The LMS is a Wild-West Conglomeration in a Box

So I guess the new debate is whether to love or hate the Learning Management System. My feeling son the LMS have been abundantly clear in the past, but I also get why some people like them. However, I’m not sure if the defenders of the LMS are fully taking the entire complex picture into account. Most people that I talk to dislike the LMS because they use it all the time AND they are told by campus administrators “You Shall Not Use Any Other Tools.” That is actually in writing at many institutions, and I can’t count the number of times I know of specific instances of faculty being forced to stop using tools just because they are not inside an LMS.

I unashamedly dislike the LMS and have read nothing to change my mind. Most of the posts recently seem to oversimplify the reality of what is happening in the world of Ed Tech. Each person’s experience with an LMS is different, and your reasons for loving it might actually be another person’s reason for hating it. So I want to bring in the perspective of an instructional designer that has worked with many, many courses inside an LMS to highlight how one person’s “pros” might be another person’s “cons.” First, I want to take a look at a few of the main points in the recent D’Arcy Norman article:

“Use the LMS for the basics, and do other things where needed.”

Great idea, but sorry, not allowed in most cases. I just don’t run into many schools that allow this. But, where I work we have found that you can integrate student rosters with a WordPress blog with the same technology you use with Blackboard. Someone somewhere has to connect technologies to student rosters, even with an LMS – and I think that process is much more complex than many end users realize.

“Lazy teachers will teach poorly, no matter what tools they have access to.”

Except for research has begun to indicate that the LMS does affect the quality of education.  And historically, Moodle was based on the research that found that WebCT forced instructors to teach in certain ways. If you are a social constructivist at heart, the behaviorist paradigms behind most LMS designs will cause you to force a round peg in a square hole, resulting in bad teaching. But ultimately, I think it is unfair to paint teachers with such broad strokes. Laziness tends to lead to less effort putting courses together, not more. Teachers are like any other human beings – some days they are lazy, other days they aren’t, but often times they get lazy when they run into something too complex and decide to take the path of least resistance. So is teacher laziness a problem of teachers or of the bad design of the tool? After all, they can’t do anything with an LMS that it doesn’t allow them to do in the first place.

“We have a responsibility to provide a high quality environment to every single instructor and student, and the LMS is still the best way to do that.”

I agree with that, but most students I talk to consider the LMS to be low quality, hard to figure out, clunky, and the least effective way to accomplish this. Most instructional designers agree with this. Many instructors do, also. The real problem is that there is no consensus on what really is the best way.

Next I want to look at specific points that Ted Curran made in his blog post in defense of the LMS:

The LMS “vastly simplifies the task of collecting student work and giving students timely, transparent, private feedback in a way we can be certain complies with FERPA laws.”

Except for the thousands of hours I have spent trying to help instructors figure out the Blackboard system, and then explain to others how the way they set it up violates FERPA. But this is the first time I have ever heard someone refer to Blackboard’s process for this as “simplified” – and I have spoken to a large number of users about it.

“LMS gives each class its own “meeting space” where everyone is together and can see both public materials (intended for the whole class) and private materials (intended just for them) without having to cobble various tools together.”

Except for the 90% of courses that cobble together content in the Blackboard/Canvas/etc course in a manner that is more chaotic than any DIY class I have seen. Chaotic cobbling can happen in any tool, but the more unnecessary options you give (looking at you Blackboard) the greater the chaos.

“The LMS gives students a centralized place to submit work”

Centralized as in one URL, but then finding the class you want to go to in a wall of text on the landing page, and then navigating through the labyrinth of folders and links that most instructors cobble together inside of that class, and then reading another wall of text of submission instructions… yeah, not an improvement over the DIY method for the most part, at least in my experience.

“gives teachers tools to analyze submissions to identify students who need more targeted interventions”

The tools that I still can’t figure out after two years of cracking away at them? But, a vastly improved experience is coming in 2012, errr… 2013, wait, 2014!

“Lastly, the LMS provides a standard framework within which you can embed other tools.”

Welcome to WordPress circa 2005! Wait, how is something that every DIY solution has been doing for years now a pro for the LMS?

“Canvas improves on the closed nature of Bb by offering LTI integrations with 3rd party tools that are easy enough that faculty can do their own integrations– very much like WordPress plugins.”

Wait – so a DIY WordPress blog is not as good as an LMS because Canvas finally caught up with a WordPress blog in functionality? I’m confused again. But if your institution is not allowed to use Canvas, so what? How can tools that are present in one variation of an LMS at the bottom of the pile be a reason for everyone in Blackboard to change their mind and love the LMS?

The issue I am highlighting is that each person’s experience with an LMS is different, and your reasons for loving it might actually be another person’s reason for hating it. All of the pros Norman and Curran point out about the LMS I find to be cons in actual daily usage based on nearly 10 years of designing in various LMS tools. Additionally, interacting with instructional designers from around the state and even nation, I find they see the same problems. Having the ability to do something with a tool does not translate into that tool being easy to figure out. Blackboard and even Canvas are notorious for being difficult to figure out (I figured them out easily, but many can’t). Even when one does figure them out, designing courses in a way that doesn’t turn them into a “Wild-West Conglomeration in a Box” is next to impossible for many with the time constraints they are given. And even if you take time to design them well, students end up getting lost because the whole LMS paradigm is pretty complex by default.

Each person has to choose which “Wild-West Conglomeration” they want – in a box where you can’t get your data or have ownership over your content, or in the open where you do. The fundamental problem with the LMS is ultimately not ease of use or design, but power issues. You could design the easiest and coolest LMS in the world, but if it is closed… it still loses out. The “Walled Garden” argument still applies, all these years later.

Matt Crosslin

Matt is currently the Learning Innovation Coordinator with the UT Arlington LINK Research Lab. His research focuses on Learning Theory, Innovation, and learner empowerment. Matt holds a Ph.D. in Learning Technologies from the University of North Texas, a Master of Education in Educational Technology from UT Brownsville, and a Bachelors of Science in Education from Baylor University. His research interests include instructional design, learning pathways, sociocultural theory, heutagogy, virtual reality, and open networked learning. He has a background in instructional design and teaching at both the secondary and university levels and has been an active blogger and conference presenter. He also enjoys networking and collaborative efforts involving faculty, students, administration, and anyone involved in the education process.

5 thoughts on “The LMS is a Wild-West Conglomeration in a Box

  1. Excellent points. One thing I realized from your arguments – the LMS is not necessarily the best tool for students, instructors, or designers, but it is the best tool for campus administrators.

  2. Matt Crosslin

    Very true. I have also noticed that IT Support Staff can have issues with the LMS, too. But a lot of that seems to depend on the resources and set-up that campus adminstrators allow. If the powers that be release enough funds, freedom, and staff to keep the LMS humming, they tend to be happier with it :)

  3. Yes! Very similar to my experiences in developing courses for education. I like how you detail the issues.

    Many of the difficulties in education are similar to my experiences outside of education, e.g., web site and software development. Technology always seems to be such a great option – till it gets used by more people.

    Web/software technology is getting better, but much more improvement is needed in the area of usability that addresses the wide variety of people and needs.

    Society has a shared story – about the LMS. And people put so much trust in the story about the LMS and education. And the good news is that the story about LMS helped teachers, students, organizations, businesses … to effectively cooperate.

    Unfortunately, we Sapiens can also fool ourselves with a story and suffer negative consequences. Then the mistakes and miscalculations in the story becomes habits that the society gets stuck with and suffer with.

    So I’m glad we are talking and imagining and fantasizing about other stories – other ways – other structures for education.

    (Off topic – Can you tell I have been reading Yuval Noah’s Harari book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind !? I can’t get it out of my mind! http://www.theguardian.com/science/audio/2014/sep/15/sapiens-brief-history-humankind-yuval-noah-harari-podcast)

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