Making a Modern LMS: A Chalkup Origin Story

Today we announced the latest update to the Chalkup learning platform, so I thought I would take a moment and share why Chalkup exists and why we continue to invest in developing the next generation of learning technology.

I began researching learning management systems over three years ago. I was a student who was frustrated by the LMS my college was using (one of the most widely-used in the world, notorious for being a behemoth of a system).

I felt like there had to be something better out there. So I signed up for free accounts. I did demos. I connected with salespeople, posing as an interested educator (yes, I confess) so I could learn as much as possible about what was out there.

My lone takeaway has been this:

LMSs as we know them are dead. And I know why.

They Optimize for the Wrong Things

Somewhere around the fifth or sixth LMS I tested out I noticed a pattern: The modern LMS is an assignment machine. It’s not about working together. Or working smarter.

I was looking for something that would make it easy for me to ask for help when I was stuck on a homework problem. I wanted to reach out to members of my class — even if I didn’t know them very well — so I could see if they were approaching work in the same way.

One-way LMS vs. Social & Collaborative. We chose the latter.

But the interface and toolbox I encountered continually prompted me to dive into an assignment workflow devoid of interaction. Download something and then upload something. Rinse and repeat.

Even with programs that included features for discussion, I found that these digital conversation spaces were often divorced from the places where assignments were pushed out or resources were stored. It was like looking at a forum out of 1996. It took extra work if I wanted to link to class resources or assignments.

The modern LMS is optimized for one-way conversation — a teacher pushing out an assignment — not a two way discussion. And I didn’t love that.

There’s (Unfortunately) a Feature for That

But wait! There’s more! (This statement applies to almost any LMS developed after 2008.)

Maybe the reason these platforms aren’t optimized for collaboration is because they’re too busy trying to do everything.

Don’t get me wrong — I love a good Swiss Army knife as much as the next guy, but feature creep is a problem with the modern LMS. (We’ve written about that a lot lately, so I’ll keep it brief.)

As I tested newer platforms founded in the 2000s, I saw more menus. More tabs. More buttons. And more pages. There was grading. And badges. And workflows. And assessments. And resources. Overwhelming, to say the least. Remind me how we expect to see a high adoption rate with tools that are so unwieldy?

It seems to me like we’d want our classroom tech to start simple, and then allow classrooms to layer on complexity, customizing the platform to their needs. This is the dream. But instead of doing that, newer programs have added a bell or whistle for every user request. Not great.

When You Say “Easy-to-Use” I Don’t Believe You Anymore

And on that note: ease of use.

A chunk of the edtech platforms that dominate schools today rose to recognition in the early 2000s, and their evolution since has been minimal. This includes user experience.

Some of the LMSs I tried seemed like they could be powerful, but no one thought about building something intuitive. Lots of programs said they were easy to use — but these same programs boasted lengthy training processes to get teachers up to speed on everyday uses of the product. That seems backwards.

People Got Lazy About Classroom Tech

Last, but not least, my LMS saga left me to realize that these platforms were designed because someone could. Nothing felt intentional.

With every demo I saw another classroom function digitized, offering little more to the process than paper.

With a digital platform, I want to be able to do something I couldn’t do otherwise. I want to connect outside of class. I want to share something great. I want students to ask questions when they’re stuck. I want features to be thoughtful. I want it to make my school-life better. Somewhere along the way it seems like LMS creators got a little lazy and started digitizing processes because they had the ability to, not because it added anything to the classroom or student learning experience.

My LMS search frustrated me enough that I went on to create my own platform with other students who were feeling the same way. When it came time to describe Chalkup, we decided against calling it an LMS. We called it a “class collaboration platform.”

Today, we have the strongest vision yet for what the next generation LMS should be and we can’t wait to continue to execute on that vision over the months and years to come. We’d love for you to join us on this mission to make learning more collaborative and engaging for students around the world.

Because I’m telling you — LMSs as we know them are on their way out.

(PS: Today we launched the latest version of Chalkup, it’s totally redesigned and we hope you’ll love it. Try it out for free and let me know what you think. I’m @justinchando on Twitter.)