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A Post-LMS Manifesto

In the wake of the announcement of Blackboard’s acquisition of ANGEL, the blogosphere has been buzzing about Learning Management Systems (LMSs) and their future (or lack thereof). The timing of this announcement came at an interesting time for me. A BYU colleague and I (Mike Bush) recently published a piece in Educational Technology Magazine with the unassuming title “The Transformation of Learning with Technology.” (If you read this article, you’ll recognize that much of my thinking in this post is influenced by my work with Mike.) I’ve also been working on strategy document to guide our LMS and LMS-related decisions and resource allocations here at BYU.

These ongoing efforts and my thoughts over the last twenty-four hours about the Bb-ANGEL announcement have come together in the form of a “post-LMS manifesto” (if can dare use such a grandiose term for a blog post). In the press release about Blackboard’s acquisition of ANGEL, Michael Chasen asserted that the move would “accelerate the pace of innovation and interoperability in e-learning.” As a Blackboard client, I certainly hope that’s true. However, more product innovation and interoperability, while desirable, aren’t going to make Blackboard fundamentally different than it is today—a “learning management system” or “LMS.” And that worries me because I continue to have serious concerns about the future of the LMS-paradigm itself, a paradigm that I have critiqued extensively on this blog.

Learning and Human Improvement

Learning is fundamentally about human improvement. Students flock to colleges and university campuses because they want to become something they are not. That “something” they want to become ranges from the loftiest of intellectual ideals to the most practical and worldly goals of the marketplace. For those of us who work in academe, our duty and responsibility is to do right by those who invest their time, their energy, and their futures in us and our institutions. It is our job to help them become what they came to us to become—people who are demonstrably, qualitatively, and practically different than the individuals they were before.

Technology has and always will be an integral part of what we do to help our students “become.” But helping someone improve, to become a better, more skilled, more knowledgeable, more confident person is not fundamentally a technology problem. It’s a people problem. Or rather, it’s a people opportunity. Philosophers and scholars have wrestled with the challenge and even the paradox of education and learning for centuries. In ancient Greece, Plato formulated what we have come to call “Meno’s paradox” in an attempt to get at the underlying difficulties associated with teaching someone a truth they do not already know. The solution in that age was to pair each student with an informed tutor—as Alexander the Great was paired with Aristotle—to guide the learner through the stages of progressive enlightenment and understanding.

More than two millennia later, United States President James Garfield underscored the staying power of this one-to-one approach: “Give me a log hut, with only a simple bench, Mark Hopkins [a well-known educator and lecturer of the day] on one end and I on the other, and you may have all the buildings, apparatus, and libraries without him.” I suppose President Garfield, were he alive today, would include LMSs and other educational technology on the list of things he would give up in favor of a skilled, private tutor.

The problem with one-to-one instruction is that it simply doesn’t scale. Historically, there simply haven’t been enough tutors to go around if our goal is to educate the masses, to help every learner “become.” Another century later, Benjamin Bloom formalized this dilemma, dubbing it the “2 Sigma Problem.” Through experimental investigation, Bloom found that “the average student under tutoring was about two standard deviations above the average” of students who studied in a traditional classroom setting with 30 other students (“The 2 Sigma Problem: The Search for Methods of Group Instruction as Effective as One-to-One Tutoring,” Educational Researcher, 13(6), 4-16). Notwithstanding this enormous gap, Bloom was optimistic that continued focus on mastery learning would allow us to eventually narrow the distance between individually-tutored and group-instructed students.

Moving Beyond the LMS

There is, at its very core, a problem with the LMS paradigm. The “M” in “LMS” stands for “management.” This is not insignificant. The word heavily implies that the provider of the LMS, the educational institution, is “managing” student learning. Since the dawn of public education and the praiseworthy societal undertaking “educate the masses,” management has become an integral part of the learning. And this is exactly what we have designed and used LMSs to do—to manage the flow of students through traditional, semester-based courses more efficiently than ever before. The LMS has done exactly what we hired it to do: it has reinforced, facilitated, and perpetuated the traditional classroom model, the same model that Bloom found woefully less effective than one-on-one learning.

For decades, we’ve been told that technology is (or soon would be) capable of replicating the role of a private, individual tutor, of providing a “virtual Aristotle” for each individual learner. But after the billions of dollars we’ve spent on educational technology, we’re nowhere near such an achievement. In fact, we can’t even say that we’ve improved learning at all! (See Larry Cuban’s Oversold & Underused for an excellent, in-depth treatment of this subject). And our continued investment of billions of dollars in the LMS is unlikely to get us any closer to our learning improvement goals either. Because the LMS is primarily a traditional classroom support tool, it is ill-suited to bridge the 2-sigma gap between classroom instruction and personal tutoring.

We shouldn’t be terribly surprised or disappointed that LMSs—or any other technology for that matter—have not revolutionized learning. As Michael Wesch and his students have so sagely reminded us, technology alone cannot save us or help us solve our most daunting societal problems. Only we, as human beings working together, can do that. And while many still long for the emergence of the virtual Aristotle, I do not. For I believe that learning is a fundamentally human endeavor that requires personal interaction and communication, person to person. We can extend, expand, enhance, magnify, and amplify the reach and effectiveness of human interaction with technology and communication tools, but the underlying reality is that real people must converse with each other in the process of “becoming.”

Crowdsourcing the Tutor

If we are to close the 2-sigma gap, we must leave the LMS behind and the artificial walls it builds around arbitrary groups of learners who have enrolled in sections of a courses at our institutions. In the post-LMS world, we need to worry less about “managing” learners and focus more on helping them connect with other like-minded learners both inside and outside of our institutions. We need to foster in them greater personal accountability, responsibility and autonomy in their pursuit of learning in the broader community of learners. We need to use the communication tools available to us today and the tools that will be invented tomorrow to enable anytime, anywhere, any-scale learning conversations between our students and other learners. We need to enable teachers and learners to discover and use the right tools and content (and combinations, remixes and mashups thereof) to facilitate the kinds of interaction, communication and collaboration they need in the learning process. By doing so, we can begin to create the kinds of interconnections between content and individual learners that might actually approximate the personal, individualized “tutors.” However, instead of that tutor appearing in the form of an individual human being or in the form of a virtual AI tutor, the tutor will be the crowd.

While LMS providers are making laudable efforts to incrementally make their tools more social, open, modular, and interoperable, they remain embedded in the classroom paradigm. The paradigm—not the technology—is the problem. We need to build, bootstrap, cobble together, implement, support, and leverage something that is much more open and loosely structured such that learners can connect with other learners (sometimes called teachers) and content as they engage in the authentic behaviors, activities and work of learning.

Building a better, more feature-rich LMS won’t close the 2-sigma gap. We need to utilize technology to better connect people, content, and learning communities to facilitate authentic, personal, individualized learning. What are we waiting for?

  • voicemessaging

    whilst most of this article was beyond my understanding if i'm honest, i still feel the arguments outlined are persuasive and certainly learning through technology has been a common theme throughout the 21st century and earlier. 

  • I think the issue is ultimately about control - whoo has it, who wields it, who requires it - and how it dicates our learning process. The control politicians have over the funding of education and the imposition of management standards that do not measure actual learning. The control industry has over learning as training. The control administrators have over the design, development and support of the learning process. The amount of control faculty are willing to cede to students. The control imposed by predesigned soplutions from third party vedors of the LMS who sell to administrators NOT to faculty and students. The LMS is ultimately a management tool - and pays little respect to the actual learning process. We need to wake faculty and students up from the stupor thay have fallen into by acquiescing to this technology and get them to work toward redefining our use of instructional technology.

  • I'm in complete agreement with you, Jon. Here's my take on the subject.

  • tarmot

    Hi Jon. Great piece of thinking here. I was wondering if I could translate this article into Finnish and post to a blog, with appropriate credits and links? I can't see a CC license on your blog, so I need to ask.

  • Yes, that would be great. And thanks for the reminder that I need to get a CC license on my blog!

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