I’m a historian. Because much of my research has involved the history of technology, I’ve invariably been tempted to apply the concepts I’ve studied to the various tools I use to do the rest of my job.
One of the tools that invariably leads me to think this way is any learning management system (or LMS). I was in graduate school during the mid-1990s when LMSs debuted. I can’t say I’ve researched their history extensively, but from what I’ve gathered, it seems that learning management systems became popular because administrators thought they were a good way for universities to move classes online quickly. They wanted to strike while the iron was hot, before some other school stole all their potential online students.
If that’s true, then the initial reason for universities to sign a contract with an LMS provider disappeared long ago. Even if only a handful of large companies dominate today’s internet, it is nonetheless both inexpensive and easy to set up a website and show the world what you know. You don’t have to be a computer programmer or even a digital native to run an online course outside a learning management system these days. There are also a load of terrific free tools available for professors who want to add online components to their face-to-face courses.
While administrators might resist an online higher ed landscape over which they have little direct oversight, the proprietary course shell that is the LMS will eventually wither and die, because the alternatives are only going to get cheaper (if they aren’t free already), better and easier to use. My graduate program did not prepare me to teach online, but graduate education will reflect reality when enough programs recognize the fact that online education is here to stay. At that point, the well-trained online educators of the future will never accept the limitations of designing their courses entirely inside an LMS.
What then should take its place? If faculty plan now for this eventuality, they can have a much greater role in determining the structure of the new wired campus than they did when the learning management system arrived on the scene two decades ago. We historians invariably explain the past better than the future, so I’m not going to make any predictions here besides the eventual passing of the LMS. I do, however, have a few suggestions about what we professors should want out of the new systems that will replace what so many of us are using now.
First, we should press for an end to any structural limitations on how our courses look and feel. I understand that many administrators like the fact that they can regulate the structure and appearance of pages on their LMS, because students will have less trouble finding resources they need. Unfortunately, this is a missed opportunity because such structures teach students nothing about how to survive outside the walled garden of their campus IT system. The real internet is structured by myriad people with different aesthetics and different needs. Online course design decisions should reflect the instructor’s individuality in the same way that everyone else’s webpages do.
Second, faculty should press for systems that allow for only the most limited oversight of our day-to-day online activities. Imagine if your face-to-face classroom had a tape recorder running very day so that your dean and your provost could review your every word? How would this affect your academic freedom?
This is essentially what’s happening if you teach entirely within your LMS. If your bosses want to see all your interactions with your students, it’s all there for the taking if they bother to look for it. Of course, this doesn’t mean that faculty should operate with no oversight at all. It simply means that online teaching should be reviewed in the same manner as face-to-face teaching -- under the umbrella of shared governance rather than surveillance.
Third, the post-LMS world should protect the pedagogical prerogatives and intellectual property rights of faculty members at all levels of employment. This means, for example, that contingent faculty should be free to take the online courses they develop wherever they happen to be teaching. Similarly, professors who choose to tape their own lectures should retain exclusive rights to those tapes. After all, it’s not as if you have to turn over your lecture notes to your old university whenever you change jobs.
Lastly, professors need to fight for a post-LMS world that allows all faculty to make a living wage. I can’t help but suspect that at least some of the administrative fondness for learning management systems stems from a desire to systematize teaching and deskill professors as part of that process. When everything about teaching online is systematized and deskilled, it becomes easier to train anyone, anywhere to teach our courses.
Online courses, at least in theory, can be taught by anyone in the world who possesses the minimum credential and an internet connection. When employed adroitly by shortsighted administrators, this fact can create a lot of downward pressure on faculty wages. On the other hand, when professors employ online tools that reflect their inspiration, creativity and training, we can raise standards for faculty across the board rather than let them drop to the lowest common denominator.
Despite their obvious limitations, there will likely still be a place for learning management systems in the post-LMS world. Plenty of instructors will always prefer technologies that require minimal training, since so many of us have so much else to do with our lives. Learning management systems that play well with outside applications will allow even some of the most creative faculty to create great courses within a proprietary shell.
However, working outside the LMS, well-trained instructors will be able to do far more than meet the minimal requirements for moving college courses online, and the quality of those courses will be far better than the online classes offered back in the early days of the internet.