Detach thyself from ye olde LMS

So first off, I  seem to be good for about one blog post per year.  Perhaps this is turning into an annual reflection post of  “this is what is on my mind  this year” type  of thing. Maybe someday I’ll up the output to quarterly, but let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves.

So about the title of this post.

There is no shortage of writing about the doldrums of LMS technology, and perhaps even the pedagogical oppression that can be brought on by designing courses in these environments. Some of my acquaintances and colleagues have recently penned thought pieces on this topic, including  Adam Finklestein (McGill U) and Mike Goudzwaard’s  (Dartmouth) article featured on EdSurge this month:  The Trouble with Learning Management.” There is also  Mike Goudzwaard’s  personal blog post  on “The LMS of the Future is Yours”.  And of course  there is always the thoughtful and wise Michael Feldstein and his piece,    “What’s Really to Blame for Failures of Our Learning-Management Systems” .

But haven’t we been talking about moving beyond the LMS, for well, um, soon after they were created?   Back in 2011 I was one of the co-creators of NERCOMPs first Unconference/UnSIG. Our focus was the LMS.  The conference came about because a small group of us were working on the annual NERCOMP SIG program for the Teaching and Learning track.  There were so many proposed topics and themes revolving around the LMS that we could have have held a workshop per week on LMSy things. Because that was not an option,  we opted to try the Unconference format to give the community a time to create their own topic tracks and discuss their LMS challenges and needs in small group formats. (Oh, and Michael Feldstein was gracious enough to serve as our opening speaker to get things kicked-off). By the end of the day people felt good, maybe not about their LMS, but that they were not alone in their endeavors. But interestingly it seemed that the LMS was (is) here to stay. We hate it, but we need it.

Living the dream: Life beyond LMS

To that end,  it would appear that my team and I might be getting to “live the dream.” One of our projects allows us to ditch the confines of the campus LMS in favor for something much more organic, personal and custom designed for the program of study and its students.   In fact, building outside of the LMS was the number one requirement put forth by the academic program leadership and faculty and for some sound programmatic reasons.

A commercial LMS presents a certain rigidity for a degree program in computer science (CS), particularly when the discipline itself is about architecting, making and building digital environments.  In some sense, the work of CS is one big digital makerspace and, depending on the LMS, a CS experience in one of these platforms can feel very constrained for the faculty developer and the learner. This is exactly what our CS program is seeking to avoid.

Now sure, we can hack around the LMS to try to bend it to our will. Everyone has been doing this for ages. And we can utilize LTIs when possible and appropriate. But when your hacks and workarounds are the norm in your design, then it’s time to move beyond the LMS. As Mike and Adam point out in their edSurge post,  many courses only really need 20% what is in their LMS. That other 80% of features and what not are often in the way.

That important 20%

So like any good team we did a couple of visioning sessions with the academic program and our instructional design and multimedia team. There were opportunities for post-its and flip chart paper  brainstorming (BTW- can one call their process legitimate without the use of these materials?)  There was a 20 second gut check a5629b7585ecdeb12c3b4acc6d1afb9a5ctivity and a #slack channel set up for dialogue. From all of these I’ve been diligently collecting and documenting requirements to optimally  develop two to three solution scenarios. Because you see, we still need to build this in or on something. Is it straight up HTML? Is it WordPress? Is it….. an open LMS platform?  (Stay tuned for the big reveal, which I guess will be next year’s blog post… )

To help us get there we  have been wireframing/mocking up some scenarios based on feedback. The initial wireframes, even incorporating some non LMS design inspirations, started to look like, well a LMS. Without the benefit of more graphical representation,  a black and white wireframe of core functions looked a bit like a Blackboard template. #Designfail?  I couldn’t help but poke fun at this and said -Fantastic! We’ve recreated our campus LMS, except perhaps it will be prettier.

I am no spring chicken in this industry and have endured my fair share of LMS selections, migrations and course builds in and outside of commercial LMS platforms. I looked at one of the IDs and wondered aloud if we are so attached to the paradigm of an LMS that it’s hard to break free even when we are given an absolute blank canvas? Perhaps.  Or does the basic core requirements of running a course digitally (FERPA stuff, authentication, etc), heck even an entire program of study, really mean someone just needs to make a simple LMS, of the organic, free range variety? Or maybe a generic label -remember the 70s and those generic white label foods? Maybe we just need that….

Your basic, no frills LMS

 But wait, I guess that might be the equivalent of open source, and we have those right? (Moodle, Sakai and now OpenEdx). But yet, there is still complexification in implementing a open source solution that still does not feel nimble and light. 

So as you can see, I am puzzling through this very openly here. The generic label thing probably takes this conversation a bit too far. But by Friday I need to present three possible scenarios for which to build the first two courses.  And as I prepare these I guess I am struck by no matter how much disruptive technological innovation and pretty website design is out there, our field can often miss the mark on acknowledging the importance of the most elemental needs of delivering sound learning. I am not suggesting the LMS of today gets it right, but it started from a very simple place. Now how to get back to that core while not diminishing the possibilities.