LMS: Metaphors, a Misnomer, and a Continuing Challenge

First, the metaphors.  There was an interesting discussion about Learning Management Systems (LMS) that included a list of potential metaphors (none of them pretty) with Tom Woodward proposing the LMS as fast food restaurant. That metaphor is quite similar to Mark Carrigan’s thought experiment about commercial publishing as restaurant.  He asks us to imagine a world where only restaurants (i.e. professionally prepared meals) existed, which is quickly disrupted by the introduction of kitchens in the home (open education resources).  He points out:

None of this means that restaurants go out of business. But it does mean the economics of the restaurant business change profoundly. What was once, in the thought-experiment, a position of hegemony where everyone is reliant on the restaurant for all their meals becomes a position where the restaurant must offer some additional value vis-a-vis the meals people are able to cook at home. If everyone can cook in a way which is good enough for everyday purposes, the restaurant must offer something else. … once the infrastructure and the expertise is distributed widely enough, it simply has to innovate or its position will eventually become untenable.

Carrigan’s talking about academic publishing and the rise of open-source materials but much the same can be said about LMS providers.  Indeed, the two have been merging more as textbook publishers provide course platforms that plug into Blackboard (such as Connect) or, as with OpenClass, exist independently.  ((Full disclosure: I’m an author with material on the Connect platform.))  But the point is that the LMS–and textbook publishers–have gotten more elaborate in their offerings in an effort to stay relevant.  More on this below.

Second, the misnomer:  Blackboard et. al. are Course Management Systems that have little to do with learning per se.  They do, however, have a lot to do with managing the administrative logistics of large classes.  The newer publisher-based platforms, too, are heavily oriented towards responding to this market.  They have learned from frazzled faculty juggling hundreds of students in many courses that simply staying afloat is a challenging task that can be made somewhat easier by the LMS and related platforms.  Again, this not about learning per se, it’s about survival and course “management” under far-less-than-ideal circumstances.  It is also a reminder that when we are talking about teaching and learning, it is very useful to get more specific.  Is it a 12-student seminar?  A 40-student course?  A 300-student offering?  Online, hybrid, or in-person? Different situations lend themselves to different tools.

Finally, the continuing challenge.  I doubt anyone would rush to the defense of any LMS as an ideal learning platform in any circumstance.  But they are responses to the structural conditions that prevail at many colleges and universities.  As in Carrigan’s metaphor, these “restaurant” LMS platforms offer things that are not readily available to faculty on their own: easy management of grading, basic analytics about student activities (reading, self-quizzing, etc), even some automated study/quizzing capacity often labelled as “adaptive learning.”  As flawed as they can be (“fast food”?), they are attempts to respond to perceived faculty needs (if not student learning).  Large classes are not going away.  Grading will continue to be a part of for-credit courses. Student privacy concerns (and FERPA) will continue to be a concern.  So the continuing challenge is something like: How do we initiate and expand alternatives to the LMS-bound course that usefully respond to the real-world circumstances under which many faculty labor, while facilitating more meaningful learning experiences for students?