An LMS for the Future, Not Today

We should learn from Apple and use design to create the future.

Remember when Apple refused to support Flash on the iPhone? Or what about when they stopped including optical drives on their computers? And, yes, I agree that getting rid of the headphone jack is forward-thinking, but by no means would I call it courageous, and I think it should have been handled much better.

The point is, either they see what’s inevitable, or they push for something new because they actually believe in it. That’s what an LMS needs to do.

I’d tell you what LMS stands for, but ‘learning management system’ doesn’t really tell you much about what it does. It’s a system where students can access assignment information, communicate, submit assignments, and then teachers can grade them. So far, every LMS that I’ve seen is designed for a school of today, so no matter how well-designed it is, no matter how intuitive or fast or how much big data it accesses to help students and teachers, it’s still designed for an outdated education system.

To borrow/adapt a metaphor from Most Likely to Succeed, it’s like designing a more aerodynamic carriage to make it faster when you’re still using horses to pull it.

So what sorts of things would an LMS of the future design for?

Cumulative credit instead of semester-bound letter grades

In a traditional class, you have a set of assignments. Students do the assignments, they get a grade out of a maximum possible score, and at the end of the semester, all those assignments are added together and you get a percentage and a letter grade.

This is the old way of doing things for old reasons. An LMS designed for a school of the future will use a better way thanks to the technology available. Students get points for the work they do, but it’s not out of a maximum score, it’s simply added to the points they already had. And at the end of the semester, they don’t get a letter grade, they just see the progress they made, and the next semester they can pick up where they left off.

Branching curricula instead of linear

When you have to teach a whole batch of kids at the same time, chances are, they have to learn the same thing. I’m not saying that traditional live instruction is completely dead, it just needs to take its place among the other instructional methods, specifically online courses and project-based learning. Both of which enable branching curricula.

As students get the basics of subjects done, different aspects may intrigue them, and they can pursue those different aspects. An LMS needs to be designed with branching in mind, where students can unlock different branches based on what they’ve completed. And the unlocking can happen in different ways, like by completing 3 out of the 5 related assignments, or by earning a certain amount of points.

Points earned outside of school

If you work at a sandwich shop after school, you should get Foods credit, right? If you ride your bike to school, you should get Health credit. If you help remodel part of your house, you should get Construction credit. An LMS of the future should accommodate this.

Course curation

The teacher of the future is more of a curator than a teacher. She will work harder at gathering resources than creating lessons. She’ll guide and point learners to where to find answers and information rather than dispense it. So an LMS would need to accommodate that, using something like Pinterest boards. They’d be unit boards, but the boards would connect to one another like branches of a tree.

Encouraging a sense of purpose

Remember those meetings with the school counselor, where you tell them what you want to be when you grow up and they throw some vaguely related courses at you and then you take them and they barely match their description? Well, an LMS of the future would understand you, it could see which subjects/assignments you do quickly, and which you drag your feet on. It could see which subjects you go overboard on, and which you pick the least required. It doesn’t just look at the superficial subject, but the type of work it is, to make recommendations.

Getting better feedback

Getting students to contribute to an discussion is difficult, to say the least. Either you throw points on the discussion and they contribute the minimum, or you make it optional and only the teachers’ pets contribute.

Another part of feedback that is critical and difficult is that from the teacher. Effective feedback is one thing that computers won’t be able to do very soon. But teachers don’t have enough time to give really good feedback to every student. Part of that would be helped by having students who help each other out. But an LMS that tracks communication between teachers and students, and allows students to rate feedback, and gives students a chance to rate how lost they are on different assignments, then prompts teachers to give feedback to certain students on certain assignments at certain times, that kind of LMS might just improve feedback.

Better living through avatars

I love games with customizable avatars. I love websites that have customizable avatars. Not only do avatars add a level of enjoyment to an experiment, but it’s possible they also reduce anxiety in an online space. Unlike the anonymity of the internet, the anonymity of an avatar in an LMS still has accountability because teachers know students’ secret identities.

I don’t know of any LMS that has an avatar creator, but to reap the full benefits of it, it would have to be integral. It’s not just about creating an avatar to be your face in online discussions, it’s not just about the added motivation of unlocking new avatar features. What if completing certain classes or projects unlocked related parts of the avatar? What if your avatar were also used in other games that take place at the school? What if you could equip your avatar with certain accessories that unlock special abilities? Say you acquired an hourglass that, when fully charged, enabled you to restart a project or extend a deadline. Or maybe you earned a cloak that gives you access to the VR simulator for an extra 15 minutes per week. Or how about a sword that earns you 5% more points on certain activities?

The Game integration

In my school of the future, I like to imagine some kind of game that would largely replace the traditional parts of school, i.e. Science, History, etc. It would be an immersive open world where you explore and discover concepts and ideas. I don’t want to get into it too much more here, suffice it to say it’s a game that covers core subjects. As such, it would need to be integrated into this LMS. Built together with it, in fact.


It’s a little far-fetched, I admit, to think that an entire school would decide to adopt a totally new way of teaching just because they liked an LMS. I have read about a few schools that might just be close enough, but otherwise I suppose there would have to be a sort of translator built in as well, so a teacher in a regular school could employ the LMS but still have data to report to their old system. Often this is how an LMS gets purchased anyway: enough teachers start using it on their own that the district takes the plunge. That will have to suffice.