How I lost my faith in the LMS (or ‘my journey towards LMS nihilism’)

It was a couple of weeks back now when I threw out a tweet asking what my next blog post should be, and as I should have predicted, it came back with the one that is probably the hardest for me to write.

Then, while all sorts of thoughts were rattling around in my head, Phil Hill’s post took quite a bit of wind out of my sails by articulating very neatly a lot of the stuff that I was mulling over. What Phil’s post also did however was to make me realise that my faith in edtech on the whole wasn’t the issue – it was far more my faith in the LMS.

What I did think was still worth doing in spite of Phil’s post was creating a bit more of a personal view of my own journey towards LMS nihilism, which is what I’m going to share here. First though, you’ll need to permit me to wander a little.

Let’s start with a flashback to 2008, a year or so after I’d started working in earnest with Moodle. I will state up front that my perspective is predominantly that of someone who has worked in the Australian Higher Ed sector, and these views are quite limited in terms of the very large world outside of that context.

2008 was a big year in the Australian Higher Ed LMS market. I’ve often described it as a ‘perfect storm’ of change, where three significant events coincided:

  • The lawsuit between Blackboard and D2L came to a head, including the potential flow on effects of this decision to all LMS platforms (including open source ones);
  • The end-of-life of WebCT as a platform started to loom large after its acquisition by Blackboard; and
  • Moodle 1.9 was released, which coincided with it becoming a genuine player in the Australian LMS market, with USQ having taken the leap to be the first Australian uni to implement Moodle as their campus-wide LMS.

What this led to was what I would consider a ‘seismic’ event in the LMS space in Australian Higher Ed, with sixteen of Australia’s 40 universities transitioning to Moodle (mostly from WebCT) in the space of four-and-a-bit-years. It is an interesting mental activity to consider what the landscape would look like now if any one of those three factors had not been present – but I’ll leave that to the reader as an exercise.

On a personal level, I was fortunate enough to work with eleven of those sixteen, either as a consultant, trainer, project manager or general dogsbody, as well as working on a bunch of smaller implementations (and not-so-small ones in the case of CIT). To put that in perspective, in the three years since 2012, there have been just two campus-wide LMS transitions since the end of 2012 – CSU (Sakai to Learn) and UWA (Moodle to Learn).

It was indeed the golden age of Moodle in Australian Higher Ed, and I was as caught up in it as everyone else. Granted, I never changed my online persona to something like ‘MoodleMark’, but I was pretty heavily invested nonetheless.

There were, I believe, a variety of reasons that Moodle was so successful during this time, but one of the most common things that I would hear during this period was that, compared to incumbent LMS, Moodle simply ‘got out of the way’ and let academic staff do their thing. It helped the LMS stop being a barrier, and moved it closer to being an enabler, which is exactly what was needed at the time.

During this time Moodle was booming in popularity, and the transitions I was involved in by and large went as well as any other campus-wide technology platform change can, but one big question (and I must send out a thank you my friend and sounding board James Hamilton for planting this seed) was lurking in the background – how do we measure the success of the implementation? How do we know that the LMS in and of itself is making any difference whatsoever in terms of learning outcomes for students?

Now, one thing I’m not criticising here is any one LMS, nor am I suggesting that the LMS as a concept hasn’t had a huge impact on education since it arrived on the scene. They all have their strengths and weaknesses. They have all supported blended and fully online learning since the dawn of e-time. The question that started to dog me was whether there was any material difference in the learning outcomes for students based on the use of any one LMS over another in the current crop of major players?

My thoughts – absolutely not.

Possibly one of my first conscious moments of thinking this was when I saw this post from Tomaz Lasic, someone I rate extremely highly as an educator, innovator, technologist and human being. In short, it used the Moodle wiki tool as a Monopoly board to facilitate learning for school aged students. It was simple, effective, elegant and on a personal level quite inspiring. Now for those of you who have not used the Moodle wiki, you could describe it in many ways – ‘sophisticated’, ‘best-in-breed’ or ‘fully functional’ would not be any of them. When I saw Tomaz’ use of the Moodle wiki, which as a tool was far more rudimentary back then than it is now, I was given a brutal reminder that a good educator will use whatever tools are made available to them to get the job done. True, the LMS helped Tomaz achieve this goal, but if he didn’t have an LMS I have no doubt he would have used some other technology tool, or textas and paper, or a stick scratching on a patch of dirt if he had to. The specific LMS that was in use paled into insignificance next to the innovation, dedication and skill of the person using it.

So then, in my mind, while the LMS may not quite yet be considered a commodity in terms of features and functions, it might as well be a commodity in terms of the overall impact it has on student learning outcomes. Yes, you probably need one (just like those with families need minivans), but I challenge anyone to show concrete evidence that the choice of one in particular over another makes a material difference to learning outcomes for students.

So, if this is the case then where then does the focus shift if we have what are, in essence, any one of a swag of LMS platforms doing – in terms of student outcomes – the same thing?

In a commodity market, the argument often turns to cost. In the case of the LMS, like any piece of campus-wide technology, the cost of the service in technology terms often pales into insignificance when compared with the cost in terms of time spent (wasted?) by academic and administrative staff being forced to use a system designed to try and satisfy a large set of complex requirements, many of which aren’t used by the majority of users. Perhaps this was one of the most compelling things about Moodle back in its heyday – the perception that it simply ‘got out of the way’ of teachers wanting to do their job – and the significant ‘switching cost’ in terms of managing a large-scale change program that is needed to swap out an LMS was deemed worth it in terms of the longer term reduction of burden on users.

That was then, however, not now.

In 2015 there is no ‘perfect storm’ in play, and until one of the major LMS players in the Australian Higher Ed market either does something that forces the hands of universities to change (as the WebCT end-of-life did), or falls behind the curve so badly in technology, features or support that the massive cost of change is warranted, then I believe we will have a stable environment for a while yet.

So what then for LMS vendors? If the LMS market does become in all practical senses commoditised, and stable to the point of needing a major disruption for any large scale change in client LMS preference to occur, then why bother with innovation? Are we already at the point where all LMS platforms are already legacy environments in the broader context of established education markets?

My great hope for the LMS was the introduction of LTI as a standard, however from an end-user perspective I personally think that until adding an external tool via an LTI connector is as simple as installing an app on an iPad then LTI will remain a neat idea, but not something that will grab the imaginations of all but the most daring educators.

The LMS could – and perhaps should – withdraw to be nothing more than the operating system for educational tools, but the only vendor I have seen that gets remotely close to this is Instructure, and even then I’ve not seen enough to be convinced that they have helped LTI achieve anywhere near its full potential – yet.

So why lose my faith?

Because in spite of the small part I played in the changing of the guard in the LMS market in the Higher Ed sector here, I’ve yet to see any conclusive evidence that a change of LMS, in and of itself, makes any material difference to student outcomes. I saw numerous universities use the change of LMS as a perfect time to embark on a range of educational programs aimed at improving the use of technology in learning, and hence did some of the LMS upgrades coincide with improved student outcomes? Very probably. But – and here’s the critical question – did the LMS change in and of itself have any material impact on the learning outcomes of students? Not that I’ve seen.

10 thoughts on “How I lost my faith in the LMS (or ‘my journey towards LMS nihilism’)

  1. Thank you! I feel like there’s been people in this echo chamber for years expressing upgrade, then upgrade, then upgrade… but no one stops and asks for What / Why? We are investigating options and I know a lot of people were really excited… until they realized that it affords them no new pedagogies. And then the dread kicks back in… it’s moved out of the way (hopefully) through increased usability… so that’s cool, it should have awhile ago, but it did now.

    I agree LTI is a step in the right direction but if its treated like the end it’s not enough. Getting out of the walled garden, still assumes that we are taking a garden approach. Something they are still pegged to which is fundamentally flawed is that everyone needs to play in the same garden. There’s not enough options for variability in topics, contexts, learning styles and teaching styles. There’s just a limited set of tools with limited customization and a link farm off to other gardens if you actually want to do anything innovative 🙂

    We need a completely different structure, not a replication of the 90s phpBB discussion boards or file manager system yoke that all current LMSs are born from.

  2. I’m an LMS administrator myself, and I wholeheartedly agree with your analysis. I actually wrote something about this for a Sakai conference in 2010 (the long tail of academic technologies).

    When one tech can be swapped with minor impact for another one, it’s commoditized.

    And yes, LMS transitions are usually useful as a way to “take out the trash” and help faculty redesign their courses. Other than that, they are a huge investment of time and resources from an institutional perspective, something that would be less of an issue if faculty made their contents LMS-agnostic (hosted outside the LMS as OER).

  3. I love the LTI as easy as an iPad app point (idea?). Agreed, while it’s made my job easier than ever in providing a means of trialing new tools or replacing services and changed the integration conversation with every institution/organization I’ve met with in the past 4 years it could definitely be easier.

  4. Thanks Mark. There’s a lot of really good stuff here. I particular got some benefit our the pointer to Tomaz’s monopoly post. Exactly the sort of creative thinking I’m trying to encourage in my students.

    As for the question of the impact of LMS selection on student outcomes. I don’t think you’d be surprised to know that I have some opinions about that.

    First, I don’t think the LMS alone could ever do that. It’s not the tool, but how you use it. An observation that requires teachers to develop the type of knowledge that Tomaz demonstrated. I’m fairly certain that no University has really cracked the wicked problem of how to help teachers develop that type of knowledge.

    Second, I agree that improving student outcomes may have been the overall, espoused large aim for change LMS. However, for most of the organisational groupings involved in the implementation and support of the LMS that purpose soon got replaced by a number of other proxies. The institutional technology road map is for me the archetypal example of this. For the people responsible for the institutional technology road map they are deemed successful within the organisation if they successfully implement the roadmap. They’ve set out their plan and achieved it. Box ticked.

    Improving student outcomes, that’s the job of someone else.

    And to be successful that group has to continue rolling out the new technology. Hence you get the LMS update boat that sets sail each year or so whether the teaching staff wanted to take the journey or not.

  5. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.
    The main question we have to discuss every three to five years again is how did the world change, what has changed in the ways to communicate, how should we react on this in educational processes, how should we change the relationships between teachers and students in the learning pricesses, How does it change the role model.
    During last 10-15 years comunication, access to information have changed dramatically. Not only in marketing speak, but also in reality.
    The traditional concept of learning is: we need a phyiscal building to meet, we need a lecturer who has the knowledge, can structure it and create chunks of knowlegde that makes sense. But this are the answers to questions and situations from decades ago.
    We have to reidentify the relevant questions and new answers.

    Selecting and using an LMS is the final decision at the end of a long discussion we have to renew every three to five years.
    – What is required to learn to live in a modern society, in families and on workplaces for the nest three years and as a growing up person in ten or twenty years?
    – What is our responsibilty in educational institutions in this process?
    – What is the content/the knowledge we have to transfer?
    – How can we design the social dimensions in thsi process?
    – What ist the role of technology?
    – How can the LMS support us?
    – Which LMS – if an LMS – can support us best?

    I’m working in Germany. Here I can see a lot of discussions that are old discussions, but not the discussion we need for future. Some examples:
    Higher education: attendence counts for students but not the outcomes of the learning process. Studies are more and more prestructured.
    Corporate: organization and statistic counts. There are more and more mandatory courses (like workplace security, complance etc:). Employees are tired because this don’t help them for daily problems at workplace, but HR departments are very focused on statistics like this: Did 100 % of employees click from start to the end of annual compliance training in time? Who has missed the training?

    This are very old questions. I’m worried that such a use of learning technology bring us to the point that employees ignore the options in such technology because it is misused.
    I’m worried if lecturers in HE use the LMS rooms as ‘PDF graves’ only. The main statistic question is: Have all students downloaded my PDF files from lexture sessions during the semester or directly after my presentation?

    As long as the most teachers use a LMS for sharing files and links and a few quizzes, its equal what a technology or LMS they use. We have to discuss about the expected outcomes, the realtonships and the role of technolgy again.

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