The interfaces continue to look slicker, the functionality more comprehensive, integration impressive, but how much do they support the learning process, and what more should should we expect from these critical educational tools ?
In an interview with Times Higher (7th October 2016), Simon Nelson, chief executive of FutureLearn, described most LMS’s as ‘verging on embarrassing in the face of the smartphone generation’. This may sound harsh, but the tone was very much a warning to higher education institutions to put more effort into education delivery or face tougher competition from other online providers, “Universities need to recognise that though the prize may today seem tiny next to their core business, things are only going in one direction. The sooner they go through the organisational pain of putting digital first in every area, the sooner leadership can be established in a rapidly changing market.”
Having previously worked in higher education for many years and also built MOOCs for FutureLearn I fully understand this perspective. The LMS has become the dropbox of learning content for many, and now similarly for online assessment. Academic staff are often criticised for not utilising it more fully, but the problems run deeper, and for me, are based around the structuring of the LMS. Ofcourse, all systems differ in their design, but by attempting to cover all the bases of educational delivery they largely miss the one area required by teachers: innovative learning design tools. It is here that I believe Simon Nelson is questioning the future viability of the LMS.
If the current LMS’s are so embarrassing, could FutureLearn do a better job? Why partially…the platform is attractive, scalable, has great communication tools, and crucially, a simple learning design to ALL courses. The design is tried and tested in many MOOCs and features sequenced content interspersed with self-test quizzes, opportunities for discussion with peers and facilitators, and intuitive functions to permit self-paced learning. So, could this replace the LMS? Definitely not…but…
Whilst the LMS needs to be a flexible tool to cater for different teaching delivery styles across and within academic subjects, at the core of the blended learning model adopted by most is a combination of content, communication and assessment. The specification of these has become bloated from the continual iterative design of the LMS, often motivated by burgeoning requirements by committees of academics and learning professionals. What they lack is a clear pedagogical design in their planning. resulting in mixed requirements for software companies, and the resulting smorgasbord of tools which suit neither teacher nor student.
So, what should the next generation of LMS look like ? Here are a few thoughts:
- non-linear – the MOOC model highlights that learners are grazers and bingers when it comes to learning. This applies equally to full-time, part-time or occasional learners. The LMS should be capable of allowing learners to:
- pause their learning and easily return when required;
- link their learning between modules, programmes and courses; and
- combine academic learning with personal and professional learning;
- adaptive/personalised – learning analytics now offer opportunities for processing information from multiple systems to characterise learning achievements and habits. This data can deliver highly personalised content or activities to an individual learner. Whilst solutions such as Knewton offer performance-driven learning, data is generated from individual and user-aggregated information from within the product. The LMS must be capable of:
- feeding aggregated performance data to a student and their tutors;
- allowing learners to understand data through a dialogue with tutors;
- be able to act upon this information to improve their learning, or approach to learning.
- personal – the LMS is designed for course tutors to organise learning activities for their students. Other learning systems, such as PebblePad, invert this approach and put the student at the heart of the learning process, giving them tools to collate their learning from different sources, reflect on experiences, and use these as evidence in competency-based assessment, or to enrich coursework with contextualised examples. The current ePortfolio options from the LMS’s remain simply a stripped back collection of tools, little integrated and only supporting presentational portfolios. The learner may also prefer to use their own software tools/apps, therefore, integration with assessment applications, such as TurnItIn, Speedgrader (Canvas), GradeCenter (Blackboard) or ATLAS (PebblePad) is essential.
- micro packaged and credentialed – the success of the MOOC model has been in demonstrating the potential for micro-courses. Whilst being divided into two broad camps, as content-driven (xMOOC) or learner-driven (cMOOC), they share common elements in being self-paced, accessible, of relatively short duration, and facilitated. With the growing potential of digital badges to provide micro-credentials for the course units, there is obvious opportunity for the micro-courses to be recognised for entry onto academic courses, or as evidence of skills and experience for employment. The LMS MOOC solution from Instructure, Canvas Network, is an early glimpse of the VLE as MOOC, with the instructor as MOOC designer. This further requires deeper integration of badge credentialing and links to broader course units, but exemplifies how the LMS could/should be adaptable to serve emerging course delivery models.
- conversational – at the heart of learning is the conversation between the student and teacher/tutor. With analytics, adaptive learning, and MOOCs, we risk severing the learner from a guide who can help them make sense of their learner, encourage new thinking, and provide personalised goals. And whilst I can imagine a time when smart algorithms can provide intelligent suggestions for the learner and adaptive content or activities, that time is not soon. Therefore, the LMS must retain strong conversational opportunities for the tutor to offer feedback, validate work, and design activities to push the learner’s development. These are not sophisticated tools, but have yet to emerge in mainstream LMS’s. The personalised feedback model should be at the heart of the learning process, simplifying how we utilise learning analytics, giving learners timely and focused feedback, and encouraging reflective practice, both by the learner and tutor.
- lifelong – the LMS is typically funded by the institution, therefore making any attempt for linking life-wide and life-long learning experiences impossible. The emerging approach to learning is for dis-continuous, highly selective, and part-time owing to growing employability and social pressures. The LMS must adjust to this situation by providing lifelong accounts (such as PebblePad free alumni accounts) which allow learners to preserve their online account in the LMS after their course has ended, with full functionality of the tool, and the facility to link this with other similar LMS accounts and cloud based storage, such as OneDrive and DropBox.
- designed – the course-based MOOCs, such as FutureLearn and Coursera, offer structured programmes of study based on a simple and quickly reproducible design. The next generation of LMS’s can extend this model by providing the building blocks for course designers to construct learning sequences for their activities, modules and programmes. Some are already offering activity sequences, such as D2L and Canvas, but the model can be extended much further to ensure that an integral pedagogical design can be constructed around a programme.
I am sure I have overlooked many other critical features for a future LMS in this list. Do we even need an LMS anyway? I’ll save that for another day. What is certainly true is that Simon Nelson is absolutely right in critiquing the modern LMS and the higher education institutions approach to digital learning. I am sure he will agree that the MOOC is not the answer, but what is required is a sea-change in thinking about how online learning is delivered by institutions to meet the future needs of learners. If the message is clear then the LMS providers will respond. If not, then I am sure alternative providers will appear to displace the hegemony of the current batch of LMS’s.