Against Learning Management Systems


cc-licensed “Jail” by Luigi Caterino

In a recent post on BavaTuesdays, Jim Groom called down a plague upon two corporate producers of learning management systems, Blackboard and Desire2Learn. After years of fighting Blackboard’s unreasonable patent lawsuits, Desire2Learn made news by proposing a donation of one million dollars to educational causes on the condition that Bb drop its lawsuit.

The premise of D2L’s publicity ploy is that it has put Blackboard in a no-win situation: Bb can either drop its lawsuit against D2L or, by continuing it, admit that it doesn’t care about education.

If only a corporation like Blackboard had a sense of shame, it just might have worked.

For a long time now, Jim has been asking why universities need LMS’s. He has also been fighting the incursion of corporations into higher education through technology. These are points that I’ve been thinking about increasingly since CUNY began having so much trouble with its Blackboard installation that many instructional technologists and individual faculty members in the system started to look for alternate learning environments. As Joe Ugoretz noted on Twitter, CUNY is ripe for a Blackboard killer.

Whether or not CUNY sticks with Blackboard is almost beside the point if, when it looks for a replacement, it considers only other learning management systems–be they closed or open source. As Jim points out, these systems all look depressingly similar: they package a suite of conventional tools (blogs, wikis, discussion forums) within familiar navigational structures and call the whole package a “learning management system.”

The problem with Learning Management Systems lies in the conjunction of three words that should not appear together. Learning is not something that can be “managed” via a “system.” We’re not producing widgets here — we’re attempting to inspire creative thought and critical intelligence.

Learning Management Systems have dominated online education up until now, but must they be what we rely on in the future? Having found our way out of one box, must we immediately look for another? Can we imagine no other possibilities?

Of the many important things Jim has done in recent years, his advocacy of the small-pieces-loosely-joined approach to pedagogy, twined with his resolute resistance to the corporatization of pedagogy, may be one his most important contributions to our public dialogue about teaching and learning. Why, Jim has asked again and again, must we confine education to a box? Why must we pack learning inside of an acronym?

More importantly, why do these questions appear with such force and regularity when the subject involves online education? What is it about learning in online environments that makes us so afraid of open, loosely managed pedagogical space?

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27 thoughts on “Against Learning Management Systems

  1. Trip Kirkpatrick

    Because fast-cheap-and-out-of-control is scary. It requires keeping up with tech, it requires learning new things regularly, and it requires taking risks. To me, the key phrase is “loosely-managed”. With a focus on quantifiable learning outcomes and a demand for education ROI, those responsible for outcomes want to manage the outcomes tightly. Even though I think fast-cheap-and-out-of-control will produce better language learners, in part because of the requirements enumerated above, there would likely be a sag during the transition* from tight command-and-control to a light touch. Finally, of course, there’s the budget. When the Provost’s office asks how much is needed to implement a “small-pieces-loosely-joined approach”, those without experience doing it won’t even know how to figure out how to answer the question.

    * And who’s going to put his/her head on the chopping block to manage the transition?

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  3. Carlo

    Take my comments here with a grain of salt, perhaps, as I’m not a teacher, nor involved in higher ed (or any other ed…), other than as a student for the last few years in an MA program.

    But the following threw me a bit:

    The problem with Learning Management Systems lies in the conjunction of three words that should not appear together. Learning is not something that can be “managed” via a “system.” We’re not producing widgets here — we’re attempting to inspire creative thought and critical intelligence.

    It seems to me, way back, before the days of computers, we always had a “learning managing system.” It was a classroom, and the lesson planner, and the folders my teachers kept all our essays in, and all the other artifacts that made up the learning experience.

    The difference is, now with Blackboard, etc., that IRL experience is being supplemented, and in many cases even replaced, with an digital experience.

    But I think, again, from my experience as a student, my learning was always “managed” by a “system.” It’s just that those things weren’t digital; they were material.

    With that said, I think Blackboard is the biggest piece of garbage software out there. It’s horrible. Students — even ones in a media studies program — cannot figure out how to use it. It’s looks like it came out of design sessions from 1998 — you know, when the “Under Construction” signs were cool.

    But there needs to be some sort of “system” that captures the process of learning, doesn’t there?

    I do agree, it doesn’t need to be Blackboard — I actually think it’s useless. A blog on could basically do what Blackboard does, provided you had a Prof. that could apply some basic document management skills, etc.

    (And maybe that’s why a University like mine purchased it? Because many don’t have those skills? Who knows…)

    Anyway, thanks my two cents.

  4. Mikhail

    Since not every campus has a Jim Groom, there should be something that helps to pull all those small pieces and joins them however loosely (or not). So instead of something like a closed, self contained LMS like Bb or Moodle or whatever, what we need is some sort of framework that would more easily facilitate using the various tools together in a given context. Maybe this is the mythical eduglu Jim and his ed-tech partisans have been on about.

  5. Matt Post author

    Thanks, all, for the provocative comments.

    @Trip: Fair points all around. I’ve had the amazing experience this semester of working on a project with a sysadmin who is not adverse to risk in the face of huge rewards, but I know that he is very rare.

    In fact, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head: LMS’s are online learning systems for sysadmins, not learners.

    @Boone: Great post! I’m heading over to comment.

    @Carlo: Did your professors have lesson planners in college? Though I’d prefer not to see LMS’s anywhere, they are particularly inappropriate in higher ed. I’d argue that IRL analogues to the LMS (lesson plans, chalkboard, etc.) are much less limiting of the learning experience than the typical LMS.

    And, no, there doesn’t need to be a “system” that “captures” learning. That’s my point. Set learning free!

    @Mikhail: For all the money campuses spend on Blackboard and its ilk, they could afford a hundred Jim Grooms (blasphemy! There is only the one and only). I do agree that Eduglu represents and alternate path forward.

  6. Matt

    For the record, here is the comment I left on Boone’s excellent blog post:

    Great post, Boone. I love your delineation of various types of LMS boxes, and I agree with your last point — the ways in which boxes can function to gather together similar objects (or similar learners) is an important function that my “get rid of all LMS’s” conveniently ignores.

    However, I’d make two points about that:

    First, it seems to me that one of the best aspects of the small-pieces-loosely-joined approach is that it takes full advantage of RSS feeds to allow classrooms to be configured, reconfigured, and distributed in different ways. One can still gather blog RSS feeds from a classroom into a box; but one can also reconfigure that box as one chooses. Thus, a SPLJ (small-pieces-loosely-joined) box is akin to a box with holes in it, a box that can be endlessly remade, on the fly, according to the student or teacher’s wishes. It is a box that is flexible in a way that most LMS’s are not.

    Second, what bothers me most about LMS’s is that they pre-define what online learning is. In an LMS, learning activities are those that can be completed within the parameters of the LMS system that is being used. And, in an age in which so many different kinds of applications and learning experiences are appearing every day, I see no reason to limit online learning to the old blogs, wikis, DB formula.

  7. Luke

    I don’t know whether to comment here or at Boone’s place. Small pieces, too loosely joined!

    I chaired a panel of faculty who presented on teaching with WPMu at last Friday’s Teaching and Technology Conference at Baruch (post coming for it as soon as I track down the recording)… each faculty member wonderfully articulated what the system has added to their classes, additions that simply weren’t possible with Blackboard. One highlight for me was a professor who has taught more than a dozen courses based in WP blogs, who brilliantly deconstructed Blackboard completely based upon its metaphorical name. She’s never used it; but she knew implicitly why it was bad. First, she said, we don’t teach with blackboards anymore at Baruch; we have whiteboards; so the very name implied to our students something that was foreign to their immediate experience. Second, the name implies a top down hierarchy, with the teacher at the front of the room, and students coming up to work in a little space that the teacher carves out for them. She finds this inherently undemocratic, with a packaged organization that flies in the face of the type of classroom environment she feels her classes needed.

    I think I agree with Boone’s point over at his blog that, for some people, this prepackaged logic of an LMS is all they want or need. I don’t think we should dismiss that desire. Colleges should be supporting for their communities easily-managed online spaces for the exchange of course materials– it’s an open question what’s the best solution, but it ain’t Blackboard.
    Colleges should also be supporting more flexible systems, WPMu or Drupal or something else, that allows those who want to do more to do more. I’m in favor of a tiered support for teaching and learning with technology that acknowledges the value of everything from low barrier-to-entry options to open-ended, customized solutions. I also think all of the above should be RSS enabled, should be open source, should play nicely with others, and should be owned and continually reevaluated by the community.

    I believe the infrastructures exist at most colleges to support this now, especially with the vibrant distributed community of folks working on this, and could very well save colleges money over time. What’s missing is the will to move away from the client services model of instructional technology, or to see it as a wholly separate area of university life than information technology. Actually, I think the willingness to even consider moving away from that model is missing, for many of the points that Trip mentions. But those are merely explanations why it doesn’t happen, not good reasons for it not to happen.

  8. Jason

    My own preference is for small pieces, loosely joined–I run most of my classes through a wiki+blog combo, though I also use Moodle for low-stakes quizzes. (That’s probably just laziness: I don’t know of an alternative that will host and grade quizzes in privacy.)

    At my school, at least, a big obstacle is auto-enrollment: People who use Blackboard/Vista like the fact that their students automagically show up in the course as they register.

    Several people at our school also believe the EDUCAUSE data suggesting that students *want* Learning Management Systems. (Others of us are skeptical, but are having a hard time opposing data with principles.)

  9. Trevor Owens

    Great post, I couldn’t agree more.

    I have to say that I find folks that defend learning management systems a bit perplexing. For the last six years I have studied at two different institutions of higher learning, George Mason University and the University of Wisconsin. Both paid big bucks for their LMS. At both institutions I never once used either system for something more than logging in to download PDFs, or logging in to participate in threaded discussions. In both of these cases those hunks of LMS shovelware are just expensive, cumbersome and poorly derivative messes.

    The best uses I’ve had of classroom tech came from profs using a free pbwiki setup and some really basic php forums. As far as my education has been concerned any money spent on my behalf for a LMS has been a complete failure.

    Why don’t we stop paying for shovelware and divert those resources into staff and training for the sorts of decoupled tools learning management systems poorly attempt to emulate?

  10. Maura

    (I meant to comment last night but didn’t have a chance so now this is very much a “me too!” comment, but…)

    If we got rid of the expensive, proprietary, closed-source LMS, wouldn’t we have enough to hire a Jim Groom clone at each campus? Maybe even two clones, one to support a WPMU model (or the like) and one to support an open-source LMS for those who prefer that option.

    At least until the invention of eduglu.

  11. Carlo

    And, no, there doesn’t need to be a “system” that “captures” learning. That’s my point. Set learning free!

    I think we agree; I’m just not being clear.

    What I’m saying is, in a digital world, there is necessarily something that captures/stores the learning that happens. It doesn’t — and I would agree with you, it *shouldn’t* — be a formal LMS such as BB.

    But whether you use a blog or Drupal or whatever, it is impossible to replicate the “ether-ness” of a classroom discussion online. Our online discussions have to persist in some sort of database (unless you’re maybe talking about using a chat system, but even then, if I was in that class, I’d be storing all the chats for later reference.)

    Re: the lesson plans, don’t profs have a syllabus? Don’t they plan each lecture? That in itself seems like a management process.

    That’s all I’m saying — I’m trying to make a very general point, and probably I’m doing a poor job of being clear about it. But using Drupal for a class seems to me like a system for managing learning. A very flexible one, but it’s still something that “captures” learning.

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  14. Jon Mott

    I have to say I’m in complete agreement with you too! (Thanks for dropping the note of solidarity in response to my “Post-LMS Manifesto.”) Jim Groom has been a great source of inspiration for me in all of this too. I like your summary and restatement of the essential issue here–we have get out of the business of managing students and instead refocus on the business of helping learners grow and succeed.

    I think, as others have already commented, the challenge now is to come up with the “eduglue” that can help average, mortal (non-Jim Groom) teachers create their own loosely-coupled learning suites. Maybe that moves us dangerously back in the direction of out-of-the-box, one-size-fits-all learning “systems,” but we have to find a way to strike the right balance between the wide-open world of the the interwebs and monolithic, enterprise tools. WPMU is a great example of how to do that. What other ways can we bridge the gap?

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  18. Abdul

    Yes.. Thanks for your posting. But Learning Management system is very interactive and learning easily. In future all the industry to make very interactive using learning management systems.

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  23. Michael

    I think, as others have already commented, the challenge now is to come up with the “eduglue” that can help average

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