on the false binary of LMS vs. Open

long, rambling post alert. it’s been awhile since I’ve posted, so lots of things have been stewing. bear with me.

It’s fashionable to hate the LMS. It’s the poster child for Enterprise Thinking and lazy (online) pedagogy, so it is easy to rail against the LMS as The Cause of All Educational Evil. The LMS is put into the stocks, and we are expected to stand in the town square and throw rotten fruit at it.


We’re pushed into a false binary position – either you’re on the side of the evil LMS, working to destroy all that is beautiful and good, or you’re on the side of openness, love, and awesomeness. Choose. There is no possible way to teach (or learn) effectively in an LMS! It is EVIL and must be rooted out before it sinks its rotting tendrils into the unsuspecting students who are completely and utterly defenseless against its unnatural power!

I feel like I’m cast in the role of an LMS apologist, because I have a more nuanced approach.

I have been an advocate, proponent, supporter, and contributor to open source communities, open content licensing, and generally sharing stuff because why not? I have also played a key role in the recent adoption of a new LMS by my university. But. How on earth can I reconcile these two diametrically opposed world views? Gasp.

It’s almost as if different tools are used for different purposes.

When I think about the LMS, and its role in the enterprise, this is what makes many peoples’ hair stand on end. THE ENTERPRISE HAS NO BUSINESS IN THE CLASSROOM! etc. Except that’s largely bullshit. Of course classrooms are an Enterprise issue – whether physical (buildings and facilities are expensive to build and maintain, and need to be managed properly etc…) or online.

But, the arguement goes, online means there are no rules, no boundaries, no constraints. People should be free to do whatever they want.

That’s great – I think it is truly awesome that people can craft their own online environments, to support whatever online activities they want to do. And that instructors, staff, and even students (gasp!) can do this stuff on their own, with no interference or meddling from The Enterprise.

But. We can’t just abdicate the responsibility of the institution to provide the facilities that are needed to support the activities of the instructors and students. That doesn’t mean just “hey – there’s the internet. go to it.” It means providing ways for students to register in courses. For their enrolment to be automatically processed to provision access to resources (physical classrooms, online environments, libraries, etc…). For students’ grades and records to be automatically pushed back into the Registrar’s database so they can get credit for completing the course. For integration with library systems, to grant acccess to online reserve reading materials and other resources needed as part of the course.

Anyone who pushes back on this hasn’t had to deal with 31,000 students, and a few thousand instructors. This stuff needs to be automated at this scale. Actually – “scale” is another divisive issue. Why worry about scale? SCALE? WILL IT SCALE? As if scale is irrelevant. If a university needs to deal with tens of thousands of students, I assure you that scale is absolutely relevant. Anyone who thinks we shouldn’t spend time worrying about providing a common and consistent platform as a starting point needs to spend a week helping out at a campus helpdesk, answering questions from instructors and students.

OK. So the LMS is primarily used by institutions to make sure that there is a common starting platform for online courses. That courses are automatically created before a semester. That students, instructors, TAs, etc… are given access with appropriate privileges. That archives and backups are maintained. That records of activities and grades are kept. This is the boring stuff that is supposed to be invisible. But, it’s necessary if we are to responsibly teach online.

If instructors and/or students want or need to, they can of course do anything else they feel like doing online. Providing an LMS doesn’t mean “YOU SHALL NOT USE ANY OTHER TOOL” – there is no mandate to say “ONLY THE LMS SHALL BE USED”. It’s a starting point. And for some (many? most?) courses, it’s sufficient.


Calm down. Take a step back, and think about some of the courses at a university. How about, say “Introduction to Chemistry” – yup. An LMS is entirely sufficient for that kind of course. Provide course info, share documents, maybe do some formative or summative assessment, and store some grades. LMS? check.

How about, say, “Calculus III”. Same pattern. LMS? check.

“Introduction to Shakespeare”? Students might want to blog about passages in Othello. Or link to performances of Macbeth. Maybe post photos of a campus production of King Lear. Great! Throw in a blog. Use the LMS for the basics, and do other things where needed. The LMS course becomes a source of links to other resources, and takes care of the boring administrative stuff.

But – why wouldn’t the instructor for the Shakespeare course want to be completely free of the shackles imposed by the LMS? THE SHACKLES! They might. Or, they might want to have a private starting point, before moving out into The Wide Open.

Even if the instructor decides to completely ignore the course shell that’s automatically created in the LMS, and go out on their own – say, using a WordPress mother blog site – they still need to take care of the boring administrative stuff. They’ll need to come up with a system for adding students to the mother blog site (and removing students when they drop the course). They’ll need to come up with a way to store grades (unless they’ve been able to convince adminstration and students that grades aren’t necessary – I haven’t met anyone who’s had luck there). They need to keep adding features to their custom website, until it starts accumulating lots of bits to handle the boring administrative nonsense.

Eventually, you come up against Norman’s Law of eLearning Tool Convergence:

Any eLearning tool, no matter how openly designed, will eventually become indistinguishable from a Learning Management System once a threshold of supported use-cases has been reached.

The custom platform starts to need care and feeding, maintenance, hacks to import and export data. It starts to smell like an LMS. So now, instead of a single LMS that can be supported by a university, we have an untold number of custom hacks that must all be self-supporting.

And here is where the pushback from the Open camp is strongest – BUT WE DON’T NEED OR WANT SUPPORT. JUST LET US DO OUR THING!

Which is great. Do your thing. But, what about the instructors (and students) who don’t have the time/energy/experience/resources to build and manage their own custom eLearning platform? Do we just tell them “hey – I did it, and it wasn’t that hard. I can’t see any reason why you can’t do it too.”? That starts to smell awfully familiar.

Which brings me back to my personal position on this. There is room for both. Who knew? The LMS is great at providing the common platform, even if it’s just a starting point. And the rest of the internet is awesome at doing those things that internets do. There’s lots of room for both.


No. It might make it easy for lazy people to just upload a syllabus and post a Powerpoint and think they’re teaching online. But that’s no different than physical classrooms being used by lazy people to show endless Powerpoint slides punctuated by more slides. Lazy teachers will teach poorly, no matter what tools they have access to. Just like awesome teachers will teach well, no matter what tools they have access to. The LMS is not the problem.

“But – why waste taxpayer dollars on an LMS at all? Just cancel the contracts and use the money for other stuff!” Um. It doesn’t work that way. 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.

And, although the costs have risen rather dramatically in the last decade, and seem ungodly high in comparison to, well, free… universities spend an order of magnitude more on the software that runs the financial systems – stuff that doesn’t have any direct impact on the learning experience. Hell, there are universities who pay their football coaches more than what they spend on the LMS for all students to use (thankfully, my campus doesn’t do that). For universities with $1B operational budgets, this kind of investment in online facilties is almost lost in budgets as a rounding error.

Anyway. Whew. I’ll try to write some more on this. 1600 words of rambling is a sign that I need to work on this some more…

  1. photo from Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru / The National Library of Wales archives in the Flickr Commons []

sharing LMS requirements

Jen suggested many (many) months ago that I post the requirements we used in the LMS RFP on github so people could use them, fork them, etc…. A starting point, so every institution doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel each time. Considering the amount of time and effort she put into helping craft them, how can I possibly refuse? I can’t, that’s how.


Generic-ish LMS RFP requirements, ala github.

Things I learned about using this set of requirements:

  1. WAY too many line items. When ranking responses, we got serious regression toward the mean – the numbers balanced out and the differences were de-emphasized. Pick the ones that mean the most to you. Ignore (or demote) the rest.
  2. Some of the items were way too specific, others, not specific enough. Yeah. Balance.
  3. The vendors provided great responses to all of the items. I know they must have been frustrated by the sheer number of line items, but they pushed through and provided what we needed. And now, they have responses to copy and paste as needed, so it should get easier for everyone…

I haven’t received explicit approval from The Management to share these, but they were included in a public document, so it shouldn’t be a problem… Openness and sharing and unicorns and butterflies etc…

Update: I chatted with our CIO about this, and he thought it was a great idea. Cool. Done.

on the new LMS

I’ve been working with people on campus for a long time to try to figure out what we need to do about our campus LMS. My oldest file for the endeavour was created on July 19, 2011. Seriously. Almost 2 years ago. We did a couple rounds of campus engagement1, ran an RFP, and wrote several reports. Provincial politics, budget crises and legal processes intervened, and here we are. The decision was formalized in the RFP system this afternoon, and it’s official: the University of Calgary has selected Desire2Learn as its next learning management system.

This is good for a few reasons:

  1. we can finally move past “so… do we have a new LMS yet?” to “yes. now what are you going to do with it?”
  2. we can finally stop focusing our support efforts on “but it doesn’t work on (insert name of current browser and operating system)” and “but file uploads don’t work” etc… Yes. It works. Moving on…
  3. D2L is used by almost all post-secondary institutions in Calgary – the only non-D2L post sec is MRU. Almost all of the city’s K12 runs on D2L (public and catholic boards run it, and most private schools). So, lots of opportunity for collaboration and sharing of resources for support/training/development.

We’re just working on the migration plan now – I’d drafted a version assuming a decision would have been made back in January. Yeah. The timeline isn’t entirely valid anymore. So… Now that it’s final, we need to put together an adjusted implementation plan and timeline. The optimistic plan is to start with a small-scale pilot for Summer 2013 semester (which starts next month!), and start large-scale migration of courses in Fall 2013 and Winter 2014. By Spring 2014, all courses will be run in D2L2. From conversations I’ve had with Deans and instructors from many faculties, the problem is going to be turning people away from the new system in order to get on our feet before running…

Those who know me may be surprised that I’m excited about the LMS. Yes, I really am. We need to provide quality tools that are able to be used by everyone, not just those who are geeky enough to duct tape together their own DIY non-LMS environments. The LMS is important in a social justice context – we need to provide equal functionality for all instructors and students, in all faculties. The LMS lets us do that. If people want to develop their own custom tools if they feel the need, they can totally do so. But for most of the use-cases I’ve seen for custom tools,3 they won’t need to do that.

This is important because with a current LMS in place, we can stop focusing on the tool. We can stop talking about shortcomings in the tool, and focus on teaching and learning. Awesome. Let’s do that.

  1. focus groups, vendor demos, workshops, sandboxes, surveys, etc… []
  2. of course, this may prove to be unrealistically optimistic, so may need to be adjusted. again. []
  3. they were often implemented to fill perceived gaps in the previous LMS, rather than solving unique teaching-and-learning needs []

Norman’s Law of eLearning Tool Convergence

Maybe more of a theory than a law, but still:

Any eLearning tool, no matter how openly designed, will eventually become indistinguishable from a Learning Management System once a threshold of supported use-cases has been reached.

They start out small and open. Then, as more people adopt them and the tool is extended to meet the additional requirements of the growing community of users, eventually things like access management and digital rights start getting integrated. Boil the frog. Boom. LMS.

on the university of phoenix lms patent

So the University of Phoenix was awarded a patent recently, and on first glance it looks to be another round of “patent the LMS and destroy the competition”. But it’s not.

Here’s the press release.

Here’s the patent.

It’s about automatically sequencing a series of learning objects based on the activity of students. Someone does something, and the order of presentation of some items is shuffled in response.

This is not a patent on learning management systems. This is not a salvo in an ed tech war to end all ed tech wars. It’s learning objects. Remember those? Yeah. Just barely. But now there’s a patent for one aspect of automatically sequencing them.

“I’m in a glass case of emotion” (or, on Enterprise Solutions on campus)

Brian Lamb wrote a fantastic post that linked to Martin Weller’s recent post that touches on enterprise-vs-twitter-scale-support.

My synopsis of the important issues:

  1. People are different. They have different needs, different capabilities, different comfort levels, etc… etc…
  2. Institutions are (relatively) good at offering Enterprise Solutions.
  3. Enterprise Solutions kind of suck for individuals, and for small-scale innovation.

My take on this is that the institutions need to provide a “common ground” so all members of a community have access to core services and functionality. The LMS/VLE does that. Not always well, but the intent is to provide everyone with the ability to manage a course online. To do that at the scale of a modern university((there are nearly 40,000 students in various roles at the UofC, including 31,000 undergrads.)) means invoking Enterprise Software. So we get things like Peoplesoft as the Student Information System managing course enrolments and the like. And we get things like Blackboard providing the online course environment. Everyone gets to play. Maybe not in the exact way they’d like, but they’re in the game, and they get support to help them along. This is good.

But it leaves out the smaller scale needs. Where does a prof (or student) go when they want to set up their own website? Craft an ePortfolio that doesn’t fit into the tool provided by the Enterprise Software? Do something that involves colouring outside the lines? We need to be able to provide the means to allow, enable, and support that as much as possible.

So we get things like UCalgaryBlogs, wiki.ucalgary.ca, etc… that start by one person sneaking some software onto a campus server, and kind of letting it grow from there.

But that’s not good. It depends on:

  1. having someone able/willing to do that
  2. that person having the ability to find spots on servers to sneak software
  3. having the good fortune to not get reprimanded for 1. and 2.
  4. having that person never ever leave the university or get sick or die, or all of these little sneaky servers become orphaned

How to provide institutional support for that kind of thing, without having to rely on some things that may not be sustainable? There are already models in place for this. Every web hosting provider on the planet has already solved this problem.

We have an enterprise-class data centre already. All we need to do is implement web hosting functionality akin to Mediatemple etc… Implementation details don’t matter so much. A private campus cloud/grid/cluster? Every member of the campus community gets an account, and can use one-click installers to run whatever is provided, or if they have the ability, they can install whatever software can run on the servers. The metal, OS, and core software would be managed by IT. Support for the core stuff would be relatively straightforward to provide. And the community could support the rest, with the help of IT and others.

And, at the end of a person’s career at the University, they could bundle all of their stuff up and take it with them.

Yes, this totally rips off / builds on the UMW Domain of One’s Own project. They’re doing so many awesome things at that school, we’d be crazy not to model some things after them.

What would the campus web hosting service look like? What kinds of software/platforms would be used? Easy enough to spin up a community process to investigate that…

Enterprise Solutions providing the core services (SIS, LMS/VLE, web hosting), with support provided both centrally, through the campus community, and distributed through The Internet At Large.

Update: A quick napkin-math calculation suggests storage to allow 5GB/user would cost about $1M per year. This is a non-trivial thing to implement…

UofC LMS RFP engagement report

So, this project has taken up the vast majority of my Day Job for the last year or so. We’re finally approaching the point where a decision can be made on which LMS we’ll be using.

I just published our working group’s report on the project website, so we can share the current data with the university community. Long story short, it’s a draw between Canvas and D2L, with further information needed before Those Who Are Higher Up Than I Am can make the decision. Good times.

fourth and inches

Notes: Clarke & Kinne (2012). Asynchronous discussions as threaded discussions or blogs

Clarke, L, & Kinne, L. (2012). Asynchronous discussions as threaded discussions or blogs. Journal of Digital Learning in Teacher Education, 29, 4-13.

The article looked at students publishing online discussions using Blackboard and WordPress, and their reported sense of community, etc…

Kinda perfect for use in my thesis.

But the article is embargoed from our library collection, and the ISTE website for the journal locks it behind a broken paywall. I’ve tried several times to buy the article, but can’t get near it.

Open access, people. Don’t lock your awesomeness behind a paywall. This article is perfect for my thesis, but won’t be used because I can’t get to it.

UCalgary eLearning Discovery Working Group report on LMS engagement

What a consultant-ish title. Anyway. The working group I’ve been chairing since last summer (it even has its own tag here on my blog) has been doing a bunch of stuff (i.e., “engagements”) to talk to people on campus (i.e., “stakeholders”) to find out what they need from eLearning in general and in an LMS specifically (i.e., “high level needs documentation”).

The first report, focusing on documenting the LMS engagement itself (surveys, focus groups, vendor demos, etc…) is now final, and has been published to the website. There will be 2 additional reports published before September – the first will update our documentation of stuff we do on campus to facilitate and support eLearning (i.e., “eLearning Inventory”), and the second will try to crunch through the data, mush it into the community’s needs and hopefully make some sense out of it all (i.e., “eLearning technology analysis”). Another group, spun out of the General Faculties Council, will be working on an eLearning strategy for the University, and we’ll be feeding our reports to them to help inform the process.

Anway, again. The report.