Campus Technology - Rebuilding the LMS for the 21st Century
Can the goals of 21st century learning be met by retooled legacy LMSs, or does the future belong to open learning platforms that utilize the latest technology?
By Jennifer Demski
"There is a comet heading toward planet education," warns Gary Brown, director of the Center for Online Learning at Portland State University (OR). "The last time we looked it was out past Pluto. Now, all of a sudden, it seems to be rounding Mars. It's coming very, very fast."
This metaphorical comet is the shift toward 21st century learning, a concept focused on student-centered learning, collaboration across courses and campuses, and project-based coursework that leads to competency-based assessments. And web 2.0 and cloud-based technologies are the fuel that is now powering this comet toward its educational rendezvous.
Finally--12 years into the 21st century--higher ed classrooms are turning into incubators for the kind of learning environment that curriculum and instructional technology experts have advocated for years. Yet a key question remains: Can legacy learning management systems be dragged into the 21st century as part of this new educational vision, or are they destined to be replaced by newer, more flexible learning platforms?
"We need to recognize that it isn't really the LMS that's heading toward obsolescence," remarks Brown. "It's the course that the LMS represents." Although a majority of professors at PSU still espouse a lecture-and-test style that works well with the traditional LMS, progressive professors are making end runs around its limitations by utilizing free web 2.0 and cloud-based tools--tools that sit outside the walls of the LMS.
"We're faced with a challenge of harnessing these cutting-edge technologies and shaping them into a sustainable component of instructional technology that melds with the institutional brand," explains Brown. "We find ourselves exploring ways to crack into the traditional LMS system to integrate something as simple as a blog or a wiki."
While progressive faculty chip away at the LMS from the outside, LMS vendors are busy with their own work crews trying to create a more open floor plan. Blackboard, for example, rolled out CourseSites, a web-based tool that emphasizes collaboration, interaction, and openness. And, last fall, Desire2Learn released an update to its flagship platform that incorporates social networking tools such as Google+ and Facebook.
For some faculty, however, these upgrades will be unable to remedy the fundamental flaw of legacy LMSs. "It's the walls inherent in the design of an LMS," complains Brown. "It's not enough just to have a blogging tool in the LMS. We need to have blogs and wikis and other tools that punch through the wall of the LMS, across courses, and expand collaboration into the larger community."
Brown is interested in competency-based course design. "As director of a center of online learning, I have an obligation to provide a measurable quality to our students' work," he explains. "The closed environment of an LMS does not afford me, in easily implementable ways, the opportunity to do that."
Aggregating Web 2.0 Tools
The solution? Many institutions are leaning toward a flexible framework of aggregated web 2.0 and cloud-based tools, such as WordPress and Google Apps.
"Folks are beginning to realize that the development of academically relevant tools on the internet is going to outpace the ability of any traditional LMS provider, commercial or open source," remarks Patrick Masson, chief technology officer of UMassOnline at the University of Massachusetts. "There are more people doing more things collectively on the internet than any one company can do."
Masson and his team set out to learn exactly which internet tools are most useful to faculty and students. Using business intelligence software, they went into UMass' Blackboard Vista application and identified every external hyperlink embedded in faculty and student posts from 40,000 courses. They then followed these links to explore the tools that users were integrating into their coursework.
"This is a completely bottom-up way to assess technology: Faculty and students have identified these tools as being useful," explains Masson. "From there, perhaps we can formally adopt integrations with these third-party tools through the standard integration interfaces that the LMS offers."
Masson's research at UMass is inspired by work he began in 2005 while working for the State University of New York's Learning Network. "The team that I worked with proposed a more flexible framework for bolting on best-in-class tools, because of the inherent complexities of supporting a 64-campus environment where every user has different needs," he recalls. Neither UMass nor SUNY has fully embraced this flexible framework, but a scaled-down model is in place at the Macaulay Honors College at the City University of New York.
Macaulay students have a dual identity: They are enrolled both at their home campus--one of seven in the CUNY network--and they take interdisciplinary seminars and advanced courses through Macaulay. "On their home campuses our students have access to Blackboard," explains Joseph Ugoretz, associate dean of teaching, learning, and technology at Macaulay. "But because Blackboard doesn't allow a unified system across campuses, our seminars cannot utilize that system."
A Custom-Built LMS
Ugoretz and the team at Macaulay saw this as more of an opportunity than a problem, and set out to develop a solution that met their needs. Beyond allowing students to collaborate in their honors seminars with students across the CUNY network, Ugoretz wanted to create a system that provides students with a history of their work. "The importance of students being able to access their work longitudinally across their career is invaluable," explains Ugoretz.
The goal was to create a system that allows a student in seminar four in the spring of their sophomore year to be able to look back at the work he completed during seminar one in the fall of freshman year. "The typical walled silo of the typical LMS wouldn't allow for that," Ugoretz notes. "Students typically lose access to their work as soon as the course is completed. There's no access outside the domain of the course."
Taking the idea one step further, faculty at the college wanted the ability to build projects over many years, allowing students to add to the work of those who've taken the seminar before them.
While brainstorming for a solution to fit these needs, Ugoretz and his team implemented an e-portfolio platform based on the WordPress blogging tool. "Almost immediately," Ugoretz recalls, "faculty began to see the potential for building these incredibly functional and highly flexible course sites."
As of 2012, all of the Macaulay seminars (each with 40 sections) and 10 upper-level courses are managed via WordPress course sites. Each section can have its own course site, but frequently a group of sections that are working on a common theme across campuses will share a site and build a mini-learning community.
Each course site is tailored to the needs of the faculty member who runs the course. "It's been really exciting to see these sites develop from the classroom up," remarks Ugoretz. "We're able to provide the functionality that's needed, rather than imposing this huge dinosaur that's a nuisance to administer and use."
Some faculty members design their course sites as a place to post announcements and assignments. Other faculty members have created feature-heavy pages where students interact via chat plug-ins, wiki plug-ins, or interactive timelines. "Whatever is necessary for that particular course, we can do it," notes Ugoretz.
This level of flexibility is possible, in part, thanks to the efforts of a group of doctoral students who are taking part in an instructional technology fellowship. Fellows are assigned to each course to work with faculty and students on implementing ideas for using technology within the curriculum. "A faculty member just needs to say what he'd like his course site to do, and the instructional technology fellow makes it happen," explains Ugoretz.
Also helping in the development of these course sites is a robust community of WordPress users that already exists on the web. When Ugoretz was designing the course page for one of his online courses, for example, he discovered an existing WordPress plug-in that provided all the functionality he wanted, including functions normally associated with a traditional LMS, such as a gradebook, a tool for submitting assignments, and a discussion board.
"Between these really fantastic plug-ins and the built-in flexibility in terms of posts, pages, and themes, it's really easy to put together a nice-looking and highly functional system," says Ugoretz. The robust web community, including the wp-edu listserv, is also key in providing support for any issues that arise.
"We've found that if a question or an issue comes up, somebody within the larger user community has already found an answer," explains Ugoretz. "And because the code is open, we can look at any issues that arise with our own resources and then share our solutions with the other members of the community."
But Ugoretz believes the true benefit of the system lies in its educational value. In conjunction with Macaulay students' personal e-portfolio WordPress pages, the system emphasizes personalized, project-based collaborative learning, tied to competency-based assessments.
Interestingly, Ugoretz considers it a key part of students' instruction for them to learn the ins and outs of WordPress. "Too often, students in college courses get really experienced using a proprietary LMS that is not used beyond the walls of higher education," he explains. "If you're using tools that are publicly available, then students come out of their higher ed experience with a skill beyond their own academic learning--a skill that's useful in whatever career they plan to pursue."
Issues of Scalability
But can this type of system be scaled to meet the needs of a larger campus? While Ugoretz has received a lot of interest from special programs on other CUNY campuses, he has found that most schools are not interested in adopting this WordPress model campuswide. "I think that the idea that you can do something like this without the guidance and support of a vendor is scary," says Ugoretz. "It takes a leap of faith."
For schools that are hesitant to take that leap, but want to dive into an open and flexible LMS that supports 21st century pedagogies, Pearson's OpenClass is touting itself as a solution that provides the best of both worlds. When a colleague at Arizona State University approached Kevin Roberts, chief planning and information officer at Abilene Christian University(TX) about taking part in the design and development of OpenClass, Roberts was intrigued by the vision behind the product.
"I liked the fact that it was open source, obviously," recalls Roberts, "More important, they were building this tool from scratch on a 21st century platform. They're assuming the existence of Google and collaborative web 2.0 tools from the very start, rather than building on top of a legacy platform. From the very beginning, we get to leverage the way these tools work best."
Pearson's OpenClass is essentially a flexible framework that houses existing web 2.0 tools such as Google Apps and WordPress. By providing this framework, Pearson hopes to give universities an increased level of stability beyond what most universities can achieve when they put together a similar platform on their own.
"A model built without this framework can function really well, but the school is tasked with making sure that all of the components continue to work well together," explains Roberts. "If you've merged WordPress with Google Docs, for example, and WordPress issues an update that changes a component of their system, you're left with a brittle connection. It's still a connection, but it's a place of risk." By using these tools within the OpenClass framework, universities transfer the responsibility for maintenance and integration support to Pearson.
Pearson's involvement also makes it possible to scale this type of LMS up to a campuswide implementation. "There's definitely some comfort in having somebody as big as Pearson, whose reputation is at stake, behind this system," remarks Roberts. "Their involvement, combined with the fact that they've integrated OpenClass so tightly with Google, means that scalability has not been a concern for us at all."
OpenClass is brand new: Pilots in several schools began only in the 2011-2012 academic year. At this point, ACU is piloting OpenClass with 23 professors who are using the tool in 25 different courses. "What we're seeing is very intriguing," remarks Roberts. He says it's been an initial success, something he attributes to the fact that OpenClass has been designed to harness web 2.0 tools within a framework that is just familiar enough to ease the worries of less tech-savvy administrators.
"Pearson is building the product on a metaphor that we all understand," he says. "It has a gradebook. It has discussion boards. Because it's built on this 21st century technology, though, the runway that Pearson has ahead of it is so much longer than somebody who is bound into a platform that was developed in the late '80s or early '90s."
The Future of the LMS
As the battle for LMS dominance continues to unfold on campuses nationwide, Pearson is not the only player that sees an opportunity to leapfrog ahead of legacy systems that predate the world of Google, Facebook and web 2.0. LoudCloud and Instructure's Canvas Cloud, for example, are among several products that share many of the same attributes as OpenClass.
In examining the state of the LMS market today, it's difficult not to draw a comparison to what has happened in the mobile phone industry. BlackBerry dominated for years, but it's now saddled with a legacy operating system that struggles to compete with iPhones and Androids built on more up-to-date tech backbones. The question for the legacy systems today is whether they can avoid a similar fate, by retooling their products to accommodate consumers whose tastes and styles have changed.
One thing is for sure: The 20th century LMS is so last century. "We've already crossed the point of realizing that the walled garden of the traditional LMS just doesn't meet our needs," notes Roberts. "We're doing a disservice to our students by pretending that the traditional LMS reflects the way that the world works. A phrase we use a lot on our campus is that we feel it is our responsibility to train our students for the world they're going to inherit, not the world they live in now, and certainly not the world we grew up in."