educationtechnologyinsights

Tracing Trends in Learning Management Systems

By Peter Wallis, Director, Learning Systems, Instructional Excellence,& Assessment / Academic Excellence, UW Continuum College

Peter Wallis, Director, Learning Systems, Instructional Excellence,& Assessment / Academic Excellence, UW Continuum College

As of October, 2019, the Wikipedia “List of Learning Management Systems” (LMSs) includes 47 different systems. This list varies from systems built by some of the largest tech companies (Google), to small, plucky startups, Open Source software from huge Universities or small colleges, and more. The list includes systems built primarily for K-12, for Universities, for corporations and hospitals maintaining compliance training, and some that serve all three, and yet other smaller markets.

How may we even track, or more importantly, predict, trends in this varied market? I suggest taking a hint from biology. Recent research has shown that human vision follows a fascinating mathematical ‘power curve.’ In short, the brain tries to create ‘big picture’ summaries of the important, what a picture ‘is’, and encodes important details to help detect change. I will try to follow just such a line – big summaries, so you can work with confidence in your field, and key details, so you can watch for changes in the scene.

In short, the big picture is this: Academic and business-oriented Learning Management Systems (LMSs) are controlled by a powerful, relatively stable, set of user stories and stakeholder needs that inhibit their ability to be direct, easily navigable learning tools. Furthermore, one stakeholder need, in particular, tends to drive new platforms toward becoming mini-LMSs, rather than focusing on core value propositions. This may change as the Next Generation Digital Learning Environment (NGDLE) becomes a reality. More on that shortly.

"Academic and business-oriented Learning Management Systems (LMSs) are controlled by a powerful, relatively stable, set of user stories and stakeholder needs that inhibit their ability to be direct, easily navigable learning tools"

What do we mean relative stability? How has the LMS changed in the past? The first modern, (academic/school-based) digital “Learning Management System is (arguably) Moodle, created in 2002. Other “Learning Systems” existed before this, even back to Sidney Pressey’s “Teaching Machine” in 1924. Pressey’s system and other systems following it were specific tools that today would exist within or be integrated to an LMS. They lacked the whole scene of management (Quizzing, Assignment Submission, Gradebook, Discussion boards, attendance, etc…) that generally define a Learning Management System in the academic world, or interfaces for Learning Designers, Teachers, and teacher-student connection. Even the much-used PLATOwasn’t a system so much for managing a large group of learner’s learning, but a system for the automated presentation and assessment of learning.

What’s the difference between a system for the presentation and assessment of learning and a Learning Management System? It’s the Management. Who is managing the learning – and how? In a system like PLATO, or SAKI, often, the computer (or learner themselves) is managing their learning. There’s a parallel between this history and the recent flood of Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) – scale “worked” in that case because no teacher was managing the learning, that was left to the learner or the system.

By contrast, systems that make up the majority of the academic market, Canvas, Blackboard, and Moodle, are focused on teachers managing students’ learning. Their primary stakeholder is those teachers – and their features are driven by what they need and find useful in managing courses ranging anywhere from 5-1,500 students (sometimes, but rarely, more.) This is where the academic LMS is broadly similar to the corporate LMS – in the corporate world, administrators/policy units managing learning through the LMS, rather than teachers, per-say.

This leads directly to trends being driven by the needs of teachers and administrators. Most of the time, students in academic units or learners in organizations have very little say about what learning management systems will be adopted. As it turns out, teachers drive the change, and that change is slow. As luminary Michael Feldstein wrote for his e-Literate blog post “Dammit, the LMS” “The reason that we get more of the same year after year is that, year after year, when faculty are given an opportunity to ask for what they want, they ask for more of the same.”  

That is to say, the LMS is surprisingly stable. Sometimes sadly stable. (Read the entirety of Feldstein’s article, it’s fantastic.) This also makes LMSs (corporate and academic) predictable. This also suggests a prediction for future trends – when the LMSs might change. Two options: 1. When the needs of its teachers/administrators change (as Feldstein also says – “Wake me in ten years”). This would require a re-write of the teacher-student relationship that has remained relatively stable since at least the time of Plato, and while fascinating to consider, this is unlikely. More likely is when the LMSs change in a way that gives its key stakeholders (a minority of users) more of what they want.

How might that happen in a user base that includes English Literature Faculty, Online business school adjuncts, and Biology lecturers teaching huge undergraduate courses? A system that can flexibly meet specific teacher requirements, while maintaining consistency of data for administrators.

This is, for example, what Educause’s Next Generation Digital Learning Environment (NGDLE) project may do— making an “environment” rather than a “system” in which tools can talk to each other effectively. This way, if one instructor wants one grade book, they can have it – they don’t have to be locked into the same quiz system as another instructor, who has different needs.

All data, in this case, would then need to be stored in a separate, tool-agnostic, repository. We’re already seeing trends toward Learning Record Stores (LRS) and Universal Learning Records that would do exactly this. This mirrors a broader trend. When Lyft needs your driver to get you to a drop-off, it isn’t telling your driver where to go. Lyft leaves that up to the driver’s navigation software, like Google Maps, Waze, etc. These operate largely on a shared OSM data framework, and pass data back and forth. Even the location data isn’t handled by the app itself.

We may see a parallel in Learning Management Systems (or environments) – apps can be specialized (and therefore more easily designed and navigated) because they are there only to do one piece of the learning process.  Teachers don’t need to change, they keep teaching even more as they want. The systems become more specialized, and more integrated. It hasn’t happened yet –but for my money, when you start seeing this, you’ll see a trend.

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