• Digital Tweed

    Digital Tweed® is the work of Kenneth C. Green, founding director of The Campus Computing Project. If successful, these posts will inform and entertain, and at times also annoy. A little dissonance can be a good thing.


LMS 4.0: Will Semantic Remorse Lead to Student Engagement?

The future of the learning management systems is not about additional course management resources for faculty but rather should focus on “sticky” and engaging learning platforms for students.

May 12, 2013

The official launch of the summer LMS conference cycle begins on Wednesday, May 15th at the IMS Global Conference in San Diego. Scott Jaschik, co-editor of Inside Higher Ed, will moderate a panel laden with the representatives of six LMS applications: Blackboard, Desire2Learn, eCollege, Instructure, LoudCloud, and Moodle. (For whatever reasons, conspicuously absent from the crowded list of LMS brands on the IMS panel are Jenzabar, which is the one higher education ERP provider that also offers a LMS to its campus clients, and also Sakai.) In the weeks and months that follow, most if not all these LMS groups will host their own gathering of their tribes to share campus success stories, to discuss new features and functions, and to announce new partnerships ahead of the new academic year.

IMS is one of the few nonprofit technology organizations that seems to encourage vendor participation in its conference beyond just the sponsor fees that underwrite conference receptions and association operating costs. Credit Rob Abel, the CEO of IMS Global, for inviting the six senior LMS officials to the conference table. And credit the six senior execs for accepting the invitation and for being willing to sit with one another in a moderated public forum. Even as each may understandably attempt to promote the unique, special features of his organization’s LMS, there is little doubt that individually and collectively, the six will be far better behaved during the 75 minute IMS session in San Diego than were last year’s Republican presidential candidates at their numerous debates.

Of course the current big buzz in the LMS arena is analytics: over the past few years each and all of the LMS providers, on their own or in partnership with other firms, have announced an analytics strategy and analytic applications that allow faculty, departments, and institutions to leverage student transactional data extracted from the LMS for analytic purposes intended to aid student academic performance, course completion, student retention, and learning outcomes.

The movement into analytics was no surprise: at the risk of shameless self-promotion I described (predicted?) it in 2009 in an Inside Higher Ed commentary titled LMS 3.0:

the value of the LMS will increase as it migrates from a resource for [instructional] content and services into a source for real time data about academic behavior and student activity. . . .   Just as the supermarket scanner provides data about consumer behavior, so too do the transactional data from the LMS offer great potential to tell us a lot about student behavior – data that can be used as an institutional resource for program enhancement, and also data that can be used for individual student interventions.”

So if analytics were (are?) the defining attribute of LMS 3.0, what should we look for in LMS 4.0?

I suspect that the emergence of LMS 4.0 will be marked by what I would characterize as semantic remorse on the part of both campus LMS advocates and LMS providers. It will mark the movement from learning management (with its emphasis on tools for faculty) to student engagement and efforts to make LMS applications “sticky” for learners.

Semantic Remorse? My conversations over the past year with faculty and campus IT officers suggest serious second thoughts about the name given to these technology platforms some 15 or more years ago.  Many wish to roll-back the clock and to rename these applications, dropping the term “management” from the title and renaming (or defining) these applications as Student Engagement Platforms (SEG).

Admittedly, there are good reasons why these platforms were initially described as course or learning management applications: the early emphasis was on technology resources for faculty and on providing tools to make it easy (well, ok, easier) for faculty to post course materials on the web.  Student learning issues  – design, interface, and engagement – as opposed to faculty concerns about managing course materials on the web,  were of less interest and priority.

The challenge ahead is that the transition to LMS 4.0 is not about adding more features (better grade books, enhanced chat, collaboration tools, or analytics).  \Rather, LMS 4.0 and its emphasis on student engagement – making the LMS sticky – will require a reconceptualization and redesign of the LMS as we now know it.  It will require data and evidence about (a) how students engage (or not) with the current generation of LMS platforms, and (b) how students learn with various technology resources, on campus, in hybrid courses, and online.  The need for data and evidence to aid and inform design and development will stand in sharp contrast to (the still all too common) opinion and epiphany that continue to drive so much of campus IT planning and policy and so much of technology application development.   

That redesign is no small challenge, for both the technology providers and for campus users. It will be a long process, one that will require significant development costs for the platform providers and also significant training and other implementation costs for campus users and campus IT organizations.

But if LMS 4.0 does provide a better application – a “sticky” and more engaging learning platform for students, then the investment on the part of the technology providers, and the transition costs incurred by faculty and the supporting campus IT organizations, should be worth the effort.

And you, esteemed reader: what say ye about the next generation of these applications – be they learning management systems or student engagement platforms? What do the current generation of these platforms do well? What must they do better? And how long are you willing to wait for better?

Disclosure:  Blackboard, Desire2Learn, Instructure, Jenzabar, Moodlerooms, and Pearson (eCollege) are corporate sponsors of The Campus Computing Project.


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