Why I Love the Open Learning XML Format and XBlocks

In my last post, I sort of lamented the fact that all LMSs are generally more-or-less the same. Functionally, as well as visually, I believe this to be true. For several years now, LMS user interfaces have resembled the screen below – navigation along the left and a growing number of drop-downs, menus, and links that point to every imaginable learning tool that you can figure out how to jam under one roof. Sure there have been cool demos of new user experiences, but these have not achieved broad-based adoption yet. I’d characterize most current LMS user experiences as having:

  1. Learning tools (eg: quizzes, discussions) separate and disjointed from the actual learning content
  2. Links appear everywhere with several clicks required before you get to actual learning content
  3. When you add new/innovative learning tools to the system, they merely get added to the ever-expanding array of links and drop-downs
LMS of today
LMS user interface of today highlighting link-centric nature

I recently started tinkering with Open edX, and I admit that it has challenged some of my existing thinking about learning content and tools. It surfaces some of the limitations of the existing ways we have to integrate learning tools and learning content within existing LMSs. And it goes one step further – it offers potential solutions to them.

Open Learning XML is the “markup language” edX provides for course authoring. Instead of approaching the problem from the mindset of “here’s all my stuff, how do I get it all in there?” it instead prompts the course author to think holistically about how the course design fits together and how the courseware operates as a whole instead of considering each piece separately.

One of the key enablers of this format is a technology framework called XBlocks. I hesitate to call it a plugin framework. Rather it’s more of a component framework. The reason I say this is because XBlocks, when rendered, become embedded as part of the course user interface directly instead of linked together as separate or disjointed tools.

Though edX still features the left-hand navigation bar, I imagine that we’re not far from being able to create learning experiences that begin to resemble the UI wireframe below. A growing number of XBlocks integrate with edX in this way, appearing directly within the lesson content.

What LMS user interfaces need to become

I feel this approach to courseware has a chance of getting us one step closer to a vision I’ve had for years. We need to find better ways to embed the LMS into our learning content, not continue the practice of just dumping all of our learning content within our LMSs and hoping for the best. This is why I am beginning to appreciate Open edX and believe that it should be more seriously considered as an LMS replacement – learning content and tools considered together as an experience, embedded within a pleasing UI with fewer clicks required, and stronger coupling to course design.

-George Kroner (personal thoughts do not represent my employer’s)