The Learning Management System
For 2002, the selection is the dominant and arguably most successful education technology, the Learning Management System (LMS), also known as the Virtual Learning Environment (VLE). All of the chapters in this book deserve books of their own, and in the case of the LMS, I actually have written a whole book on this topic (Weller, 2007c), so I am very aware that a brief chapter really can’t do it justice.
The LMS provided an enterprise solution for e-learning for universities. It stands as the central e-learning technology, despite frequent proclamations of its demise. Prior to the LMS, e-learning provision was realized through a variety of tools, for instance: a bulletin board for communications, a content management system, and home-created web pages. The quality of these solutions was variable, often relying on the enthusiasm of one particular devotee. The combination of tools would also vary across any one university, with the medical school adopting a different set of tools to engineering, which varied again from humanities, and so on.
As e-learning became more central to university provision, both for blended learning and fully online offerings, this variety and reliability became more of an issue. The LMS offered a neat collection of the most popular tools, any one of which might not be as good as the best of the breed-specific tools but good enough (another example of the “good enough” principle). It allowed for a single, enterprise solution with associated training, technical support, and helpdesk features to be implemented across an institution. The advantage of this was that e-learning could progress more quickly across an entire institution if it was driven by strategy. However, over time this has come to seem something of a Faustian pact, with institutions finding themselves locked into contracts with vendors, and providers such as Blackboard attempting to file restrictive patents (Geist, 2006).
LMS uptake grew significantly over the first half of the decade, and by 2005 nearly all higher education institutions had deployed an LMS, but only 37% had a single one, with others operating multiple systems, with the intention to move to a single system (OECD, 2005, p 124). Commercial LMS providers included WebCT and Blackboard, and open-source solutions such as Moodle and Bodington were also available.
It has often been noted that when a new technology arrives, it tends to be used in old ways before its unique characteristics are recognized. So, for example, television was initially treated as “radio with pictures,” before those working in television began to appreciate what could be done with the new medium. This is to be expected, as we search for new metaphors to understand the ways in which the new technologies can be used.
This approach applied to much of the early implementation of the LMS. In order to smooth the transition to the online environment, developers started by implementing a familiar model, the virtual classroom. In 2008, Conole, de Laat, Dillon, and Darby found that the LMS was often used as a place to dump notes and to replicate lectures rather than engage in the more experimental pedagogies we saw in chapter 4 on constructivism. In this approach, content analogous to lectures is laid out in a linear sequence with discussion forums comparable to tutorials linked to this. In the Bodington system, developers even went as far as to make this mapping explicit by making the interface a building that users had to navigate to a specific lecture room. This approach should have been an initial step to greater experimentation with online learning, but many institutions became “stuck” at this stage, and the LMS is a primary cause of this.
One of the issues with enterprise systems such as the LMS is that they require significant investment in terms of finance, expertise, time, and resources. They thus gain a momentum of their own. The reservation many educators have with the LMS is not necessarily the actual technology but rather the institutional “sediment” that builds up around it. Lanier (2002) refers to “software sedimentation,” arguing that:
Software sedimentation is a process whereby not only protocols, but the ideas embedded in them become mandatory. An example is the idea of the file . . . . Files are now taught to students as a fact of life as fundamental as a photon, even though they are a human invention. (p. 222)
For the LMS, this sediment can be seen in the structures that accrue around the system. Institutions invest significant amounts of money on technology and employ people who become experts in using that technology. Accompanying this, they develop administrative structures and processes that are couched in terms of the specific technology. There are roadmaps, guidelines, training programs, and reporting structures, which all help to embed the chosen tool. This creates a form of tool-focused solutionism — if an educator wants to achieve something in their course, and they ask their IT services department or educational support team for help, the answer will often be couched in terms of the question, “What is the Blackboard (or tool of your choice) way of implementing this?” Or, something to the effect of, “That isn’t in our LMS road plan.” This inevitably stifles innovation and is one of the common complaints against the LMS.
There are ways to combat this sedimentation process. For instance, it is possible to frame the processes in terms of the generic function rather than the specific technology, such as asking: what do we want the LMS to do? How do we make effective use of asynchronous communication to enhance student interaction? Can we design the use of tools in courses to improve retention? And also, to think beyond the existing technology, is it possible to have an ongoing experimentation program? Most of all, it is necessary to be aware of every institutional action that adds to the sediment and to be aware that the greater the accrual of such sediment, the more difficult it becomes to implement, or even contemplate, other solutions.
In the mid-2000s there was much interest in the idea of service-oriented architectures. Using a protocol called Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP), which allowed the secure passing of data between tools, you could assemble a system from discrete services. This would ensure that the LMS would not be a collection of mediocre tools but a collection of the best-of-the-breed tools, curated to meet the needs of a specific institution (or department in that institution). While this occurred to an extent with the IMS LTI standard we saw in the previous chapter, it wasn’t in the interest of LMS providers to pursue — and for many institutions they wanted an easy option — so installing Blackboard or Canvas, with its community and support, provided a ready solution to the LMS problem. This lock-in with specific tools has been one of the drivers for the sedimentation process.
In 2004, I became the first LMS director of the Open University (OU). Like many institutions, we had precisely the issue of diverse provision, with an in-house system for course content, the FirstClass conference system for computer-mediated communication (CMC), and a variety of other tools. Advocates of these technologies insisted they were better than any LMS, and the conclusion the team reached after extensive review was to adopt a service-oriented architecture. We argued that the particular demands of a large-scale university that offered distance education courses were not well met by an LMS that had a campus model inherent in its structure. However, the problem with a SOAP approach was that it required something to plug all these components into — a component motherboard, as it were. To realize this aim the OU opted for the open-source Moodle platform. This permitted enough customization while providing an agreed-upon infrastructure. The OU has been a great contributor to the Moodle community, and the adoption of an LMS dramatically accelerated our uptake of e-learning. But the SOAP approach never really took hold, partly because it wasn’t as viable as it seemed, and partly because just maintaining and developing our version of Moodle became the main focus. The open-source approach allowed the development of tools within the Moodle framework, and today it is a sophisticated platform supporting nearly 200,000 learners. But, considering the costs invested in Moodle, the ability to move beyond it is hampered.
In 2007, I foolishly declared, “The VLE is dead” (Weller, 2007d), proclaiming that loosely coupled third-party tools represented the way forward. There was also a lively debate on “the VLE is dead” at the 2009 annual Association for Learning Technology (ALT) conference (Clay, 2009). The third-party tools I listed in my post (e.g., Wetpaint, Pageflakes, Jaiku) have largely all disappeared but the LMS is still going strong. Much like the lecture in higher education, reports of its demise, it seems, are always overstated. The Irish Learning Technology Associated published a special issue in 2018, a decade after my injudicious proclamation, which rightly highlighted the impact of the LMS, by analyzing responses to the VLEIreland survey, a cross-institutional survey of students in Irish higher education over a number of years. McAvinia and Risquez (2018) concluded that far from fading, the VLE has evolved:
The newer VLEs and upgrades of the “traditional” brands offer features such as integrated social media tools and e-portfolios, and have lost the visual cues tying them to the classroom, such as book and blackboard imagery. The regeneration of the VLE is remarkable. (p. ii)
Indeed, the robustness of the LMS is one of its main attractions. For many in ed tech, the LMS is at the centre of their work, and it can often be an unglamorous role ensuring that a system works effectively for thousands of students, and the LMS doesn’t get the credit it deserves in ed tech circles. Like universities themselves, part of the appeal of the LMS is its steadfast nature: experimenting with people’s education (particularly when they pay for it themselves) is not something to be done lightly. But there is a balance to be struck between allowing freedom, innovation, and experimentation while maintaining the core functions. It may be a question of time — education moves slowly, and now that there is a level of stability with the LMS, more experimentation can happen around the fringes. It’s not fashionable, but we should probably give the LMS a little respect, and a little love.