September 20, 2018

Why is innovation in teaching in higher education so difficult? 3. Learning management systems

Reasons for using a Learning Management System

I pointed out in my previous post that the LMS is a legacy system that can inhibit innovation in teaching. Also in an earlier post I had pointed to the articles about the future of Blackboard and other proprietary LMSs, and commented that 

what surprises me is that in an age of multimedia and social media…. anyone is using an LMS at all.

This provoked an unusually large number of comments, both on my blog and on Twitter, some supporting my position and many more critical of it. 

The main critical points made were that LMSs have many advantages:

  • convenience: an LMS is the most effective way to organise teaching materials, activities, grievances, tracking students;
  • linked to convenience: it is too much to expect instructors to integrate a range of tools from scratch; the LMS is a simpler way to do this;
  • compliance and security: an LMS is safer than general, public apps (less open to hacking), protects student privacy, and allows for audit/management of grievances.

I will try to address these points below, but note that none of these advantages has anything to do with improving students’ learning – they are mainly instructor, legal, administrative and institutional benefits.

I do not underestimate the importance of convenience to faculty and administrators, and of privacy and security for students, but I would like to see this balanced against the potential learning benefits of using something other than a learning management system. I will also argue that there are other ways to address convenience and privacy/security issues.

What do I mean by an LMS?

One of the issues here is definition. You can define an LMS so broadly that even a physical campus institution can be considered a learning management system. I want to make the distinction in particular between a ‘course’ and an LMS. By LMS I mean basically the off-the-shelf, proprietary software platforms such as Blackboard, Canvas, Brightspace, Moodle that are used in 90% or more of post-secondary institutions, at least in Canada. I don’t include specific platforms developed on a one-off basis for a particular institution or academic department, or by an individual instructor, as I see these more as tailored rather than bespoke. 

Until quite recently, I believed that any of these proprietary LMSs was flexible enough to allow me to teach in the way I wanted. I could post content, determine a schedule for what had to be covered each week, set student activities such as graded or ungraded assignments, communicate individually or in a group with students, set up discussion forums, choose topics for discussion, monitor the discussions, set and mark assessments, grade students, post their grades to the student information system, and give individual or group feedback, all in a secure online environment. 

However, I no longer wish to teach like that. With an LMS, I am given a tool then required to fit my teaching within the boundaries of that tool. I will shortly describe why I want to teach differently, but the essence here is that I want software solutions that fit the way I want to teach.  I want to decide how I want to teach, and more importantly, how I want my students to study, and then find the tool or tools that will allow me and them to do that. If I can be persuaded that an LMS can meet that requirement, fine, but I don’t believe at the moment that this is the case.

Why I want to change my approach to teaching and learning

Basically, in my previous approach, the focus was on me defining the curriculum/what had to be studied, the transmission of this knowledge to students, helping them to develop understanding and critical thinking about this content, and assessing the students. There was a focus on both content and skills, but a limited range of skills. In particular, I was the one who primarily defined what students had to know, and provided or directed them to the relevant content sources.

In a digital age, I don’t believe that this is any longer a satisfactory approach. I was doing most of the hard work, in defining what to read, and what students should do. They were limited in particular to writing or online multiple choice assessments to demonstrate what they had learned. Of course, students liked this. It was clear what they had to do, not just each week but often daily. They had a clear choice: do what I told them, or fail. 

I have written extensively in Teaching in a Digital Age about my ‘new’ approach to teaching and learning (although actually it’s not new – it is a somewhat similar approach I and some other teachers used in teaching in elementary schools in Britain in the 1960s, which was then called ‘discovery learning’ – see Bruner, 1961).

In essence, there is too much new knowledge being generated every day in every discipline for students to be able to master it all, particularly within the scope of a four year degree or even seven years’ higher education. Secondly, information is everywhere on the Internet. I don’t have to provide most of the content I wish to teach; it’s already out there somewhere.

The challenge now is to know where to find that information, how to analyse it, how to evaluate the reliability and relevance of that information, then organise and then apply that information in appropriate ways. This means knowing how to navigate the Internet, how to behave responsibly and ethically online, and how to protect one’s privacy and that of others. I used to do that for students; now I want them to learn how do it themselves.

I therefore want students not only to know things, but to be able to apply their knowledge appropriately within specific contexts. I want them in particular to develop the skills of independent learning, critical thinking, problem solving, and a broad digital literacy, because these are the skills they will need once they have left post-secondary education (or more accurately, skills that they will continue to develop after completing a formal qualification). 

I realise that this approach will not suit all instructors or fit well with every subject area, although I think these are challenges that most subject disciplines are now facing in a digital era.

What do I need to do to teach in this way?

I think it will help to use the concepts of ‘inside’ and ‘outside’. ‘Inside’ is within the relatively safe, secure confines of the institution (I am still talking digitally, here.) To be inside you must be a registered student (or an institutionally employed instructor). What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas. Students can discuss with other students and their instructors maybe highly controversial issues in an open, academic way, without fear of being sued, imprisoned or ridiculed. Their work and grades are secure (unless they choose to make them public). The same applies to instructors. They can communicate individually with students or to the class as a whole, but it is confidential within the boundaries of the institution.

‘Outside’ is whatever is available publicly through the Internet. This can be open educational resources, public reports, open data, open journals, open textbooks, publicly available You Tube videos, Wikipedia, social media, such as Facebook. It can also be student blogs and wikis, student-made YouTube videos, and those parts of their e-portfolios – a record of their studies – that they choose to make public. Students may also choose to use social media as part of their studies, but they will need to know that this is public and not private or secure, and what the risks are.

For me, most student learning will be done outside: finding, analysing, demonstrating and testing what they have learned. Some inter-student discussion or engagement with external sources such as the general public may take place outside, but students will be provided with guidelines or even rules about what is appropriate for discussion in public forums. Again, instructors will vary in the amount of learning they want done outside, but in my case I would like to push as much as possible ‘outside’ without compromising student security or safety. However, managing risk is a critical part of the learning process here for student and instructor alike.

It will still be necessary to provide a structure and schedule for the course, in terms of desired learning outcomes, student activities and when they are to be completed, and assessment rubrics. These guidelines can be strict and rigid, or open and vague, depending on the needs of the students and the learning objectives.

Student assessment will be mainly through written or multi-media reporting, organised probably through e-portfolios, which will have both a private and a public section. The students will choose (within guidelines) what to make public. Assessment will be continuous, as the e-portfolio is developed.

Is an LMS necessary for this kind of teaching?

This is where I need help. I am not an IT expert, and I’m not up-to-date with all the tools that are now available. If you can show me that I can do all these things within one of the current proprietary LMSs, then that’s fine with me, but unless they have changed significantly since I last used one, I will be surprised. I will though accept that perhaps for the ‘inside’ work, an LMS might be suitable, but it has to be integrated in some way with the outside work.

Here’s where I need the feedback of my readers. Many of you have to grapple with these issues every day. What I am NOT willing to do though is to compromise my vision of teaching to fit an institutional, proprietary software platform.

So can a current proprietary LMS meet my needs?

Over to you!


Bruner, J. S. (1961). ‘The act of discovery’ Harvard Educational Review Vol. 31, No. 1, pp: 21–32.

Is Blackboard dying? The latest instalment in LMS wars.

Feldstein, M. (2018) Canvas Surpasses Blackboard Learn in US Market Share, eLiterate, July 8

Kroner, G. (2018) Sensationalizing LMS Market Share in an Era of Fake News, edutechnica, July 13

Don’t assume nothing happens in online learning during the long summer vacation. This little bombshell landed on my screen: 

Blackboard’s continuing loss of market share is at the tipping point of changing from a serious problem to an existential threat.

So speaks Michael Feldstein, reporting that Canvas is now ‘installed’ in two more universities/colleges than Blackboard. From Feldstein’s blog:

Kroner challenges these figures and quotes Phill Miller, chief learning and innovation officer at Blackboard, who said:

the data shared by Feldstein were “not consistent with our own,” which show that “Blackboard remains the dominant ed-tech company around the globe.”

Purely on this data, Feldstein’s claim does appear to be ‘fake news’. Kroner probably is more correct when he says that there is a nice market balance between several competing companies:

  • Blackboard: 28%
  • Canvas: 28%
  • Moodle: 23%
  • Brightspace (D2L): 12%.

But two other factors need to be born in mind.The first is the trend (see the diagram at the start of this post, from the eLiterate blog). The trend is clearly moving away from Blackboard towards other LMS providers. The diagram shows that from being dominant in the 1990s, Blackboard’s market share has declined considerably while that of Canvas, Moodle and D2L have consistently grown. 

However, note that Feldstein’s data apply only to North America (USA and Canada) while Phill Miller claims that globally Blackboard is still dominant. Also, Feldstein reports that Canvas’ focus today is increasingly on the corporate market, suggesting that Canvas sees relatively little room for more growth in the HE market.

Much more significantly, Feldstein claims that Blackboard is in serious financial trouble, needing to make increasingly large interest payments to its private equity owner, Providence Equity, arising from the time that Providence Equity bought Blackboard. To quote Feldstein:

So because of its financing, Blackboard’s continuing loss of market share is at the tipping point of changing from a serious problem to an existential threat.

All worrying if you have a lot of courses in Blackboard.

My views

They are probably not worth much, because I haven’t used an LMS in the last 10 years. However, I was somewhat involved at UBC in the creation of WebCT , which was later bought by Blackboard, so I use that rather tenuous connection as justification for my comments.

What surprises me is that in an age of multimedia and social media, and particularly given the low cost of developing apps and the growth of cloud computing, anyone is using an LMS at all – so 20th century, man! 

As I have said many times, an LMS is merely a digital filing cabinet, somewhat useful to store and arrange your digital learning materials and student activities. An LMS – a specialised database – is just one way to do this. The main issue is not the storage but the interface: how easy is it to store what you want, arrange it and find it, both for instructors and more importantly, for students. Security of course is another issue. Unfortunately so many things have been bolted on to the original database that the interfaces have grown increasingly unwieldy and confusing to students and instructors alike.

I think the LMS has had a much longer run than it deserves. Even though many instructors now are moving to video and web conferencing, evidence from the recent Canadian survey of online learning shows that nearly all institutions are still using legacy LMS systems.

However, today we should be using much more accessible, flexible and simpler tools for online learning. This would involve integrating from scratch mobile and social media tools to give much more power to student content creation and management so they can develop the skill of knowledge management, among other skills. This ‘collage’ of tools would be assembled according to the type of learning that will best enable students to learn skills as well as to access and reproduce content. The LMS does an adequate job on content management but does nothing for skills development, and more importantly the LMS perpetuates the transmission model of teaching where instructors control all content development and management.

So fighting over LMSs systems is like fighting over dying star systems. Move to another world, dude.

For further posts on this topic see:

Why is innovation in teaching in higher education so difficult? 3. Learning management systems

Why is innovation in teaching in higher education so difficult? 2. Legacy systems

Report on SFU’s experiences of teaching with technology

Simon Fraser University (on a rare day when it wasn't raining)

Simon Fraser University’s Burnaby campus (on a rare day when it wasn’t raining)

I always enjoy going to a university or college and seeing how they are using learning technologies. I am always a little surprised and I am also usually intrigued by some unexpected application, and today’s DemoFest at Simon Fraser University was no exception.

About Simon Fraser University

SFU has just over 35,000 students with campuses in Burnaby, Vancouver downtown, and Surrey, all in the lower mainland of British Columbia, Canada.

For a long time it has had the largest distance education program in British Columbia, but the rapid development of fully online and blended learning in other BC and Canadian institutions means that other institutions are rapidly gaining ground. It is also the academic base for Linda Harasim, who is a Professor of Communications at SFU.

As with many Canadian universities, most of the DE programs are run out of the Centre for Online and Distance Learning in Continuing Studies at SFU. However, the university also has a large Teaching and Learning Centre, which provides a range of services including learning technology support to the faculty on campus.

The university recently adopted Canvas as its main LMS.

I was spending most of the day at SFU for two reasons:

  • to identify possible cases for Contact North’s ‘pockets of innovation’ project
  • to report on the survey of online learning in Canadian post-secondary institutions.

I will be giving more information on both these projects in separate blog posts coming shortly.

The DemoFest

DEMOfest 2016 is about how instructors are using ….technologies in ways that produce exciting and original educational experiences leading to student engagement and strong learning outcomes.

Making lectures interactive

Not surprisingly, several of the short, 10 minute presentations were focused on tools used in classroom teaching or lecturing. In particular, the tools are going mobile, in the form of apps that students can use on their mobile phones, tablets or laptops. I was particularly impressed with TopHat, which incorporates online quizzes and tests, attendance checks, and  discussion. REEF Polling is a similar development developed by iClicker, which is effectively a mobile app version of iClicker. Both provide students and instructors with an online record of their classroom activity on the app.

There was also a couple of sessions on lecture theatre technologies. As in other universities, lecturers can find a range of different interfaces for managing lecture theatre facilities. SFU has a project that will result in a common, simple interface that will be available throughout the different campuses of the universities, much to the relief of faculty and visiting speakers who at the moment have no idea what to expect when entering an unfamiliar lecture theatre or classroom.. There was also another session on the limits of lecture capture and how to use video to make learning more engaging.

Online learning development

However, I found nothing here (or anywhere else, for that matter) that has convinced me that there is a future in the large lecture class. Most of the technology enhancements, although improvements on the straight ‘talk’ lecture, are still just lipstick on a pig.

The online learning developments were much more interesting:

  • online proctoring: Proctorio. This was a demonstration of the ingenuity of students in cheating in online assessment and even greater ingenuity in preventing them from doing it. Proctorio is a powerful web-based automated proctoring system that basically takes control of whatever device the student is using to do an online assessment and records their entire online activity during the exam. Instructors/exam supervisors though have options as to exactly what features they can control, such as locked screens, blocking use of other urls, etc.. Students just sign in and take the exam at any time set by the instructor. Proctorio provides the instructor with a complete record of students’ online activity during the exam, including a rating of the ‘suspiciousness’ of the student’s online exam activity.
  • peer evaluation and team-based learning: SFU has a graduate diploma in business where students are required to work in teams, specifically to build team approaches to problem-solving and business solutions. Although the instructor assesses both the individual and group assignments, students evaluate each other on their contribution to the team activities. The demonstration also showed how peer assessment was handled within the Canvas LMS. It was a good example of best practices in peer-to-peer assessment.
  • Dialectical Map: an argument visualization tool developed at SFU. Joan Sharp, Professor of Biological Sciences, and her research colleague, Hui Niu, have developed a simple, interactive, web-based tool that facilitates the development of argumentation for science students. Somewhat to my surprise, research evidence shows that science students are often poor at argumentation, even in the upper years of an undergraduate program. This tool enables a question to be posed by an instructor at the tope of the map, such as ‘Should the BC government allow fracking for oil?’ or ‘Should the BC government stop the culling of wolves to protect caribou?’ The online map is split into two parts, ‘pro’ and ‘con’, with boxes for the rationale, and linked boxes for the evidence to support each rationale offered. Students type in their answers to the boxes (both pro and con) and have a box at the bottom to write their conclusion(s) from the argument. Students can rate the strength of each rationale. All the boxes in a map can be printed out, giving a detailed record of the arguments for and against, the evidence in support of the arguments and the student’s conclusion.  Hui Niu has done extensive research on the effectiveness of the tool, and has found that the use of the tool has substantially increased students’ performance on argument-based assignments/assessment.

General comments

I was very grateful for the invitation and enjoyed nearly all the presentations. The Teaching and Learning Centre is encouraging research into learning technologies, particularly developing a support infrastructure for OERs and looking at ways to use big data for the analysis and support of learning. This practical, applied research is being led by Lynda Williams, the Manager of the Learn tech team, and is being done in collaboration with both faculty and graduate students from different departments.

Students and a professor of computer science worked with the IT division and Ancillary Services to develop a student app for the university called SFU Snap, as part of a computer science course. This not only provides details of the bus services to and from SFU at any time, but also provides students with an interactive map so they can find their classrooms. Anyone who has tried to find their way around SFU (built at multi-levels into a mountain) will understand how valuable such an app must be, not just to students but also to visitors.

So thank you, everyone at the Teaching and Learning Centre at SFU for a very interesting and useful day.


Scary tales of online learning and educational technology

The Centre for Digital Media, Vancouver BC

The Centre for Digital Media, Vancouver BC

The Educational Technology Users Group (ETUG) of British Columbia held an appropriately Halloween-themed get together today called ‘The Little Workshop of Horrors’ at which participants were encouraged to share tales of failure and horror stories in the use of learning technologies.

This seemed to me a somewhat risky strategy but it actually worked really well. First the workshop was held in ‘the Hangar’, a large, covered space in (or rather beside) the Centre for Digital Media, a shared building used by UBC, Simon Fraser University, BCIT and the Emily Carr University of Art and Design. The Centre itself is a good example of collaboration and sharing in developing media-based programs, such as its Master of Digital Media. The Hangar lent itself to a somewhat spooky atmosphere, enhanced by a DJ who often accompanied presenters with ghoulish music.

Audrey’s Monsters

The workshop got off to an excellent start with a brilliant keynote from Audrey Watters on the Monsters of Educational Technology (The link will take you to her book on the subject). She identified a range of monsters (the examples are partly Audrey’s, partly mine):

  • Frankenstein’s monster that went wrong because its (hir?) master failed to provide it (em?) with love or social company (teaching machines?): in Audrey’s word’s ‘a misbegotten creature of a misbegotten science’,
  • vampires that suck the blood of students, e.g. by using their personal data (learning analytics?),
  • zombies, i.e. technologies or ed tech ideas that rise and die then rise again (e.g. technology will remove the need for schools, an idea that goes back to the early 1900s),
  • giants that become obsolete and die (Skinner, Merrill)
  • the Blob, which grows bigger and bigger and invades every nook and cranny (MOOCs?)
  • and the dragons, are the libertarian, free-market, Silicon-valley types that preach the ‘destruction’ and ‘re-invention’ of education.

Audrey Watters’ larger point is that if we are not careful, educational technology easily turns itself into a monster that drives out all humanity in the teaching and learning process. We need to be on constant watch, and, whenever we can, we need to take control away from large technology corporations whose ultimate purpose is not educational.

Not only was it a great, on topic, presentation, but it was also such a pleasure to meet at last Audrey in person, as I am a huge fan of her blog.

He was a monster, not because he was a machine, but because he wasn't loved


Then came the confessional, at which a series of speakers confessed their sins – or rather, classic failures – about educational technology, often in very funny ways. What was interesting though about most of the tales was that although there was a disaster, in most cases out of the disaster came a lot of good things. (As one speaker said, ‘Success is failing many times without losing your optimism’; or ‘ A sailor gets to know the sea only after he has waded ashore.’).

One presenter reported going to a university to ‘sell’ Blackboard but was so nervous that her presentation was so bad they ended up going with Canvas (you see what I mean about some good coming out of these disasters!) Another described how over 20 years she has been trying to move faculty into more interactive and engaging technology than learning management systems, yet here she is still spending most of her time supporting faculty using an LMS.

One talked about spending years trying to promote IMS-based learning objects, only to find that Google’s search engine made meta-data identification redundant. Revealingly, he felt he knew at the time that the meta-data approach to learning objects was too complex to work, but he had to do it because that was the only way he could get funding. More than one speaker noted that Canada in the past has spent millions of dollars on programs that focused heavily on software solutions (anyone remember EduSource?) but almost nothing on evaluating the educational applications of technology or on research on new or even old pedagogies.

Another spoke about the demise of a new university, the Technical University of British Columbia, that was a purpose-built, new university deliberately built around an “integrated learning” approach, combining heavy use of on-line learning with mixed face-to-face course structures – in 1999. However, by 2002 it had only about 800 FTEs, and a new incoming provincial government, desperate to save money and eager to diminish the previous government’s legacy, closed the university and transferred the students (but not the programs) to Simon Fraser University. Nevertheless, the legacy did live on, with many of the learning technology staff moving later into senior positions within the Canadian higher education system.

I see instructional designers, educational technologists or learning ecology consultants (which was a new title for me) as the Marine Corps of the educational world. They have seen many battles and have (mostly) survived. They have even learned how to occasionally win battles. That’s the kind of wisdom of which academic leaders and faculty and instructors should make much better use.

One participant had such a bad experience at Simon Fraser University that she thinks of it as 'the haunted house on the hill.'

One participant had such a bad ed tech experience at Simon Fraser University that she thinks of it as ‘the haunted house on the hill.’

Happy Halloween, everyone!

Is video a threat to learning management systems?

We need more high quality video such as this from UBC Click on image to see the full video

We need more high quality video such as this from UBC
Click on image to see the full video

Bersin, J. (2016) Will video-based learning kill the LMS? Chief Learning Officer, February 15

This article raises a question that has been on my mind for some time. Bersin makes the following points:

  • the LMS industry is worth more than $3 billion in size, and has been growing at roughly 20% per annum
  • more than a billion people regularly watch video online, according to YouTube
  • video makes up 64% of all traffic on mobile phones
  • many organizations such as Khan Academy, Udemy, Skillsoft and BigThink are producing thousands of hours of easily accessible, high quality instructional video, generally authored by ‘experts’, not college instructors;
  • only a few of the 300 or so LMS vendors ‘have come to grips with user and corporate needs for video-based learning’.

Bersin is writing primarily for the corporate training market, but the same trends can be seen in post-secondary education:

  • MOOCs took off because they were video-based, using lecture capture, thus walking right round the need to use an LMS
  • the most popular form of blended learning is the flipped classroom, using video to record a lecture then using the classroom for discussion and questions – no LMS needed
  • it is not just video that is beginning to remove the need for LMSs, as some faculty and instructors move to more learner-centred teaching, where students find and analyse information using online learning and co-create content with their instructors, using video, graphics and audio as well as text, and e-portfolios and social media such as blogs and wikis.

Bersin then goes on to ask some very important questions about using video for education and training:

  • How do we rapidly develop and publish video for fast and easy use?
  • How do we tag content easily and make it discoverable?
  • How do we recommend video to users based on their profile and activity?
  • How do we track usage of video, bookmark video and create inter-activities and branching?
  • What types of video are best for learning? Comedy? Experts? Teachers online?
  • How do we protect copyright and other possible rights violations as we snap videos at work all day?
  • How do we arrange and manage video for serious professional development and career growth?
  • How do we create a user experience that is as easy and compelling as a consumer website or TV set?

Bersin claims that ‘most of these problems are being solved — or have been solved — by massive consumer Internet companies already, yet they barely exist in corporate learning platforms because LMS vendors are scrambling to catch up.’:

  • Workday’s new market entry focuses on this area;
  • Skillsoft is announcing a variety of new video options in its platforms;
  • Oracle announced a new video-based LMS;
  • SAP is evolving its video platforms and opening up application programming interfaces to massive open online courses.

How will universities and colleges respond to these developments? Probably they will ignore them, but I think that would be foolishly short-sighted. Good quality video is going to become an increasingly important part of online learning. I find it somewhat ironic that many universities closed their multimedia production departments in the 2000s. It looks like we may need them again, but structured and operated in a way that leverages new technology and new corporate partners. (For a good example of high quality, university-developed video, see Dr. Claudia Kreb’s excellent YouTube video ‘An Introduction to the Central Nervous System‘ – just click on the graphic.)

However, even though video should become a much more important component of post-secondary teaching, I don’t see LMSs going away. Videos are not a replacement for an LMS. Video on its own does not structure students’ learning, as does an LMS. The issue is whether the production component of video should be embedded within the LMS, or remain separate but integrated (i.e. through links).

Video has many pedagogical benefits, but also some severe limitations (see my Chapter 7 in Teaching in a Digital Age). Nevertheless video is not being used enough in post-secondary education, and often when it is used (for recording lectures, for instance) it fails to exploit its unique learning potential. We could learn much from corporate training and the massive Internet providers such as Google and Vimeo on how to produce low cost, high quality video for education.