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During my last trip to US last week I had very “impressionist” experience. It was partly due to the a chance to visit National Gallery in Washington where a beautiful collection of impressionism masterpieces is now on display but mainly because our group had very short but fruitful visits to several universities in Washington, DC., Baltimore, New York and Boston.

The main purpose of our visit was to study experiences of various universities in creating, implementing and maintaining university-wide learning management systems.

We found a great heterogeneity of different solutions such as Moodle, Sakai, Blackboard and many, many others – which is not really surprising. Whether an institution is a top research university or is a liberal art college, whether is faces severe budget constraints or not, all these conditions definitely influence their choices.

However my individual lessons (based on talks to many people) from that are:

Technologies can significantly influence the quality, process and the essence of teaching and learning. However, it’s just tool, and the teaching process doesn’t improve itself just due to the mere existence of a Learning Management Systems (LMS). Unrealistic expectations on that matter may be harmful (in Russia, due to weak control and improper incentives for both universities and students, distant learning, for example, is almost synonymous for low-quality learning). What we do in teaching and learning centers in some universities just confirms the idea that professional support in instructional design is crucial. So technologies are important but they can add nothing without people (support, incentives, guidance).

While the importance of professional support in all faculty initiatives based on LMS may seems evident, there always will be a struggle between those who believe that teaching is just teaching (You need only chalk with a blackboard and to be expert in your field) and those who believe that you can never be too modern with educational technologies.

All learning management systems enter an already competitive environment. Surprisingly, competition from new LMS is not such a serious issue (since switching costs, once a system is implemented, are always enormous). These systems actually compete now with different communication social networks; an important share of what we used to call “individual homework” is now moving there. Out-of-class learning is not individual anymore; it’s not even home-based since it’s often organized in a virtual space. Students create communities on Facebook to discuss home assignments, share ideas on how to pass complicated mid-terms and work on collaborative projects. In Russia, Russian-wide social networks are popular (such as vkontakte or Odnoclassniki) but the idea is anyway the same. So any LMS to be efficient should take this competition into account.

While LMS may make (at least intend to make) faculty life easier, it never comes without transaction costs (which might be especially high in the initial period when courses within LMS are created). As a consequence, special incentives are needed to persuade faculty to use it. Some of them can come from students’ side, but special effort and support from administrative side is needed.

Our university (Higher School of Economics: is now working of the strategy for LMS choice and implementation.

While we got a lot of important information from the experts in the field, many open questions still exist for us:

  • Should such a system be a standard solution (provided by external company or a group) or home-grown?
  • Should it take into account any specificity of Russian higher education system and academic culture, if any exist?
  • Should some “flagship” universities set standards so the whole market would enjoy positive externalities and benefits from compatibility among LMS at different universities?
  • Can LMS ever compete with social network systems? Or, put differently, how can their coexistence be organized?

While all these questions need their answers, the first one we need to answer is — Why LMS at our university and what role is it supposed to play in our long-term university development strategy?

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