September 2, 2014

The danger of cloud based LMSs

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Davis, B. (2013) Desire2Learn ‘in recovery mode,’ says there has been no data loss to university systems The, February 1

Bryen, W. (2013) Desire2Learn second system outage ‘very disruptive’ for CU-Boulder faculty, students Daily Camera, University of Colorado, January 31

Many universities in the USA and Canada have been hit by a serious outage of their learning management system, Desire2Learn. It appears that all universities who use Desire2Learn’s cloud computing facility have been affected. Those running D2L on their own servers will not be directly affected.

Virginia Jamieson, D2L’s senior director of corporate communications, stated:

We are experiencing significant challenges in one of our cloud data centers and that is dramatically impacting some students’ online experience. This stems from the file virtualization hardware not interacting well with the storage environment.

Among the universities affected are the University of Waterloo and Wilfred Laurier University, from where many of the staff at Desire2Learn have graduated, and the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Apparently Desire2Learn has been hit by several outages recently.

Why no back-up?

I didn’t expect one of my 2013 predictions to happen so soon – see ’10. Expect the unexpected.’

I obviously have misunderstood cloud computing. I thought the whole point was independent back-up, so if one server goes down, others can pick it up. Please enlighten me.

Why learning management systems are not going away

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Will new LMSs change the teaching and learning environment?

Contact North has just published online a series of six short papers (10-12 pages) under the title of Learning Management Systems: Disruptive Developments, Alternative Options and the Implications for Teaching and Learning. The papers are:

Module 1 - Learning Management Systems in Ontario: Who’s Using What? (also covers all Canadian post-secondary institutions)

Module 2 - Thinking About Choosing a Learning Management System?

Module 3 - From Wikis to WordPress: How New Technologies Are Impacting the Learning Management System

Module 4 - Making Decisions About Learning Management Systems: Building a Framework for the Future

Module 5 - Different Approaches to Online Learning and the Role of the Learning Management System

Module 6 - 8 Basic Questions About Learning Management Systems: The Answer Sheet

These papers need to be read together – for instance modules 2 and 4 are separate bits of the same topic. Module 6 gives the short answers but just reading that will not provide the evidence on which the answers are based – and like all evidence, it is open to different conclusions.

How the study was done

My colleague Keith Hampson and I were responsible for developing these papers, which aim to go beyond comparing different LMSs by looking at their future, especially in the light of other developments in learning technologies, such as web 2.0 tools.

Keith did most of the original research, interviewing senior managers from the LMS companies and collecting data about the use and choice of LMSs in Canada. I focused on new technologies, and how they are being used, with examples drawn from mainly from Ontario (see Contact North’s Pockets of Innovation) but also from British Columbia.

What the results mean to me

This was an interesting experience. As with all good research, the outcome was not quite what I had anticipated (I had thought before the study that LMSs would go the way of the dinosaur) and here are my personal views on the future of learning management systems.

1. LMSs are here to stay. There are several reasons for this:

  • Most instructors and students need a structure for teaching: what learning outcomes to aim for, what topics to cover and their sequence, what activities are needed for students to achieve the learning outcomes, the timing of work for students, and a place for assignments and assessment. By definition, LMSs provide such a structure (note this applies equally to classroom teaching; I see the use of some kind of digital LMS becoming standard for organizing most post-secondary teaching)
  • Instructors and students need a private place to work online. This came out frequently in the interviews. Instructors wanted to be able to criticize politicians or corporations without fear of reprisal; students wanted to keep stupid comments from going public or wanted to try out ideas without having them spread all over Facebook: password protected LMSs on secure servers provide that protection.
  • The choice is not either an LMS or web 2.0 tools. Web 2.0 tools can be used not only outside an LMS, but also with an LMS (through links) and can even be embedded within some LMSs. We are really talking about structure rather than tools – the tools sit within the structure. This is particularly true for the new generation of LMSs that are emerging which are in reality a flexible combination of tools.
  • However, the main reason is that institutions are becoming increasingly reliant on LMSs. They are increasing looking to LMSs to integrate data from teaching with administration, to provide data on student performance, for appeals against grades, and for reporting and accountability purposes. Learning analytics (or rather data analytics) in particular will drive increasingly the dependency of administrations on LMSs. I’m not saying this is a good thing, but it’s the reality. I will be discussing in a later blog some of the downside of learning analytics, but the drive for accountability is not going to diminish, and LMSs are a valuable tool for administrators.

2. Although LMSs are valuable for providing a structure or framework for learning, the significance of web 2.0 tools such as open source content management systems (WordPress), blogs, wikis, etc., is that we should be thinking more broadly than just the LMS. Instead we should be thinking about virtual learning environments and how these can be used to increase student engagement, develop learning skills as well as manage content, and bring in the outside world into our teaching, while at the same time providing the privacy and security that most instructors and students feel is an essential condition for learning. LMS will be just one part of that equation – but they will still be an important part.


We deliberately tried not to be directive, but to provide frameworks for discussion. So enjoy reading these papers and let me know your reaction to them.

Further reading

Demski, J. (2012) Rebuilding the LMS for the 21st Century Campus Technology, March 29

This excellent article asks (and answers) the question: Can the goals of 21st century learning be met by retooled legacy LMSs, or does the future belong to open learning platforms that utilize the latest technology?

Jones, D. (2012) Why learning management systems will probably go away The Weblog of (a) David Jones, April 6. A good counter-argument to my post.

For a good introduction to and comparison of LMSs, see: Chase, C. (2012) Blended Learning – Learning Management Systems, Make EdTech Happen, May 14

New resources for online educators from Contact North

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Over the last few months, Contact North has been gradually adding an impressive range of online resources to its Educator Portal. As well as the numerous articles already available for free downloading or online access, there are several more in the pipeline. Each has been developed by leading experts in the topic area who are collaborating with Contact North.

 The resources are organized under the following headings:


Beyond learning management systems?: This study examines recent developments in LMSs and the impact of new web 2.0 technologies on LMSs. The introductory paper is already posted, and the main research report, the executive briefing, and the summary will be posted soon.

Cloud computing – education will never be the same discusses the opportunities and risks that cloud computing presents for the post-secondary education sector, what we can learn from how some are already making use of this technology, and how we proceed from here. This is the first in a series.

Ten guiding principles for the use of technology in learning is already available. This is a set of guiding principles, which has informed Contact North’s planning and served its network well over the past number of years.

 Open educational resources (OER) – Opportunities for Ontario is already available and discusses how can we leverage OER and what are the obstacles to moving forward.

A Template for Strategic Planning in Online Learning in Ontario Colleges and Universities is already available and provides a template in the form of a check list that can help institutions to frame the planning process.  The template consists of specific questions that need to be addressed if an institution has decided to make a strategic commitment to online learning.

 Publications on Technology in Education is a ragbag of different papers (some from secondary sources) on various topics related to the use of technology in learning.

A border simulation in a virtual world from Loyalist College, Ontario


Pockets of innovation is very interesting. Currently it contains 25 case studies of innovation in online learning within individual Ontario post-secondary institutions, with another 25 at least to come. It provides a unique insight into what is actually happening at the grassroots level in Ontario post-secondary education. This group of articles on innovation will be reviewed in detail in a later post, but there are some excellent examples in this list.

Share your story invites Ontario instructors to share their innovative practices by contacting Contact North and being a case study for the series.


Online learning researchers (in Ontario) is a searchable database of almost 160 researchers working at public educational institutions conducting research in the fields of online and digital learning. The database is also searchable by research topic. The web site for each researcher is also available.

Tell us about you and your research invites Ontario researchers in online learning to join the database and collaborate with other researchers


Faculty and instructor training programs showcases the current 70 faculty and instructor training programs at Ontario’s public colleges and universities and provides opportunities for institutions to collaborate and build on current training programs. The database of programs is also searchable by topic.

Professional development is a dynamic online repository of nearly 300 worldwide professional development opportunities that support skills and capacity of faculty and instructors with respect to the innovative use of technology in post-secondary education and training. Events are posted from around the world, where the primary language of interaction will be in English.

Learning platforms training lists training opportunities for instructors on Contact North’s web conferencing, audio conferencing and video conferencing systems

Training resources provides a range of downloadable training documents for the effective use of Contact North’s web conferencing platform, Saba Centra.

Trends and directions

This section provides up-to-date and relevant information on trends and directions in online learning, some from secondary sources. They include:

My own 2012 Outlook for online learning and distance education

Three videos from Sir John Daniel that challenge what we think we know about post-secondary education

Fast Forward: how emerging technologies are transforming education and training

Five critical challenges with far reaching consequences for online learning

Lifelong learning as a key driver of innovation in post-secondary education in Ontario

Perspectives on Online Learning by [12] Ontario College and University Presidents

Strategic Directions for e-learning in Canada (by me)

The top 10 reasons why Ontario is #1 in online learning in Canada (not by me).

News Room

News on developments that affect online learning in Ontario are posted by month


This is a very quick overview of a wide range of resources, and I hope provides enough information for you to go in and pick and choose what you are interested in. Further resources will continue to be added to the site each month. Although some of the resources are specific either to Contact North partners or to Ontario, many are generic and will be of value for most online educators.

As mentioned earlier, in subsequent posts I will be going into more detail regarding some of the articles, especially those that are provocative, and also in some cases I will ask the authors to do a guest blog on their topic..

Happy reading!

Blackboard adds on open source service

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© BeyondHollywood, 2012

Today Blackboard issued a strange letter to clients announcing that, in parallel with its existing proprietary platform, it will be offering a new business to support and host open source learning management systems, and also the acquisition of two teams to help guide that work, Moodlerooms and NetSpot.

The letter states:

We are committed to continuing our deep focus on quality and innovation to make sure Blackboard Learn meets your needs—now and into the future. But we also know that different approaches to online learning require different strategies. So we’re broadening our focus to help clients select and manage the right technologies within and beyond the LMS to support all aspects of the student experience. 

Our new effort, the Blackboard Education Open Source Services group, will support clients using open source learning platforms with guidance from the leadership teams from NetSpot and Moodlerooms that bring deep expertise in this area. At Blackboard, these teams will operate independently as separate units to support their clients. We’re also announcing today that Chuck Severance, a longtime leader in the Sakai community, will join Blackboard to guide our efforts to support clients using Sakai. 

Is Blackboard eating its own tail – or growing two tails? If so, which tail will win? Talk about hedging your bets!

e-learning outlook for 2012: will it be a rough ride?

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© Firehorse Blog, 2012

Another year, and online learning, e-learning, learning technologies, educational technologies, digital learning, or whatever you call it or them, will continue to grow, become more prevalent, and more a central part of teaching and learning in higher education – but exactly how and in what ways?

The general trends are not going to change much from 2011 (which I identified as course redesign, mobile learning, more multimedia, learning analytics,and shared services), but some of the specifics are becoming clearer. Below I’ve ranked my predictions in order of significance for higher education, and also given a probability rating of the prediction actually happening.

1. The year of the tablet: 99% probable

Tablets – iPads, Kindles, Aakashes (Sky), etc. – will become a regular component of teaching and learning in many institutions. This will be mostly initially in traditional classroom and lab settings, but increasingly in more mobile applications outside the campus. Why?

  • tablets are more flexible, convenient and mobile than laptops and more practical for learning activities than even smart-phones
  • most LMSs already have almost transparent mobile capacity
  • tablet prices will continue to fall with increased competition, and applications and power will continue to increase with new models in 2012
  • textbooks will increasingly become digital and the tablet will become the mobile textbook library for students
  • functionality will increase, enabling tablets to become creators as well as distributors of learning materials
  • expect to see an iPad 3 with increased functionality released in April, 2012; this will generate even more interest in tablet applications for education
  • expect to see an enormous explosion of online teaching in developing countries, as cheap tablets such as the Aakash penetrate a world hungry for low-cost Internet access.

During 2012, we will see a small but increasing number of educational applications that build on the unique affordances of tablets, rather than merely moving LMS material to a tablet.

Likely barriers to the use of tablets:

  • institutional and instructor inertia
  • possibly some concerns over cost and equitable access
  • lack of standardization (although HTML5 will ease this)

The Aakash $35 tablet

2. Learning analytics: 90% probable

Learning analytics enable easy access to data on the desktop or tablet for instructors, administrators and even students about how students are learning and the factors that appear to influence their learning. The rapid expansion of learning analytics in 2012 is probably going to be the biggest surprise for many people outside the small coterie of people currently using learning analytics. Again, this is not likely to explode in 2012, but it will gain traction quite quickly, and again, there are strong reasons behind this prediction:

  • the biggest driver is going to be appeals and accreditation. Learning analytics enable institutions (and those appealing grades) to access hard ‘evidence’ of student performance, particularly online. Institutions can demonstrate to accreditation agencies what and how students have learned through the use of learning analytics. These may not be the best reasons for using analytics, but they are a very powerful ones, especially as quality assurance boards start latching on to learning analytics.
  • LMSs will increasingly provide the software necessary as part of the standard service
  • identifying ‘at-risk’ students. There is growing evidence that at-risk students can be identified almost within the first week of a course through indicators that can be tracked through learning analytics, such as amount of activity in an online class, response to e-mails, etc. The challenge will then be to find ways of supporting at-risk students
  • tweaking teaching; learning analytics provide instructors with useful data about how and what students are learning, enabling quick changes to materials and to teaching approaches while the course is still running
  • course review and planning: learning analytics will improve the evidence for both internal and external course reviews and future course planning.

Likely barriers:

  • identifying and collecting the data in ways that are useful for decision-making
  • concerns about student privacy
  • data overload for instructors who are already busy
  • lack of integration between LMSs and other student information systems

3. Growth of open education: 70% probable (depending on definition of open education)

I find this the most difficult area to predict, because so much of what is claimed under open education is either not new or not significant in terms of how it is actually implemented. Also open education covers so many different areas, such as content, access to instructors, learner support, badges or peer-to-peer assessment, recognition of prior learning, shared resources, and on and on. So let’s try to unpack some of this:

  • ‘raw’ digital content is already nearly 100% open, but a great deal of well designed commercially-produced digital instructional materials is likely to remain closed, or at least partially covered by copyright, because of the high cost of development. Nevertheless, the trend is towards openness, especially for digital materials created with public money, and this will continue in 2012. The Obama Administration’s $2 billion fund for OERs in community colleges which will start flowing in 2012 will add an immense amount of new OERs. The challenge then will be to find models that ensure massive adoption and use of such materials in formal learning during 2012, as there are few examples to date.
  • open access to high quality (all right, highly qualified) instructors is likely to be limited to idealistic volunteers, or to limited events (e.g. a MOOC), mainly because of a mis-match between supply and demand. Too many people want access to what they may incorrectly assume to be high quality instructors at elite institutions, for instance. This is partly an institutional barrier, as institutions try to protect their ‘star’ faculty, which is why this form of openness depends largely on individual volunteers.
  • one area to watch in 2012 is whether institutions otherwise requiring high academic qualifications for entry to degree programs start opening access to learner support to the general public. This is not necessarily direct instruction, but would include counselling, awarding certificates for successful completion of open courses (such as MITx), even automated exams. There is a cost in doing this, but it is far less significant than opening up faculty to those not meeting formal entry requirements. This would be a welcome move back towards public service rather than for-profit or full cost-recovery continuing education, but is unlikely in the current economic climate.
  • qualifications for open learning. I do expect to see institutions such as the OERu, the University of the People, and possibly the Khan Academy, putting in place ‘challenge’ exams that students will pay for that will provide a qualification such as a degree. Will any of the established open universities move in this direction? This would seem an obvious move if they are to remain competitive and relevant. More importantly, will employers and conventional institutions recognize such qualifications, particularly for entrance to graduate school? In the meantime, expect to see a growth in badges, especially for informal learning.

Likely barriers:

  • lack of recognition by conventional institutions of qualifications obtained through the use of open learning (this resistance has always been there, and won’t go away quickly)
  • lack of cost-effective models for incorporating open educational resources in formal programs
  • demand from students for formal qualifications from elite or ‘closed’ institutions
  • general concerns about the quality of OERs (although I suspect this will diminish during 2012, as more and better quality OERs become available)

The OERu logo

4. Disruption in the LMS market: 60% probable

LMSs aren’t going to go away in 2012, but expect to see some major changes here. Competition has suddenly ramped up, with several new entrants such as Instructure and Pearson. I don’t think the higher education market is big enough for all the players, so expect some large changes in 2012. Your guess is as good as mine as to what these changes will be, but here are my guesses

  • either Blackboard or Desire2Learn will be acquired/absorbed by another company or will go bankrupt: it may not happen in 2012 but it is inevitable over time (I hope you have created your digital materials in an easily portable format)
  • LMSs will begin to look different, with a greater emphasis on learner control of the interface, learner input, and the ability for instructors to plug and play ‘external’ applications at will
  • continued rapid incorporation of social media, either directly or (more probably) through seamless links
  • whatever, Blackboard’s market share will continue to drop, but there is no obvious winner in sight yet; more likely is a continuation of a fragmented market

Likely barriers to the predictions coming true:

  • Blackboard’s future is secured through sale to a major IT corporation (think SAP or Microsoft), resulting in greater R&D and higher license fees
  • inertia: faculty not wanting to change and so unwilling to move to better products/designs

Instructure's Canvas is a new LMS player

5. Integration of social media into formal learning: 66% probable on a large scale

In some ways, this is more of an opening of education than a technology move. However, expect in 2012 to see many conventional universities incorporating ‘open’ blogs and wikis as an increasingly important part of formal courses. The University of British Columbia’s wiki is a good example. There are several reasons why this is going to expand rapidly in 2012:

  • once the infrastructure is in place (and it’s not difficult to do technologically), it is easy for faculty and students alike to create their own materials
  • campus wide log-in provides security and quality control so that content cannot be tampered with externally, but allows for open access to other faculty and authorized users from outside the institution
  • interaction between students and instructors and assessment remains private (within the LMS)
  • such sites gradually build centres of excellence around academic topics – especially interdisciplinary areas (take a look at The Evolution of Insect Wings at UBC)
  • topics can be developed as ‘stand-alone’ wikis that transcend a course, or as course related topics, reducing over time the need to create online course materials from scratch
  • because these are open access materials, under a Creative Commons license, materials can be accessed from a growing number of institutions worldwide as well as creating local sites.

Likely barriers

  • central IT units fearful of losing ‘control’
  • overload for faculty and students if merely added to existing course work
  • lack of consensus across the institution about infrastructure and organization

From ‘The evolution of insect wings’, UBC wiki

6. The digital university: 10% probability

Will we see an announcement from an elite university that in 2012, it will go truly ‘digital’, by starting to redesign all its programs from scratch, so as to incorporate digital learning as fully as possible? This would not be an online or distance university, nor one where digital technology is used to enhance classroom teaching, but one which by design tries to integrate the best features of online and campus-based learning.

A good place to start would be the very large first and second year foundation courses. For instance if you were starting from scratch, how would you design a science foundation course, using a combination of small study groups, inquiry-based learning, OERs, remote labs, simulations, hands-on labs, social media and ‘modern’ instructional design, focused as much on the development of intellectual skills as on the acquisition of content, within the current constraints of staffing and facilities? How could the campus best be used in such a program?

This would follow the MIT precedent of having the President and Vice-President/Provost announce this, but (unlike MIT) after full consultation with faculty and students, and the process (also unlike MIT) would extend, gradually, over time, throughout the whole university, based on trial, error and evaluation. The degree qualification would remain the same, but the teaching, and also the learning, would be vastly different.

We really need something like this if we want high quality, sustainable higher education for a mass market. Nothing would better prepare economically advanced countries for the growing competition from fast developing countries. Universities need to get ahead of the economic and technology curve, and shape it, not follow it. Such a development has to come at an institutional level, but government funding and encouragement would also be extremely helpful, as there would be a relatively high cost of change.

It’s unlikely that such an announcement will be made in 2012, because it needs a lot of advanced preparation, but at least the process could begin this year in some institutions. This of course requires leadership and commitment at a scale that has been notably lacking in most institutions and from most governments in recent years.

Likely barriers:

  • where does one begin? Probably risk: why would an elite institution risk its market competitiveness which depends more on restricted access than quality teaching?
  • the need for faculty training: this won’t succeed without a massive effort in this area
  • the high cost of start-up: this will need extra resources to enable faculty to have time to work on the design and implementation, extra training, and for communication with students, faculty, board and employers; however, there may be significant savings down the line
  • getting consensus across the institution, which would be necessary for it to work
  • faculty in elite institutions don’t care enough about teaching to go through the inevitable disruption
  • add your own…….

Using the best of online and campus

7. Watch India

I will be writing a full post on Indian e-learning later, but there are several reasons behind this prediction:

  • the Indian government’s decision to subsidize 12 million Aakash tablets at US$35 per tablet will open up online learning to a vast number of Indians (800 million) who currently have no Internet access, but who do have mobile phones
  • the Aakash deal will also put great pressure on Indian higher education institutions, who in general have been highly resistant to e-learning, to move more quickly, if they are to access additional government funding for tablets.
  • this will also stimulate India’s already burgeoning e-learning industry to produce content, programs, degrees and learner support for such students. In 2009 Researchandmarkets estimated the market size to touch $603 million by the end of calendar year 2012. The Aakash deal is likely to inflate this figure by an order of magnitude.
  • up to now, most e-learning companies in India have been marketing externally, and have focused on corporate training and informal learning, but there are signs that in 2012, the focus will be on providing e-learning products, services and programs for Indian students.
  • English is widely used in Indian post-secondary education, and the move to OERs will enable Indian institutions to move quickly into online learning with what will be perceived as quality learning materials from reputable organizations (such as MIT).

Likely barriers:

  • institutional resistance to online learning
  • costs of Internet access
  • lack of bandwidth in many rural areas
  • lack of attention paid to instructional design and learner support leading to high drop-out

© Heyday Solutions 2012

8. The great unknown: 10% probability

Lots of possible developments could really put the spanner in the works for e-learning. The biggest threat could come from the US Congress. The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), also known as H.R. 3261, could have massive implications not just in the US but also across the world, given the location of servers and companies that provide critical Internet services to whom the law will apply. Other attempts to counter terrorism, or attempts by telecommunications companies to throttle access to media, or changes to copyright laws  all have possibly negative implications for online learning. Publishers are doing their best to block open access.

Technology problems could also impact e-learning, for instance, the large-scale loss of data through an LMS failure, or a major class action suit for invasion of privacy through the use of social media.


Despite some of the risks outlined, the overall outlook for e-learning in 2012 is generally highly favourable, with the ‘good’ developments much more likely to dominate.

Although it is difficult to be precise, the trends towards more openness, more mobility, more innovation in teaching and learning, and more powerful tools for instructors and especially students, are clear and are consistent with developments in previous years. Yes, history is on our side!

In another post, I will look particularly at individual technologies that are likely to impact on e-learning in 2012.


In the meantime, how do your predictions differ? Have I missed something important? Do you disagree with any of these predictions? How do you feel about e-learning in 2012? Over to you!