Over the last few years, I’ve spent real time digging into the education technology space (“EdTech” is the portmanteau I’ll be using, as “buzzwordy” as it sounds). There are a number of reasons for my interest in it: the promise to make teachers’ lives easier, the promise of improved educational outcomes, the promise of bringing the best education to every person in society, and so on. But the single biggest one is that I’ve always loved learning and anything that encourages learning in any form makes me very excited.
The most transformational tool I’ve seen to date is the Learning Management System. It is the platonic ideal of academic software. It doesn’t care about registrar history, where you live, or what your emergency contact numbers are. It doesn’t claim to help teachers and professors generate better educational content. It won’t help run a school. All it does is everything else.
In the summer of 2004, I was a rising high school senior at the Pennsylvania Governor’s School for International Studies (PGSIS). Held on the campus of the University of Pittsburgh, the program replicated a college experience in many ways, from putting us in dorms to giving us the ice bath shock of not needing our parents to drive us to places for the first time in our lives. It also introduced us, the smartest spawn of the state of PA, to Blackboard, the ur-LMS.
Our professors used Blackboard so differently, you would never have thought we were on the same system (were it not for the late-90s graphics and stop-and-go pacing of screen navigation). One professor used it to share select handouts from our lectures (namely, the handouts he remembered to post). Another to have us submit written homework assignments. Another to spark student discussions ex cathedra (i.e., outside of our classrooms, located in Pitt’s “Cathedral of Learning”).
I remember no one really cared about the LMS. To our hormone-addled minds, no doubt still reeling from the entry of AOL’s instant messenger into our daily routine, it wasn’t anything radical. Message boards were nothing new, only now we were being forced to join message boards for stuff we didn’t care about. Submitting homework assignments through the system looked a lot like commenting on weblogs, since the homework typically consisted of one paragraph responses. In college, LMSs became marginally more pervasive, but it wasn’t until senior year that I finally got a sense for what I was starting to miss out on. Those three features – document distribution, student-to-teacher messaging, and discussion boards – seemed so different back in high school but are now laughably basic. What is the real promise of the LMS?
Here’s a metaphor. Generation X often referenced how different school was for me and my peers. Think about the basic process of writing a research paper. They started by going to the library, flipping through shelves of filecards, and carrying home 20 lbs worth of books to read. My generation writes research papers by spending time on Google. It’s not that we don’t reference physical books; it’s that Google has made the library reference catalog system obsolete to the point that my peers and I feel like we deserve extra credit just for the effort.
LMSs could be as transformational to the learning experiences of the next generation as the internet was for my generation. 50 years from now, I’ll be the septuagenarian ridiculing how easy “kids these days” have it. “Back in my day, we had handouts from teachers! You walked to the back of the room and picked up 3 – 5 loose leaf sheets of content every day for class, and god help you if you were disorganized and lost them because come midterms, you were up a creek without a paddle!” But content organization and distribution is facile. LMSs are starting to ratchet up the stakes by adding features, some of which could change the paradigm of education in general.
Obviously, there’s data analytics. But because the LMS is an interface for content delivery, the analytics can incorporate engagement as well. Instead of just using tests to figure out how students are learning, LMSs can combine that with data on how students are interacting with material. Does higher discussion board participation correlate to better test scores? Do people who download more files and send more direct messages to their peers do better on multiple choice or free response? This represents the first time in history that we have an objective way of understanding student engagement. It’s not about teachers guessing who looks bored in class; it’s about metrics like mouse clicks, time-spent-per-page, and even facial expression tracking (eventually).
I’ve seen the dashboards that some of the newer players offer their teachers. It’s early days, but I’m encouraged. There’s a clear focus on interactivity with the data. Instead of the platform telling us what thresholds to care about, teachers get to specify the parameters of what they want to assess. Show me all students who got 70% or lower on their last quiz. Then show me the number of messages each of those students sent me. Then show me what this looks like for all the other AP US History sections in my school.
This is powerful stuff, though admittedly focused more on the assessment side at this point. The next step on this data side involves the higher-level, neuro-epistemological measurements that the interface can track. Average time spent on Quiz Question 1a. Average number of wrong answers. Where did the mouse click before submitting an answer?
The second feature is social (*groan*). The vast majority of the population the vast majority of the time learns the vast majority of their material better in a social environment. LMSs out there (most notably, Desire2Learn) are starting to build real social offerings. This isn’t the basic student-to-student messaging of yesteryear, either. Imagine being able to open a PDF and seeing everyone else in your class who’s currently reading the same PDF. Imagine a screen share-type option, collaborative highlighting and note-taking, synchronous and asynchronous group projects all run with no teacher facilitation and outside the classroom.
Blackboard bought a company called Wimba back in 2010, a move that allowed it to add the “virtual classroom environment” to its already crowded product set. The offering was done to build additional person-to-person interaction online, facilitated by the LMS platform. Its basic features are purpose built to remove the need for a classroom to teach lessons, something which becomes obvious when you realize that all online course migration companies (such as 2U or Embanet) are built to offer the same tools. That’s the promise of social. It’s breaking down the walls of the classroom for the last time – because there will be no more walls to break down after this. You learn anywhere you want to, anytime you want to, and with whomever you want to.
For all that excitement, it’s important to remember one thing: the LMS is and always will be only as good as its teacher and its most engaged students. If a teacher doesn’t utilize the platform properly, updating files arbitrarily and ignoring the vast fields of unharvested data, the learning experience suffers. If students refuse to participate in discussions – or, more likely, do what we all did when we first saw Blackboard in 2004 and rushed in a half-assed post a few minutes before the deadline – the discussions are fruitless.
The LMS isn’t a superhero, but it does grant superpowers. I often get the same bemused reaction from others when I explain my excitement for the space. Most people don’t see how “social learning” will suddenly transform everyone into ravenous students. Just because I’d use it, doesn’t mean everyone else will. I disagree. Why can’t learning be a network effect business? A decade ago, You’d get the same bemused reaction if you suggested 650 million+ individuals would be logging in to a platform each day to look at poor quality pictures of half-acquaintances and read and post quotidian updates about life.
I remember getting chills watching CEO John Baker present D2L’s new social offerings back at D2L Fusion 2012 in San Diego. It was a balmy, Southern California summer, and I was sitting in the room with goosebumps. It felt like technology finally caught up to deliver on the promise of learning. Being a student is not about the lecture you get, it’s about the learning process that you and your peers share. Learning isn’t the dinosaur fossil sitting a few hundred feet under the ground. Learning is the excavation, with your team, and often with yourself, painstakingly brushing away dust from a fragile bone.
The future of LMSs is to be those tools, every last one of them. It can tell you where the bones are, it serves then as the shovels, and finally as the brushes. The future of LMSs, and, by association, learning itself, is quite bright.
For a much more nuanced understanding of the LMS market, I would check out the blog of Phil Hill, an expert on different platforms and one of the foremost thought-leaders in the space. (http://mfeldstein.com/author/phil-hill)