January 27, 2015

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

Key mobile strategy issues

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Mobile learning centre Algonquin College, Ontario

Fuhrman, T. (2011) Mobile strategy or moving target?, Campus Technology, November 1

This paper looks at five issues that need to be considered when developing a mobile strategy for university and college campuses, based on experience from Columbus State University and University of Wisconsin-Madison:

1. Develop own mobile website, apps, or both?

2. Inhouse, outsource or customize?

3. Cross-platform development

4. Costs

5. Security.

Since the answers all end up being: ‘It all depends’, you need to read the article for the answers.


From this and a number of other articles, campus mobile strategy (like many other technology innovations) seems to be driven primarily by student administrative and student service agendas, rather than by teaching and learning applications. Nothing wrong with using mobile for student services, of course, but again there is a danger that if there is not enough experimentation on the teaching side, key decisions that do not always support teaching applications will be made that will be difficult to reverse later on.

I just wish there was as much news and literature on strategies for the mobile learning side. However, I will shortly be reviewing a new book on mLearning that should answer some of these questions:

Quinn, Clark, N. (2012) The Mobile Academy: mLearning for Higher Education San Francisco: Jossey-Bass/John Wiley


Five security threats for e-learning in 2011

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For those who always look under the bed for a bogeyman, this should help keep you awake at night:

Schuman, G. (2011) Higher Education’s Top Five Network Security Threats for 2011 Campus Technology, January 12

Written by someone who sells IT security systems, the article lists the five areas of threat:

  • mobile devices
  • viruses spread through social media (ah, I knew that there would be punishment for such promiscuity)
  • virtualization
  • embedded devices (i.e. automatic equipment that opens garage doors, etc.)
  • consumerization (i.e. people buying IT gadgets that also connect to institutional networks).

The good news: there’s always a solution (at a price).

Why governance of IT is so important for academics

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Kolowich, S. (2011) Security hacks Inside Higher Education, January 27

This should be required reading for every research academic who collects data, for every CIO, and for every university board, which ultimately has responsibility for governance.

This article, about a medical researcher who was fired for a breach of data security at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is a classic case of why every institution needs to have an IT security protocol in place that is communicated and understood by all academics.

In this particular case, there are no winners, not the patients whose personal information was compromised, the professor who did not pay sufficient attention to the technical aspects of data security, the CIO, who should have ensured that there was a system in place for effectively tracking and monitoring the security of data, and for the board, who are ultimately responsible for ensuring that there is a coherent and effective governance structure. This is, as one of many interesting comments on the article put it, a complete system failure. But there for the grace of God go most universities.

A bill of rights for cloud computing?

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McCrea, B. (2010) How Solid is Your Clouded Data? Campus Technology, September 9

If you have the patience to get beyond the really irritating pop-up advert on every page now of Campus Technology, this article is worth reading.

Gartner Consultants have proposed a bill of rights for educational users of cloud computing. If any single article has put me off the idea of cloud computing for post-secondary educational institutions, it is this one. It raises some scary scenarios that should never be even remotely permissable. Nor does it deal with cross-border issues, such as the Patriot Act’s implications for foreign universities with data located on a server in the USA, for instance.

The real problem is that cloud computing applications are now so extensive and easy to use by all institutional users – faculty, students and staff – that strong, enforceable laws to protect privacy and the ownership of data on external servers are essential, not just guidelines and ‘opting-in’ contracts. However, given what governments are now doing to Blackberry in the name of national security, this seems highly unlikely even in a countries such as the USA or Canada.