More Thoughts on the Pseudo LMS in iTunes U

Last week, I described the new iTunes U app as a "pseudo-LMS."  I've been thinking more about what that means -- about the implications of Apple's decision to re-present its educational content this way and how it contrasts to some of the education startups that are challenging what a LMS should look like.

January 25, 2012

What will the next generation learning management system look like? What do we expect or want or need it to do?

I've been thinking a lot about this topic lately as the promises to reinvent the LMS (and by extension "reinvent the classroom") continue to be made by companies and institutions old and new.

Of course, it's not an LMS per se, of course, but I think Apple's revamped iTunes U (one that I described as a "pseudo-LMS") is an interesting example of one version -- and old version too -- of what it means to package educational content and manage a course. The new iTunes U now bundles materials into one place, sticks them into an app (inaccessible if you don't have the latest iOS 4 devices), and adds some new features like task lists and links to "further reading" (and more apps to buy). Key functionality that almost every LMS touts is missing from the new iTunes U: there's no way to really "administer" a course. Instructors can pull together all their materials, sure, but then once published to iTunes U, that's really the extent of it.

As I noted in my initial review of the app, one of the most glaring missing pieces here is any social element. There's no way to interact with the instructor; there's no way to interact with other learners.

That emphasis on "the social" is something that a couple of recent upstarts in the LMS are touting as among their key features (namely CourseKit -- which I covered here and my Inside Higher Ed blogging colleague Joshua Kim has covered here -- and iVersity). Like the "pseudo LMS" in iTunes U, CourseKit and iVersity enable instructors to pull together their course resources in one place. There, students are able easily hold discussions around the assignments and materials. In the case of iVersity, the startup takes this one step further with its "social reader" so that discussions can actually be held in the "margins" of the digital texts.

But there's something else that separates the new breed of LMSes (a term, I should note, that CourseKit co-founder Joseph Cohen actually eschews to describe his startup) from this older, anti-social thing we see in iTunes U: it's the importance of having the courses -- the materials and the discussions -- available on the open Web.

iTunes U has long been a repository of a lot of great OER content (and much of that content has been available on the Web, and once. But to take that content and stick it in an app means that, for the time being at least, means it's not indexable or searchable by your browser. The open content is now behind a app-ified wall. It's not an impenetrable wall, to be sure. And you can still search for and even view some of the content in iTunes (the video content at least).

The move to "update" iTunes U seems to be a step in the opposite direction of a lot of the efforts that have long kept bundled resources behind a wall and kept learners separate from one another as they utilize them. Of course, as a "pseudo-LMS," the new Apple app has no obligation to fit the model of re-envisioned LMS. But it's sure a good reminder that there are plenty of forces out there that see "closed" and "anti-social" as a way to present educational content.

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