Why LMSs Aren’t the Answer

Jim ShimabukuroBy Jim Shimabukuro

Jessica Knott, in “The Open Source LMS: Look Out, Big Kids,” asks, “What trends are you seeing on your campus? Are you more likely to use a centrally supported learning management system or strike out on your own and teach from a blog?” For the first question, my answer is “More of the same LMS-based approach. Nothing new.” For the second, my answer is “A mixed approach” — combining open web social networking applications such as blogs with a few LMS applications.

Today, when we think of completely online college classes, we think LMS (learning management system). Period. End of discussion.

Then we wonder why there’s so little innovation occurring in these classes, why so many innovative college teachers have tried and abandoned online classes and returned to blended, and why online offerings are growing at such a slow rate.

The reason is simple – at least from my perspective. Compared to the blended classroom, the LMS-based online classroom is stale and sterile. Like little boxes on the hillside, they all look just the same. Boring.

Ever wonder why so little is published by online college teachers about classroom innovations? You’d think, given the exciting new technology, there would be thousands of articles every month on explorations, discoveries, observations, issues, trends, experiments. But the relative silence is deafening.

Again, the answer is simple. Once you’ve seen one LMS-based course, you’ve pretty much seen them all. Teaching via an LMS is akin to painting by the numbers or using crayons in a coloring book. All that’s required is to stay within the lines and follow directions. You wouldn’t form an exhibit around your works, and you wouldn’t submit them to galleries or art publications.

For all the functions that make up an online class, the LMS has only one answer: If it’s not on the menu, you can’t have it. The LMS tells you what you can do, when to do it, and how. There are no other options except for the ones that are built in, no room for imaginative or creative alternatives. If the LMS were a clothing store, you’d have only one style to choose from for dresses, slacks, blouses, skirts, shirts, coats, underwear, shoes, purses, etc. with some leeway for different sizes.

Given such bleak prospects, is it any wonder that it generates so little excitement? In fact, the only excitement comes in learning the LMS technology. It’s exciting, at first, because it’s new and challenging. But once you learn how to  do it, you quickly realize how limited and sterile it is. It’s like learning that your entire course will be limited to the interior of a single tract house. Once you’ve explored all the rooms, you begin to wonder: Is this it? Is this all there is to online teaching?

For those who feel stifled, there are several alternatives. One is to abandon completely online classes and return to blended models where teachers have an infinite number of F2F (face-to-face) ways to interject their own personality and style, creativity and imagination into their instruction. Another is to remain completely online but adding non-LMS elements to the course, such as social networks (e.g., Facebook, Blogger, Twitter), video sharing (e.g., YouTube), photo sharing (e.g., Flickr),  web conferencing (Elluminate Live), message boards, and wikis. And another is to abandon LMSs altogether and rely solely on elements available on the open web.

I chose the second, the mixed online alternative, straddling both LMS and non-LMS applications. This use of non-LMS apps comes naturally to me because, when I first started teaching completely online classes in spring 1997, our university system didn’t provide an LMS or services specifically designed for online instruction. I also had no model or precedent to follow in our system since no one else, to my knowledge, had ever taught full-semester credit courses completely online. Thus, I was forced to work with what was available: the standard university email services, my faculty webpage, and a little used message board application housed on our campus network.

But these were all the tools I needed:

  • I posted course information such as syllabi, schedules, guidelines for assignments, links to sources, sources, etc. on the webpage. Using the infinite linking options of the web, I used my one web address to create separate webpages for each of my courses. The homepage also included links to message board forums.
  • We used the message board for most of our interactive work. I created forums and threads for each class, and these were used to submit drafts, discuss readings and assignments, etc. Students received and gave feedback on drafts via replies and comments.
  • With my standard faculty email service, I created listserv groups for eblasts (class email announcements). Students who signed up for my classes were instructed, in the course description, to email me prior to the first day of instruction. I gathered their email addresses from their messages.
  • Students emailed their finals drafts to me, and I returned them with scores and comments via private email. I also used email for private conferences with individuals or small groups of students.

Thus, despite the absence of an LMS, I had all the basic elements of an LMS. Later, when the IT folks stepped in with LMS services and training, online class offerings began to grow. I looked at the LMS and decided that I was already covering all the bases with my non-LMS setup and chose not to participate. Besides, I enjoyed and valued the freedom and flexibility that I had.

A few years later, I was forced to use the LMS because our campus network decided it could no longer support the standalone message board I was using. However, except for the LMS discussion forum, I continued to rely primarily on non-LMS elements.

Years later, when my English department colleague, Lisa Kanae, introduced me to Blogger, I added the power of blogs to my mixed approach to online instruction. Blogs have been a major turning point for me. Today, I use WordPress for course information; the university system’s Sakai LMS for discussion forums, live chats, and eblasts; and standard email (a university-Gmail collaborative service) for private communications with students. The LMS facilitates records-related tasks with its seamless connection with the university’s Banner Student Information System.

Is this mixed LMS and non-LMS approach better than the LMS alone? I think so. The open web allows for an almost infinite range of design options – limited only by one’s imagination, creativity, knowledge, and skills. Your designs are no longer limited to the interiors of identical little boxes. No two courses will look alike – unless you want them to. What it brings back to completely online teaching is the potential for endless innovation with the ever changing landscape of web media such as social networks and video sharing.

One fact is obvious: the mixed or non-LMS approach is a lot more sustainable than a strictly LMS approach. It places the controls for ongoing change and innovation in the hands of teachers, and these teachers have the entire open web universe as a resource for applications, services, and tools. The revisions and updates in an LMS simply can’t compare to, let alone keep up with, advances in the open web.

This brings us to the question: If the LMS model for online instruction is inadequate, then what is the face of the new model? One possibility is the MOOC (see “MOOC” under networked learning).

In 2008 and 2010, Stephen Downes, George Siemens, and others created and offered what they called a MOOC, or Massive Open Online Course. Their purpose was to provide participants an opportunity to create their own PLEs (personal learning environments) and PLNs (personal learning networks) within the framework of the MOOC. The MOOC is a dynamic structure that’s defined by the expanding PLE/Ns. As the personal environments and networks grow, so does the MOOC. The MOOC is the sum of all the parts, and it is, at once, the one and the many. Like fractals, each part expands, and the parts are reflected in a network, the network in groups of networks, and the groups of networks in the whole, the MOOC.

Since the MOOC is a model for a single course, we should probably begin thinking of the overarching or general model, which could be called a MOOLE (pronounced “mule”) or massive open online learning environment.

In the MOOLE, LMSs can play a part in PLEs but not in networks because LMSs are closed systems and can’t be easily shared with others. This closedness is perhaps the LMS’s greatest drawback. Because it can’t play an interactive part in MOOLEs, it’s isolated and isolating. And in terms of educative value, which Dewey defines as organic or empowering, this limitation is counter-productive. The more connected and interconnected the learning, the more educative it is, and the MOOLE is potentially the most educative online learning enironment.

Many of the skills learned in the LMS transfer to nowhere — except perhaps the next version of the LMS. And even then, the learning curve is steep for those who are making the transition. I see this in my classes. Students who claim to have taken numerous completely online classes in the university’s LMS enter my class and are lost. They often don’t know how to function in the open web that’s outside the LMS. They have difficulty logging in to and navigating non-LMS mailboxes, blogs, and websites. For them, the web and online learning is the LMS, and any other interface is bewildering. Yet, they must learn to function in the real world of the open web because the LMS interface disappears at the end of every semester and for good once they leave the university system whereas the open web will always be there, long after their courses and college careers end.

The same is true for teachers. Training in LMSs doesn’t necessarily carry over into the open web. For students and teachers, LMSs may be a dead end technology, like training wheels permanently welded to a bicycle. Anyone who’s ever successfully taught a child how to ride knows that the real learning doesn’t start until you remove the training wheels. And even then, learning can’t proceed until you actually let go and allow the child to feel the balance on her/his own. With your hands on the handle bar or fender, the child will naturally lean in your direction. If you don’t let go, all they’re learning is how to lean — and just as they leaned on the training wheels, they’ll lean on your support. Let go, and they’ll stop leaning and rely on their innate sense of balance.

The point isn’t to do away with training wheels or a steadying hand. Rather, the point is to use them, if we must, as temporary measures and to remove them when the student — or teacher, for that matter — is ready for the next step.

15 Responses

  1. Thank you for this very great discussion . You did an excellent job of sharing the pitfalls and promises .


  2. I think I’m qualified to react to this. I teach 4 online courses and use 3 different LMS systems. I remember when these first came out the criticism was that they way that these were structured forced instruction and assessment to be based on the traditional model. If you were a learner-centered instructor then you were just out of luck. As these systems have matured, they have integrated features which enable an instructor to integrate much more interactive media. But online instruction done correctly should either be blended and/or available 7 days a week, 24 hours a day. That’s a lot of time commitment for instructors who are used to teaching f2f once a week. Also, in the 3 systems I’m familiar with, they fall across the spectrum from hard to use to very easy to use. I think this impacts the issue as well. Lastly, one of these days very soon, I’m going to leave this institution. In my mind, my content is intellectual property but they university sees courses as their property. Would you want to put time and effort into something then have it taken from you. I do see open learning coming down the pike as a popular issue. Its a bit like facebook if you will. You find something useful or interesting and you share it. You can build courses that way if the material is open source and shareable. Thus, it may have a substantial impact.

    • You raise very important issues, Bob.As to your last but not least one, intellectual property: in CH too, university teachers usually grant their university per contract the rights on their course materials, though not on research publications.
      This is where the Open Course Ware solution might be of interest to teachers. In MIT’s OCW, e.g., teachers have to agree to publish their courses under an Attribution – No Commercial Use – Share Alike Creative Commons License, But as they are designed as the rights holders, they can do what they want with their course content.

  3. I. Love. This. Well done, and well said Jim! Great piece!

  4. My only experience with these systems has been second-hand as customers complained to me about them.

    After reading that very nice summary, I have just a single thought.

    If an LMS is so stultifying, why buy it (except for Moodle). Giving money to them just encourages them.

  5. :D at “Litttle boxes on the hill”: a most apt image; for the younger readers:

    (there’s also a great Spanish adaptation by Victor Jara)

  6. Little boxes made of ticky-tacky. So apt!

  7. Some additional observations, most LMS systems are just confusing as hell even to the experienced user. Since I do have some background in ID, we always learned that you design to the lowest common denominator, you don’t want a big learning curve or people won’t use it. I think that has been Blackboard’s downfall. Recently, Blackboard bought Angel. Angel is simple and incredibly intuitive. So much so, you could design and load a course with little or no training. Since Blackboard, Blackboard seems to be adopting many of Angel’s features though it is no less confusing. The sad thing is our university says we must go to one LMS and I’m afraid it’s going to be BB. Finally, one other related note, many who are professors in their subject areas are experts in their content but have never had any training on pedagogy. When you add technology to that mix, unless they are early adopters of technology, I’d say they would run to the hills before they would adapt.

  8. Bonnie and Jess, thank you for your kind words.

    Jess, your article on LMSs was inspiring. For me, there’s nothing like a tough question to start my gears turning.

    Bob, your insights about LMSs are much appreciated. Do I hear rumblings down the road of an ETCJ article based on your personal experiences with them? ;) I can’t think of anyone more qualified to present the professors’ point of view.

    Harry, as always, good question: “If an LMS is so stultifying, why buy it (except for Moodle). Giving money to them just encourages them.” And the answers could fill articles for weeks and months to come. My guess is that we, educators, as a group, are a timid bunch. We move forward with granny steps and view change as linear and incremental. Which means dragging a lot of baggage along — winter gear for a trip to the tropics, summer clothing to the Antarctic — just to be on the safe side. Malvina Reynolds’ songs, “It Isn’t Nice” and “I Don’t Mind Failing” (see below), are reminders that change doesn’t always come easy.

    Claude, thank you for the Malvina Reynolds video! If the only result of this article were a reintroduction to her songs, it was well worth the effort! Her “Turn Around” has to be one of the most moving songs ever written:

    Malvina’s “I Don’t Mind Failing” and “It Isn’t Nice” are anthems for an entire generation that will forever walk the picket lines against injustice and feel uncomfortable in anything other than jeans and with anyone who drives big expensive cars.

    Malvina Reynolds, BTW, had a PhD in English from Berkeley.

    -Jim S

  9. […] his class and the extent to which they urge deeper thinking. Similarly, though at a larger scale, Jim Shimabukuro laments the restrictiveness of LMSs (Learning Management Systems) in terms of stifling instructor and student creativity and documents […]

  10. This is an interesting discussion, sorry I’m coming to it late. I’ve been a part of online education for a long time, and, at least in the K-12 arena I don’t find the online courses to be the boring, look-alike models attested to here. Might that reflect a difference in preparation to design and teach online, and a difference in pedagogy?

    The fact that some LMSs are so restricted can oft-times be attributed to the decisions of the system administrator, which is an institutional decision-point and shouldn’t be blamed on the LMS. I know that most LMSs have controls (left in the hands of the sys admin) to severely and significantly limit the course design control. And those sys admins, and actually many IDs, don’t have a good understanding of effective online pedagogy.

    But as Dr Bob says, design guidelines direct toward the lowest common denominator. Programs want some consistency between courses because there is a learning curve in online courses, just like there is in on-ground courses. Learning what the instructor considers important, where they put the key info, etc. In an unrestricted LMS it’s the wild west and most designers don’t think about orienting the student to their way of thinking. I can argue both sides, but I think I’ve made the point on this.

    What I see missing is a real attempt on the part of higher ed institutions to really work with faculty to develop good online courses. How many of the on-ground courses at institutions of higher education are still stand-and-deliver? That can be translated to online, but it’s no more interesting online than it is on-ground.

    Almost every K-12 online program requires their teachers to participate in online professional development to prepare them to be online course designers and instructors. Thats not the case in higher ed. And many of the IDs that are designed as available to help higher ed faculty design and teach online still don’t have an idea that there needs to be a different pedagogy if the online education is going to be anything other than a boring replication of a boring on-ground course.

    BTW you do know that there’s research on K-12 online education that shows online is as or more effective than on-ground instruction? No one in higher ed has been willing to undertake similar studies on a large scale. Wonder what they might find?

  11. Hi, Raymond. Thanks for the thoughtful and informative reply. I’m not sure what you mean by “large scale,” but there have been numerous studies on the effectiveness of online instruction in HE.

    However, the problem is that few if any actually examine the quality of the LMS as well as non-LMS or limited-LMS approaches as variables. An interesting study might compare three approaches (wholly LMS, partially LMS, and non-LMS) and their impact on teacher satisfaction and learning effectiveness.

    I don’t think we give enough credit to the “excitement factor” in teaching. That is, if the teacher is excited about the approach, it affects both her/his performance and the students’. And teachers are most excited when they’re being creative and imaginative, exploring and testing, trying new methods.

    You can’t get this kind of excitement by lining them up in a classroom and teaching them, step by step, how to fit their course material into an LMS. This is programed teaching, and the ones who are being programed are the teachers.

    This method is ultimately reductive, and it takes the joy and creativity out of teaching. In its place, we find teachers who equate online teaching with technical proficiency in using a particular LMS.

    I’ve looked at a few K-12 models for delivering online learning, and I learned that they aren’t as stark and mechanical as the LMS dominated models I describe. The EBUS Academy in British Columbia, for example, is an excellent model. LMSs are a part of their approach, but they have many other strategies that aren’t LMS related. It’s obvious that teachers and students are excited by the wide range of innovative methods. -Jim S

  12. Jim:
    I’ve seen, and critiqued, a number of studies in higher ed of the quality of online instruction. Many have been questionable in design, or looking at a single pedagological approach and then in their findings using that to talk “unqualifyingly” about online education. When I say large scale I’m referring to either a meta-study or one with at least more than a comparison of a one faculty member’s online course vs their on-ground course.

    RE: “You can’t get this kind of excitement by lining them up in a classroom and teaching them, step by step, how to fit their course material into an LMS.” If you think that’s what I’m talking about by online professional development to prepare online course designers and facilitators you’re wrong. That’s a training program in how to use an LMS — that has not a think to help those folks understand the difference between online pedagogy and on-ground pedagogy.
    And my concern in this are was reinforced today when I got an invitation to a webinar focusing on how lecture capture was making it easy to create online courses.

    While every LMS has problems the lack of quality in online education is less about the LMS and more about how it’s used.

  13. Raymond, thank you for your comment. -Jim S

    Update 3.3.11 at 12:15pm
    Raymond, sorry for the short response earlier. I have more time now to respond. Re exciting LMSs, I posted the following comment to Bob in this thread on Feb 23: “Bob, your insights about LMSs are much appreciated. Do I hear rumblings down the road of an ETCJ article based on your personal experiences with them? ;) I can’t think of anyone more qualified to present the professors’ point of view” (link).

    You, too, seem eminently qualified to speak out on behalf of exciting, innovative, creative approaches to teaching completely online college classes via LMSs only. Please accept my invitation to submit an article or series of articles to ETCJ describing and pointing to specific, concrete examples of these courses/classes or programs.

    Hope to hear from you and Bob soon. Best, Jim S

  14. […] his class and the extent to which they urge deeper thinking. Similarly, though at a larger scale, Jim Shimabukuro laments the restrictiveness of LMSs (Learning Management Systems) in terms of stifling instructor and student creativity and documents […]

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