Whither the university learning management system?

Jeremy B Williams

It’s official: the home page is dead and the social web has won. So read the headline of a recent post at qz.com reporting on the ‘leaked’ New York Times internal report lamenting the ineffectiveness of its digital strategy.

The reality is, if you read the NYT these days, it is far more likely that you do so because you are clicking on a link that has been recommended to you by somebody in one of your social media networks. In short, we do not ‘read the paper’ anymore, we dip into it — somewhat judiciously—reading material we know (in advance) we are likely to be interested in because our trusted ‘friends’ say so. Indeed, NYT readers would not be alone in taking the view that if the news is important enough, it will find them.

For many, this will not be a particularly earth-shattering finding as it is a trend that began several years ago in (what is rather anachronistically referred to as) the newspaper industry. But what of other similar information intensive industries; how are they responding to the increasingly dynamic socially mediated world?

Take higher education, for example? If course content is important enough, will it find students?

Right now — if it is sitting within a university learning management system (LMS) — probably not. The problem is, students log in to the LMS because they have to rather than because they want to. The more interesting material sits outside of the ‘walled in’ proprietary LMS, and despite noble efforts to integrate the burgeoning number of social media applications, what eventuates is a clunky, overly clicky experience that turns learners off.

Most educators would agree that it is important for pedagogy to guide decisions about technology and not the other way around, and yet there is relatively little debate in academic circles about the limiting effects of the LMS.

The observations of media theorist Douglas Rushkoff (author of Program or Be Programmed), provide greater clarity on this issue. Rushkoff notes that people tend to think of technologies as being neutral and it is only their use that determines their impact. For instance, he points out that guns do not kill people, people do. Pillows can also be used to kill people through suffocation. Guns, however, are much more biased toward killing people than pillows. Similarly, educational technologies come with their embedded biases, and some will be more biased towards deeper learning than others.

Herein lies the problem in the way the LMS is typically employed in universities. Far too often, the platform serves as little more than a receptacle for the storage of files, and when there is some capacity for interaction, it typically takes place within the confines of a ponderous threaded discussion forum where the user experience bears little resemblance to that of the popular social media platforms used routinely by learners in their private and professional lives. The net result is that creativity is stifled, engagement is lower, and learning is constrained.


Sadly, academics are far too accepting of the LMS. It must be okay because the university has just upgraded to the latest version. The reality, however, is that outside the walls of the proprietary system, people are unshackled and free to curate, connect and create. This is what it means to be literate in the digital age, and while individuals will develop these so-called 21st century skills despite the rigidities of the formal education system, if there were a genuine commitment to a learner-centric, participatory pedagogy, in which an individual had more control over how they learn, the returns to society on education dollars spent would be much greater.

As Clay Johnson has acknowledged, the role of software developers is becoming increasingly important. In the context of higher education, how this plays out will depend very much on whether universities can free themselves of the lock-in they are experiencing with dominant players like Blackboard.

Instructure’s Canvas platform appears to represent a serious challenge to Blackboard’s market power and its open, outward-facing platform is an exciting development because, among other things, it effectively allows the student to engage via the social media platform of their choice. In other words, it explicitly encourages the use of a student’s personal learning environment (PLE) for formal study; e.g. Wordpress, Twitter and Facebook, and aggregators, like Pinterest, Scoop.it, and Diigo.


This is significant for two reasons. First of all, taking away the ring-fence from around the institutional LMS and allowing the integration of students’ PLEs is a major development because it gets away from the teacher-centred, one-size-fits-all approach and encourages a more organic, learner-centred model in which students are more active participants.

A second advantage associated with an open, outward-facing platform is that you are able to integrate the new tools next year that no one has even invented yet. To stay ahead of the game these days, versatility is everything.

The inward-looking institutional LMS, by contrast, is always playing catch-up, and when the company supplying it has such a large market share there is less pressure on them to innovate. A university can make all the feature requests it likes, but there will be no response until there is a critical mass of users making the same request. The problem here is that replicating what others do is not a clever strategy in an increasingly competitive higher education space.