Learning Management Systems: Taking Stock of a Contemporary Phenomenon
As you’ve probably noticed, new digital technologies and services are often named after older objects or natural features, to reassure us that they’re here to stay: cloud, fire, tablet and blackberry spring to mind straight away. And Blackboard is no exception. It’s one of the world’s leading Learning Management Systems (LMSs), and its humble name belies an amazingly complex, rich and flexible system. But the name isn’t a complete deception; any good LMS will need to look and feel like it’s an essential part of day-to-day learning (just like a board at the front of a classroom), and not a gimmicky addition.
In fact, as e-learning continues to grow at an extraordinary rate (the market is set to reach $107 billion this year), a functioning LMS is vital to effective teaching – much more vital than a blackboard, in most cases! But the world of Learning Management Systems is still quite mysterious to most people, perhaps because many of us don’t ever have to choose one; instead, we simply use whatever our institution or company subscribes to. But in a world of too much digital hyperbole, LMSs really are the classrooms and training suites of the future. As the LMS industry reaches an annual growth rate of 25%, and millions of students worldwide are relying on services such as Blackboard, Moodle and Edmodo, the time is ripe to take stock of the LMS landscape.
The rise of the LMS – a quiet revolution
You don’t have to scratch the surface too much before you discover that apparently new phenomena have long histories. And for hundreds of years, private companies and educational institutions will have had systems for managing learning – methods of documentation, assessment, attendance tracking and curriculum distribution – even if these systems might look ‘old fashioned’ to our 21st-century eyes.
One way of defining Learning Management Systems in the modern sense would be to say that they unite two relatively recent key trends – online communication and distance learning. For a variety of complex social and financial reasons, universities are facing increasing demand for distance-learning provision, while in the commercial world many companies are decentralizing and developing a globally spread workforce.
In other words, there is something like a perfect storm – more and more people need to be taught and trained remotely, and many of these people are of a generation which has grown to expect comprehensive digital services and provision. In short, there’s no excuse not to teach remotely, digitally, flexibly and comprehensively.
So while the ‘pre-history’ of Learning Management Systems would include the first distance learning institution (from 1906), televised teaching (1950s) and the Microsoft release of ‘Encarta Class Server’ in 2001, we can perhaps date the current phase of LMS expansion from 2002, when Moodle was introduced. It wasn’t the first LMS by any means, but it is thought to be the first open-source system of its kind, and remains hugely popular. (Its development has also been given a boost by the work of many open-source programmers.) Eight years later, Eucalyptus launched, as the first cloud-based, open-source LMS.
The LMS is now firmly established as a vital constituent in education and corporate training. On the business side of things, virtual collaboration has become so widespread that some companies are providing training and support specifically aimed at virtual skills. But that isn’t to say that the market is static or settled. In fact, a recent report by the Educause Center for Analysis and Research suggests that many institutions may soon look beyond their long-term LMS providers, especially established names such as Blackboard, towards more responsive systems and creative combinations. Major providers such as Instructure and Desire2Learn are seen by some to have become too overloaded with features – many of which go unused by the vast majority of us. The days of big ‘do-it-all’ providers may be coming to an end; expect to hear more about ‘learning ecosystems’ in the next few years.
Higher education – serving the digital natives
It’s 2010. You’re twenty years old, and just starting at university. Your university’s website includes lots of phrases about ‘skills for the future’ and ‘flexible learning’, but within six weeks you’ve found something quite different – an educational institution that behaves as if the internet didn’t exist. You joined Facebook when you were 16, Twitter when you were 17, and have watched 90% of your movies and TV shows online for the past five years – but here, you’re expected to leave your digital self at the classroom door. This is a world of photocopied syllabi, library browsing and conversations that take in place in a designated room. Something’s got to give, you think. And it did.
Learning Management Systems have potential benefits in many sectors, but the situation is especially stark in higher education, because of its generational make up. Here we have millions of young people who expect digital dialogue and the instant accessibility of resources as an absolute minimum – and they were arriving at institutions which were loathe to change their time-honoured procedures.
But before we go too far in painting a crude portrait of LMSs pandering to the short attention spans of young people, let’s remember that a well-deployed LMS can be hugely enriching for students. Have you come out of an especially inspiring seminar, and want to continue the conversation over the next few days with your tutor and other interested students? Or perhaps you’ve found an overlooked article or book, and want to share it? There are significant intellectual benefits such as these, but also practical ones; assessment and attendance can now be tracked more consistently, and a student’s progress and achievements can be monitored more clearly.
For better or worse, higher education is becoming more commercial in its structuring and its delivery. Universities are not quite the intellectual havens they once were – separate worlds in which students could explore ideas in a relatively pressure-free environment. Nowadays young people are paying significant amounts of money for an educational service, and they expect appropriate products as part of that service. Given this context, it’s not surprising that universities have begun to realise the importance of an effective LMS – this is one key way in which they can demonstrate that they’re responding to the needs and expectations of students. Aside from all the intellectual and practical benefits they bring, a university’s LMS can be like a gesture of respect and good will towards a new generation of student / customer.
Corporate LMS – more than training
The world of Learning Management Systems is usually divided between educational and corporate systems – and, as you can imagine, ambitious providers want a piece of both pies! There’s an inevitable crossover between the two, particularly with regard to training; employers in areas such as medicine, car manufacturing and financial services constantly need to train and re-train their teams, in response to evolving scientific breakthroughs, technological developments and global regulations. In other words, many corporations need to function almost like educational institutions if they are to keep pace in a given field. And they will use an LMS accordingly.
But that’s not the whole picture. Many LMS providers are starting to speak the language of ‘talent management’, in which a system not only functions as a medium for educational content and exchanges, but a means by which to monitor and support factors such as recruitment, retention and career planning. A leading provider in this field, Totora, has been described by one of its partners as placing its emphasis ‘on the person and not the course’. It’s a subtle distinction, but one that vividly illustrates the changing nature of corporate LMSs, as they try to find structures and processes that respond to the complexities of an individual’s working life.
Maybe talent management systems are a slight contradiction – they want to recognise an employee’s independent significance to an organisation, while slotting that individual into a system. (One provider, Talentova, offers an ‘Innovation Management’ product, which sounds suspiciously like a contradiction in terms.) But the overall message is clear – responsive and flexible systems have significant business benefits beyond training, and ambitious and creative companies will use them to develop a richer understanding of who their employees are, and what they’re capable of.
Blackboard Chief Executive Jay Bhatt recently wrote a post on the company’s blog entitled ‘The Time is Now for a New Learning Experience’. Of course we hear such pronouncements from business leaders all the time (especially when they’re launching new products, as Bhatt was). But the idea of a ‘new learning experience’ can help us to understand the extraordinary rise of LMSs – reminding us that learning is not just the reception of new information, but an experience that is based on expectations, cultural habits, technologies, and other factors.
In recent years, this is where Learning Management Systems have been placing their emphasis – and that’s why students, teachers, employers and employees across the world can be said to be living and working in the age of the LMS. And not the age of the blackboard.
Joseph is a web enthusiast who writes for GWS Media, a Bristol web design agency who specialise in content management systems and learning portals.