The Field of LMS Design

About 17 years ago I created a simple website for my dissertation. I took a document and organized it into a web to study how hyper-linked text documents affect online student learning. Graphical browsers were just  coming on the scene but for my study I only used text which seemed appropriate for the time. No images or any other media were included. It had one HTML form to collect data. That was it. This very simple web took over a month to developed and publish because I was working without an HTML editor (manually tagging); I had to work with a school webmaster to put the site up on the school Intranet; and I needed programming help from IT to handle the data from the form.

At the beginning of this academic year (2011-2012), I created an online multimedia presentation for my class. It included text, graphics, links, and videos that I developed and uploaded to YouTube. I created a feedback form in Google Documents and embedded in the course. All of this work, including video production, took less than a day and I did not have to coordinate with anyone in IT or LMS administration. I did not have to do any programming or advanced scripting. I was able to do everything with editors and free services. In the present I did more work on my own using rich media in less than 8 hours than I could accomplish in the past where I had to work over a month with a team on a simple text document..

When I reflected on this during my commute home I realized how much our faculty and students are empowered to create content, collaborate, and learn online using a mix of services from the university and outside the university. They actually can do so totally independent of the systems we provide. As we are looking at replacement LMS candidates we know we have faculty and students who, on their own, have collaborated together in courses using free LMS and other cloud services outside the university. We are organizing a focus group of these individuals to learn more about their experiences with these other systems.

According to Timothy Chester, CIO at the University of Georgia, “The world has dramatically changed [on] us, into a world that is decentralized, where individuals and institutions no longer have to depend on [central IT] organizations for information or services. They can go out and get these things themselves. So while technology is absolutely incredibly important to the future of higher education, for those of us in the technology business in higher education, the world is not necessarily so clear.” (In Nagel’s article How can the Campus IT Department be Saved?). Chester goes on to say that campus IT must redefine itself if it is to survive and add value to higher education.

Here is a framework I am using in an effort to understand what I am observing as we look across the LMS field. These categories are mine. LMS providers may disagree with this classification system or where they align.

LMS Types

Transactional (Classical / Legacy Systems)

The first is the traditional LMS that is highly transactional and usually integrated with the institution’s Student Information System (SIS). These systems generally have organic communication capabilities (e.g. discussion forums, chat rooms, etc.) for instructor-student interactions. Many providers are rapidly updating these systems to allow connections to web services for social networking in an effort to move to the next category.  ANGEL, our current LMS, falls in this category except that the architecture lags industry standards and is at the end of its life-cycle which is why we must replace it.

Social Networking (Leading Edge)

The second category of LMSs includes those that accommodate social networking. Some have been designed from conception to be a social networking platform for learning. Others are transactional systems mentioned above that are being updated to integrate social networking. In some cases providers create organic social networking capabilities while others choose to bridge to existing and emerging web services. Integration of these services into a seamless learning experience is a characteristic of these systems. They tend to be enterprise systems that can be integrated with SIS meaning they have administrative transactional capabilities like the first category. They are generally provided through hosting services though self-hosting is still possible.

Social Openness (Bleeding Edge)

The third category is an emergence of new applications that aggregate social networking services. These systems emphasize social openness. These applications may be based on social networking APIs or other emerging protocols. For example OpenClass by Pearson uses the Google Apps for Education API platform so that the learning environment provides a more integrated approach to shared documents and services while adding tools useful for developing and administering learning content. This category is more likely remote hosted and may be deployed as apps. These systems or apps may not integrate with SIS without significant customization or may lack other enterprise strength features, but these platforms are usually more optimized for open social networking environments.

Applied Instructional Design

These technology changes are not just challenging campus IT. One of the key trends identified the 2012 Horizon Report is “the abundance of resources and relationships made easily accessible via the Internet is increasingly challenging us to revisit our roles as educators.” Early in my ID career I was focused on creating computer-based training that was highly structured. Then we moved to learning programs that were more open-ended. But in both cases we attempted to design the learning programs to facilitate the learning process with minimal interventions on the part of the instructor. Now I think the technology is driving us toward highly interactive and dynamic exchanges between the teacher and the student.Likewise teachers who are accustom to lecturing must learn to be facilitators and consultants in the learning process. New instructional design theories will be needed that are practical and helpful in guiding us into this new horizon.