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.

The LMSification of the Education Narrative

If you attended the Sloan-C Emerging Technologies Conference this week, you might have noticed an interesting debate emerge over the course of the first day. It all started during Jim Groom’s keynote speech on the Domain of Own’s Own project. The Twitter back channel started echoing the idea that “we could do all of this in a Learning Management System (LMS™) – why do we need this?” As I argued against forcing a constructivist idea into a behaviorist tool (go look at the research on the ontology behind the LMS™) – some one actually asked Jim that same question. You could see a good deal of annoyance in Jim’s face during his response, which basically boiled down to: why does everything have to revolve around the LMS™?

Additionally, just looking at the schedule of sessions, the LMS™ is every where: alternative LMS™s, new directions in the LMS™, join our new LMS™ boy band. Questions about the LMS™ came up in every session I attended and hundreds of times on Twitter. The entire education narrative has been LMSified. Every tool, idea, design, theory, etc now has to be filtered through the lens of the LMS™. Even when that idea does not require an LMS™ at all!

I try very hard to not totally vilify the LMS™. I realize that there is a very substantial need for many of the features that it offers. But I think that the LMS™ lovers out there don’t realize that those of us that push back against the LMS™ are just trying to bring balance to the Force. Maybe we go over board at times, but have you ever thought about how overboard it is in the other direction to do Domain of One’s Own in an LMS™?

But here is my biggest problem: we have turned the Learning Management System™ as we know it today into an imposter. Many, many, many people have pointed out that a computer program can not manage learning. There is a genuine learning management system in the education narrative that is quite often misused or even completely ignored. One that exists in every single learning occurrence ever.

Learners ARE their own learning management system

The individual learner IS the only system qualified to managed their own learning. The more that we force then to rely on the LMS™ to manage their learning beyond what the LMS™ does do well (store feedback privately, etc), the more we destroy their ability to manage their own learning. There is always a need for scaffolding and support from a system in some ways, but the LMS™ goes waaaaay beyond that into areas that become an unhealthy crutch.

We are outsourcing our student’s ability to manage their own learning to an imposter, and then scratching our heads when it doesn’t work.

Five years ago, Harriet Watkins and I presented at the Sloan-C conference in San Francisco about how it is time to dethrone the LMS™ (even though we snuck it in as a presentation on some emerging tech buzzwords). We don’t need to kill the LMS™, just dethrone it.

In one of my classes, we refer to the LMS™ as one of many “Technology-Based Learning Environments.” I think I like that terminology better. Systems are all encompassing to some people (no wonder the LMS™ rules the narrative). When you have a system, everything has to fit into. But an environment? We talk about the environment that we study in, how certain personalities change the environment, how we can create an inviting environment in the class room, etc. Environments can changed based on needs, context, desires, goals, etc. System just assimilate.

So, yes, maybe some of us are pushing back very aggressively against the LMS™. Our goal is not to kill, but to open up the conversation to other options. We want a paradigm that sees the LMS™ as one of many technology-based learning environments.

So I Guess The Future of Education Looks a Lot Like the Current and the Past

So a lot has been said about the problems that Coursera ran into with a recent MOOC “stumble.” The anti-MOOC crowd is screaming “I told you so”, while the pro-MOOC crowd is brushing it off as “just a risk that we take with experimentation.” At first I was trying to figure out what the big deal was – courses get cancelled all the time, often for no reason. I have even heard of MOOCs getting cancelled for various reasons, too. Why the fuss here?

Part of it is probably because of the way it happened, but I think the real reason is a bit larger in scope: the magic savior/disruptor of higher education, the promised one that was to come and fulfill all prophecies and lead us into a glorious new educational future – has proven to be just as fallible as any other tool or idea.

Maybe we are beginning to realize that the problem with education today is not necessarily the system or the structure or the pedagogy or the tools, but it is the people using those systems, structures, pedagogies, and tools incorrectly. Maybe we are now realizing that our awesome ideas that will destroy higher ed can themselves be misused in the wrong hands. Maybe we are beginning to realize that the people in charge of cool, new hip systems can make just as bone-headed decisions as the suit and tie guys in charge of academia if they don’t have the correct information.

Maybe it is time to realize that the road to true revolution in academia is not about disruption or trying to recreate the “mp3 of the educational world” or even about revolution at all. Maybe it is about spending the time to train people correctly in how to use the correct tools in the correct way. Maybe it is time to stop making fun of the people that are calling for research into new ideas by saying that they are “resisting the inevitable future” (sometime research reveals that new ideas are good – so its not like people calling for research are resisting new ideas).  Because I am starting to think that the only inevitable thing about the future is that we will be doomed to repeat the past if we don’t learn from it. This whole scenario with Coursera seems to just be us repeating past mistakes because we didn’t try to learn from them along the way.

Maybe it is time to stop looking at mistakes as something to be discarded and start looking at the them as something to learn from and possibly even improve upon.

Is the LMS Market Going To Slow Down Anytime Soon?

Sometimes I get asked why I haven’t blogged about a certain new LMS or LMS-like product. To be honest, it seems like there is a new one every other week that is followed by another one shutting their doors. Everyone looks at the success of Coursera or Instructure or a few other recent start-ups and figures this success will happen with all new LMS ideas that come along. But the truth is, many of them just don’t make it very far.

I did get to look at some screenshots of the new Blackboard redesign recently – it seems like they are taking Facebook pretty seriously. Everything that I saw looks like it will be a social network for education. But they also thought their current version was user-friendly at one time (it never was), so you will have to excuse some skepticism on my part. The new Blackboard looked a bit like information overload to me – and I still saw some pop-up windows. One pop-up is just too much – use some AJAX already people.

I am currently taking a course in Schoology, and so far I like their interface. It seems to be missing some features here and there, but what they do have is easy to use from a student standpoint. I can’t speak for instructors or instructional designers, but I like it so far.

I also plan on keeping an eye on the Sensei project by WooThemes – they are building an open source LMS-ish project as a plugin to WordPress. If it works good and can be kept up to date, it could be an attractive option for schools to use as a content management system, blogging platform, and LMS all rolled into one.

Despite what others have said, Moodle is still out there and still gaining some ground (according to pesky statistics, that is.). Same can be said for Desire2Learn. Both are well-designed systems that could really use some big press right about now. I am hearing that some people who went with a newer LMS start-up are wishing they did their homework more and considered one of these two. Moodle and Desire2Learn definitely appeal to more select crowds, but once people really dig into them they tend to find that there is a lot to like that they never thought they needed, whereas there isn’t much depth (yet) to the start-ups – which is understandable.

But those are all just random thoughts about random LMS providers. Many industries that see as much as we have seen announced about new options and ideas tend to settle in for a long period of relative quiet. I don’t think that will be the case in the LMS realm. There are still many players that are just getting started (like Google). There are others (like Pearson) that have been around a bit but are really still just getting warmed up. Even Blackboard has pulled out some big surprises recently that makes people second guess where they think they are going. What will probably happen is that a few companies will try to beat Blackboard to the punch and jump out with their big announcements early. Then the new version of Blackboard will probably shock and surprise many. This will lead many others to hurry up and jump on the band wagon. Then companies like Instructure and others that have taken many steps to differentiate themselves from Blackboard will step-up and make some big announcements on just how different they are. Which is good – we need the diversity in the market.

So, in other words, if you think it is time to kick back and not pay attention to the LMS market, I think you are in for a bit of a jolt. Things aren’t going to slow down anytime soon.

Blackboard’s New Message: “We Can’t Stop You From Leaving, So We’ll Buy Where Ever You Go. Resistance is Futile.”

So a lot has been said about the Blackboard move into open source. After reading several posts, I still have to consider this move a bad one overall. At least for those of us that want better diversity and choice in the Ed Tech market. Let’s face it, no matter where you go, you can’t escape the touch of Blackboard.

They buy competitors that they can – Angel, WebCT, etc, etc. If they can’t buy a company, they force changes through lawsuits and patents (Desire2Learn). Open source used to be the “safe zone” from Blackboard, but now they are working to inject their ideas and footprint into the two largest open source projects.

Most of the new start-ups we have seen in recent years still seem to be trying too hard to not be Blackboard, or to be Blackboard with an easier to understand interface (i.e. the “educational version” of Facebook). But all of these companies still bear the big, hard to miss effects of Blackboard on their product. There are a few good ideas in Blackboard (mostly assimilated from other product purchases), and avoiding those ideas “just to be different” causes more problems than it fixes.

And I just don’t get what is going on with Instructure. I am trying to like them, but can’t ignore the fact that they are saying some things that don’t match up with reality. “People don’t like it [Moodle]?” Then why is it so popular? Why does it score so high in customer satisfaction? Why does every single person I have ever talked to at conferences about Moodle rave about it? Or how about this one: “We rarely see Moodle or Sakai make it to the short list of any education institution.” I agree with Sakai – but Moodle? I get why some people don’t like Moodle, but everywhere I go I always see it on the short list. Usually a short list of two – Moodle and Blackboard. I just don’t get these wildly hyperbolic statements. Or how about this: “Moodle and Blackboard came from the same decade, which was a long time ago.” Huh? The Internet is older than both, so would that mean it is time to give up on online learning altogether? I’m just hoping these are comments taken out of context.

Blackboard has shown that they can’t stop people from leaving their product, so they are going to buy wherever the former customers go. If you can’t beat them, buy them, right? This will push more people to go the DIY route outside of all LMS providers. Why choose a competitor that might just be bought? Why go open-source when some of the ideas you didn’t like in Blackboard might get added to the project in a few years? Or the company that you use for hosting just gets bought?

So now many universities are going to start looking anew to the DIY, artist-formerly-known-as-EduPunk, cobbled together approach of the open education movement, or MOOCheads, or whatever name the cutting edge people decide to call themselves. At some point, there needs to be a cool name attached to this movement, since Jim Groom went through that ugly divorce with EduPunk and all.

But, come on EduPunk… can’t you just open your eyes and see that you were wooed away by the promise of book deals and big money and became a corporate sell-out? You were such a cool name and idea… we need you back at this crazy time in history to be a rally point for those of us that want something different.

My personal prediction is that this latest move will push more universities to just abandon the LMS altogether. Let’s face it, if you don’t like Blackboard, that seems to be your only option now.

But maybe that Jim Groom is now Mr. Money Bags, he can just fund a new system that will give organizations wanting to go DIY a good starting place.

Yet Another Sign That the LMS is Dying – Blackboard “Embraces” Open Source

I’m a huge SciFi fan, but I have to admit there some Star Trek series I never got into. Star Trek Voyager was one of them. I did catch one episode that was pretty cool – it involved the Borg running into a species that was too much for them to handle. One scene in particular that I remember was a Borg soldier trying to assimilate an organic compound on the wall – with very little success. It just couldn’t understand that this goo on the wall just wasn’t assimilate-able and just keep sticking its interface in and out, never noticing that it wasn’t working at all.

To me, this is a pretty fitting description of what would happen if Blackboard ever tried to take over Moodle. They would just be this big corporation trying to assimilate something they don’t really understand.

But that would never happen, because you can’t buy an open-source project. Right? Oh, wait….

I guess they can (and did) buy a hosting provider for Moodle services. And now according to the press release, they are going to use this connection to start invjecting their tentacles… er… “ideas” into the Moodle project. Oh, and the Sakai project while they are at it.

(That sound you now hear in the collective sound of a million EduGeeks pounding their heads on their desks)

Blackboard even met with Martin Dougiamas of Moodle to get a start “in outlining areas where Blackboard can best contribute to the Moodle project as we set out on a journey.”

Don’t get me wrong – I owe a lot to Blackboard. I probably wouldn’t have my day job if I didn’t have to spend so much time explaining to people how to figure out the confusing thing that Blackboard refers to as an “interface”. In most cases, I usually end up doing most of the technical side myself, as it is just too complex for the average educational user to have time for. If an instructor has to choose between helping students learn and spending huge amounts of time learning how to get a test in Blackboard, I think they should go for the time with the student.

And now they want to send these interface and structure ideas back into Moodle?

So, is the LMS really dying… or being slowly chocked to death by The Borg? You be the judge.

Is Apple Introducing Something New, or Just Glamming Up the Same Old Ideas?

So today Apple announced some new apps that will basically make it easier and cheaper (assuming you secure a loan to buy an iPad in the first place) to create, publish, and purchase eTextbooks. Or iTextbooks? I confess I haven’t tried the tools or watched the keynote yet – just read a few reports on it.

It also seems like there is now an Apple version of an LMS app of some kind for iTunesU.

I am sure all of this looks pretty cool and works great… but is this really change or just turning the same old model education model into a sexy Hollywood version of itself?

A walled garden is still a walled garden even if it is designed by Apple. Passively reading a textbook is still passively reading a textbook even if you add in some cool swipe motions and 3-D video.

The question still remains – do we really need textbooks and LMS’s for education? Whether you like active learning, social learning, open learning, de-schooling, or any other buzzword from the fringes of education, we all realize that sitting and staring at something for hours at a time with only the occasional move/swipe of the hand is not the best way to learn something.

Sure you can add more interaction and 3-D graphics to textbooks, but we already have a tool for that in the technology world. It’s called a game. What will be the line between interactive iTextbooks and games? At some point we might just need to get over the stigma that some educators have about games and just eliminate the “textbook” category all together. Or maybe that is the path Apple has started us on.

I guess we’ll see once people dig in and start using these apps. I’m sure it will be fun… But will it be Transformers 3 or The Matrix?

The Battle For Openness In The LMS Market

Last year it seemed like every new LMS company was trying to position itself as the “Facebook” of online learning. Then Facebook started to make everyone angry (or bored, or both), and we saw that idea dry up pretty quick (well, for the most part). The new catch phrase battle seems to be heating up over the words “open” and “free.” Both Pearson and Blackboard are racing to establish either part or all of their services as open and/or free.

Many people have examined the concepts of open and free to see where various companies stack up. But of course, a lot of this is hard since few people have been inside of Pearson’s OpenClass.

Pearson is lifting the veil a bit more by releasing some screen shots of their OpenClass platform (although, anyone that has been reading this site for a while or attended one of my presentations with Harriet knows that mock-ups and screen shots of ideas are pretty easy to come by). The OpenClass screen shots look nice and they look like they integrate with Google well. But to be honest, anyone that wants notifications of new Gmail messages or Google docs can just as easily install any one of a large number of extensions for Chrome or Firefox or any number of browsers. Google docs are pretty easy to embed or add users to, so I know there will be a long line of people pointing out that you can already do what these screen shots show with just a few extra steps. Busy instructors will love this, of course, because saving steps and integrating products easily is always a welcome move in their world.

What we have shaping up here is basically a “Googlized” Blackboard with probably a healthy portion of Apple-esque eas-ability of use thrown in. That is not necessarily bad – these are all welcome steps forward for the LMS.

But it still only really brings us into the 1990s. What about those instructors that don’t want to use Google services? What about those courses that use specific web tools for specific reasons based on the specifics of the field they are in?  How hard will it be to plug in embed codes or APIs from non-Google services?

It might end up being very easy. But this is still not the open I am looking for. This is also not what I would consider the iPhone moment that the LMS market needs. Whether you build a system around Blackboard’s core code or around Google, you are still building it around a specific system and you will only be able to let in what that system lets in.

The whole point behind the “New Vision LMS” was that it needs to be built from the ground up to be open to any system that you could want to plug into it. The subway terminal concept could basically be that iPhone moment, if it is designed well. It would also be the true “openness” that I am looking for.

For different reasons, many of the usual uses for the term “open” are not exactly what I am looking for when I want open. They are all great, but I still think there is more. These uses include:

  • Open as in open source code. I’m a big supporter of open-source software. But you can still install open-source programs like Moodle and then clamp them down so tight that they don’t feel open to the users.
  • Exportable content. You can make your LMS software open by making it easy to export classes to course cartridges and other common formats. If you design your course well from the beginning it wouldn’t be that hard to re-design it in another LMS. So easy export is nice, but not that big of deal in my experience (and this is coming from some one who has had to migrate hundreds of courses from at least four different LMS systems through the years – open export formats are nice, but not  a necessity). If you place all of your content on sites like WordPress and then link to them, exporting isn’t that hard.
  • Free to Access Outside the LMS. Blackboard’s recent announcement that you will be able to make courses “open” is nice, but you still have to use the Blackboard system to design those courses. Some instructors want their content out there and free for anyone to be able to see. And there are still ways to do that inside of Blackboard and other LMS systems. In fact, I teach a course that technically works like that.

All of these are great, but to some degree we already have all of these somewhere. To me, a truly open system is one that lets you use any tool you want, and then that will be imported into the system and organized so that learners can follow each other easily. Which also means that this organized activity will be exported out in any way that students want so they can follow course activity using any tool they wish.

And of course, this system would need to scale easily from small courses of specialized learners to massive open courses.

In other words, we still need that tool that can organize Personal Learning Networks to allow learners to focus in on specific classes or assignments when they need to. But also a tool that easily integrates with other school systems (like enrollment, emergency notifications, grade tracking, etc).

That is the kind of iPhone moment I am looking for. Of course, the iPhone isn’t really what anyone would call open… so the metaphor breaks down if you look at it too closely. But I think you know what I am getting at.

Google, Pearson, and Misunderstandings of Moodle

The recent announcement of the partnership between Pearson and Google is certainly an interesting one. Many people have been calling for Google to get into the LMS business for years and years (although, I believe most were hoping that Google would actually design one and not just add someone else’s ideas to their Apps for Education). New ideas are always good, but we’ll have to wait to see if this new partnership actually goes anywhere.  Google, unfortunately, has a track record of being involved in great projects that go nowhere.

I still haven’t gotten to look inside of OpenClass, but I hope it is cool as the slick video they made to promote it (even though the video really shows nothing more than a bunch of buzzwords). Funny that they think the LMS is dead… even though the numbers are showing that more and more courses are going into walled gardens every year. Love ’em or hate ’em, LMS’s aren’t going any where for a long time. They haven’t even started declining yet.

I don’t like it either, but I can’t deny reality. Not all the time, at least.

The interesting thing I keep seeing posted over and over again is how Moodle ends up being a drain on resources – you need more people to keep it running and upgraded and all that. To me, it is weird to claim this because all the IT people I have ever talked to about Moodle rave about how easy it is to keep going. At least when compared to other systems that track things like enrollment or issues like that. What I hear most often is that if you have a modern enough IT department, the people you already have in place will be able to easily keep Moodle running.

The problems tend to come when you have to modernize your systems. In other words, that 10 year old student enrollment system is not going to work with a modern LMS. So don’t try to pin the costs of modernizing your systems on Moodle.

I also find it interesting when people talk about having to fix your own bugs in Moodle. Unlike… what competing system? In Blackboard, we discover bugs every month, and then we can’t even fix them. At least in Moodle, you have the option of fixing them. In Blackboard, you send a ticket off into Bb Tech World and hope the fix shows up in the next release. Which is usually doesn’t. So how is the ability to fix your own bugs bad when compared to this?

No program of any kind is going to be perfect, but at least try to get those downsides right :)

So, the question is: will OpenClass be the iPhone moment for the PLN? Even if I end up hating it, I still hope it is. We need something big that takes us in another direction.

I actually have three sister-in-laws that work for Pearson, so I should see if they can get me an inside scoop. I doubt it – so much of this seems to be kept under wraps and I bet most employees were kept in the dark until right before the announcement. But I did sign up to be in the know when they open it up to the public – so hopefully that will happen soon.

Re-Thinking Everything And The Realization of PLEs

In my last post about re-thinking everything in online education, I don’t think I made it clear that I was thinking about a specific technological breakthrough and not an idea like “Personal Learning Environments.” Personally, I love the idea of PLEs, but in some ways the technology to make them practical just isn’t there yet. Sure, we can tinker with several tools and sites out there to make something that “works,” but at the same time we can also tinker with Blackboard to make it “work.”

Many people are just not going to flock to an idea that you have to tinker with to make it “work.” I’m seeing a growing amount of PLE burn-out out there – people just getting to the point that they can’t keep up with it all. So they run back into the LMS box. Of course, they hate the box, but don’t have time for the PLE route.

This all reminds me of how smart phones were before the iPhone came along. Certain types loved their Crackberries and Palm Pilots, but most people just avoided them and some analysts predicted that the smart phone had grown as far as it would. They were often confusing and clunky. The technology got in the way of the average user embracing them.

Then the iPhone came in and changed everything.

The iPhone came along and made the technology disappear so that people could easily embrace the functionality without a confusing user’s manual. Then other phones followed and you now have hundreds of millions using essentially the same apps to do the same things on different devices. Whether you use an iPhone or a Droid or whatever, they all have a Facebook app so that you can post any thought to Facebook wherever you are at.

I’m thinking we need an iPhone moment for PLEs. The PLE as a concept needs that game changer tech to come along and make it accessible for the masses. A game changer that will make the tech issues disappear. Something that just “works” rather than making you do all the work to get the desired effect. A game changer that will make others follow and create different flavors for different people… while at the same time forcing the Crackberries of the LMS world re-think everything to try and compete.

That’s what I am looking for the in the online educational world. There are many promising ideas out there, but nothing is quite hitting that sweet spot yet.