The Nuances of LMS vs. Open

For many years, a large part of my previous job was to advocate for openness and to show in a very tangible form how LMSs were becoming more open. From my technically-slanted perspective, APIs and open standards have done wonders for LMSs in recent years to this end. I love seeing posts like D’Arcy’s recent On the False Binary of LMS vs. Open because it carries forward the debate of what open is and why it is important. I would like to believe that fewer people today see the LMS as completely-closed as compared to five years ago.

I agree with D’Arcy that as educational technology continues to mature, we’re going to see waves of progress in the ways people use it to teach and learn. Nevertheless, we still only scratch the surface of what is possible given the core feature/functionality sets of today’s LMSs. The most commonly-used features continue to be storing/displaying content and grades, hosting discussion forums, and maybe even delivering a quiz or two. Let’s be honest – usability challenges aside, for most learners and instructors this is probably perfectly fine. But…

The LMS Continues to Constrain Certain Users (especially the leading edge)

When I first joined the open vs. closed debate, we were still debating open source vs proprietary LMSs and the implications of vendor lock-in. Gradually this debate morphed into one encompassing open standards – ie: who cares about the source code as long as I can have my data accessible in a standard format and can connect to other systems in vendor-neutral ways. Today, I see the debate about open changing again to one of supporting new models of teaching and pedagogical experimentation. The points of the open debate include such topics as whether or not a course (or parts of a course) can be opened to the world, whether guests should be allowed into a course (and if so how many), how students can participate in a course across institutions (or even outside the context of institutions) and across geographies, how courses can be delivered in ways that are less constrained by time or place or semesterly schedules, how instructors can share and collaborate around content and instructional delivery, and how “thinking in the open” can be supported and assessed. In these regards, the LMSs of today fall flat.

The Purpose of the LMS Will Change in a More Open World

But the LMSs today won’t be the LMSs of tomorrow. Rather than being a “dumping ground” for content, maybe one possible future for LMSs is as Learning Management Scaffolding – metaphorically supporting learning no matter its shape or form – with content being viewed and activities taking place inside and outside of the LMS. Maybe content will be seamlessly navigable around the LMS and the web – and perhaps in other types of systems like LCMSs – Learning Content Management Systems. Maybe learning tools of all types and sizes – but external to the LMS – will support every long-tail instructional desire imaginable while assessment results feed back into the LMS gradebook. Maybe the LMS will be the storage mechanism for leaning analytics as well, but it is more likely that it will become only one source of data feeding into another system better-suited for the task. But try as I might I fail to imagine a future in which some centrally-managed, instructor-accessible system stores rosters and grades, enforces privacy and security policies, and provides some form of starting-off point for students.

LMSs remain the most important components of online learning technology for the vast majority of higher education institutions, and LMSs are more open today than they’ve ever been (of course as long as institutions don’t lock them down). Speaking of which, “central IT” – love them or hate them – will also continue to play an important role in supporting how this happens. LMSs aren’t going away any time soon, and as D’Arcy says, we should find ways to support all sides of the open debate whether inside or outside the LMS.

This post written by George Kroner