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Learning Technology Customers

In my response to Michael Chasen’s response to my post about Blackboard and the innovator’s dilemma, I made the observation that Blackboard’s (and every other CMS vendor’s) problem is that their customers are institutions, not learners.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this notion the past few days. If CMSs are developed and sold (or at least promoted) to institutions, it follows that their functionality and features will be skewed in the direction of meeting institutional needs, including faculty / instructor needs (e.g. easy course content publication, efficient quiz administration, secure grade posting).

Many of the efficiencies that yield benefits to institutions and instructors also provide value to students. But these benefits are mostly serendipitous. Setting aside economic considerations, I’ve been wondering what a CMS (or some other kind of learning software) would look like if it were developed as if the learner was the customer instead of the institution.

Here are some features I think software would include:

  1. Learners would “own” their own learning space. They would not be dependent on their institution or some other entity to grant (and continue granting) them access to their learning content. Learner content collections would be managed and maintained by learners according to their changing learning needs. 
  2. Access to content and relationships with other learners would persist over time. Access would not be tied to artificial institutional teaching calendars.
  3. There would be much more robust tools around note taking, organizing content for study, research and collaboration.
  4.  Non-course, non-credit learning tools that support informal learning (e.g. acquiring new technical skills, foreign language acquisition / retention, hobby related learning, etc.).

What do you think? What other features might more learner-centered software applications have? Is it possible to provide these same features via a traditional CMS? Why or why not?

  • I like this idea a lot. I think learner-owned and maintained spaces are the next major advancement in teaching & learning technology. The question I still have is whether institutions should provide such tools or whether they should be provided by independent 3rd parties in the cloud . . . I lean toward the latter because I don't think learners should be dependent upon one particular institution for access to such spaces.

  • Loren H

    I like the idea that this tool flows seamlessly through your college / university experiecne, but why not go further than that. Why not make a tool that students can start tapping into during high school, store their ACT scores, compare colleges, check out different majors. Why not use the tool post graduate, allow employers to look at your "resume" section which would give them an overview of yourself which could include anything you wished to share... pier reviews, grades, honors, awards, teacher reviews, internships... all of which were housed in the tool as well.

  • Jason McDonald

    In response to the idea that educators should use the same tools the students are already using (Facebook, e.g.):

    At first glance this doesn't seem like a bad idea. When many of these initiatives are implemented, however, they often run into problems. Among other things is the phenomenon known as the "creepy treehouse."

    Yes, communication, community, relationships, and more are very important to students' use of social media tools and websites. So it seems so natural to use them for education! But another important draw for many students is those sites are also places where the normal authorities aren't around. In other words, at least part of the draw of Facebook is kids can be themselves, and don't have to act the way their parents, teachers, or employers want them to act. Did your parent ever chaperone a high school dance, just so they could spend more time with you? This is the same idea. When professors use Facebook (or many other social media sites) for educational purposes, students feel more than only it's out of place. They feel it's . . . creepy.

    For more on the "creepy treehouse" see:


  • The nice thing about Facebook is that you can control who sees what. So if my professor invites me to be his friend, and invites me into his classroom area, I can do it but not allow him to see all of the crazy stuff I'm doing with my friends that gets posted to my profile.

    And while I may blog and share my innermost thoughts with only those I've invited to my blog, the fact is that I know how to blog, and if I need to set up a separate one to communicate in a class, I can do so.

    The idea is not to use these tools because they are 'hip and cool', and all the other kids are doing it. Rather, it is because students already know how to use them proficiently, and technical support for the tool is done by somebody else. It's a freebie for the university.

  • Jason McDonald

    Tech support done by someone else? Awesome.

    Students already know these tools proficiently? Let's not over-generalize.
    This morning I was sent some research conducted with incoming college
    freshmen in 2006 (2/3 of which were between the ages of 17 and 20). Only 1/3
    of these students used social networking websites once a month or more or
    more frequently. Only 1/3 read blogs once a month or more frequently. Less
    than 20% wrote in their own blog once a month or more frequently.

    For the full article please see:

    And yes, I'll be careful to not over-generalize myself. The research was
    conducted in Australia, and so we have to question how similar U.S. students
    are. But I think a safe conclusion is we can't assume we know our students,
    based on demographic information alone. We can't assume our students are
    like everyone else. We have to get to know our students, as individuals,
    before we can safely recommend tools that will enhance their learning

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