Category Archives: Learning Management Systems
A few weeks ago, I received an invitation to attend a WCET webcast entitled “Why the RFP Process Doesn’t Work in Today’s LMS Market.” Pausing only to register, I forwarded the invitation to my colleagues and blocked out the requisite time on Tuesday, May 22nd. I think that I’m going to make it back from my client meeting just in time to hear the panelists Phil Hill, Executive Vice President at Delta Initiative, and Patrick Masson, Chief Technology Officer at UMassOnline speak to the matter. As someone involved in helping to write LMS RFP and evaluating the results, I am eager to hear these experts, but I also have my own thoughts.
While looking for an example to share with a colleague, I ran across my notes for putting together an LMS RFP and selection process. They highlighted the creation of a selection team, identification of a key decision-maker, system & technical requirements, on-site presentations by selected vendors, surveys, and involvement by faculty and staff. I shot the notes off to my colleague with the thought that they were probably what she wanted before I looked at the date when I wrote them. It was 2004.
Although it’s certainly possible to argue that LMS aspects have not changed since 2004, what it means to learn and teach online is undergoing vigorous renegotiation. The well-documented successes of open courses along with free or low-cost online learning tools are just two of many. Technology and learning are intertwined with each other. Change in one leads to re-application or re-definition of the other. So, if the technology has changed or is in the process of changing, why have LMS selection processes more or less stayed the same?
Part of it is the cost and the commitment involved; selecting an LMS has been likened to a marriage. It’s expensive to get in, but even more expensive to get out. The stakes are high. Instructors and administrators have to interact and depend on the LMS on a daily basis. Glitches in the LMS have wide-reaching implications and must be resolved in a timely manner. As a result, the RFP process has become increasingly bloated. It’s expensive to run and even more expensive to participate in. Smaller companies, open source alternatives, or even free-ware simply cannot compete with the larger players who can create sandboxes, make multiple site visits, and fill out RFP’s that can sometimes reach into the hundreds of pages (I know, I’ve helped create some of these). Because of the proactive sales and marketing techniques of the larger LMS companies it is not uncommon for institutional stakeholders to have already pretty much made the decision before the RFP has already been written. The long process often is conducted anyway.
The alternatives to the traditional LMS are out there; the difficulty is changing the RFP process from what it was back in 2004, when there were no alternatives, to select the best product for the school.
If I had to rewrite that 2004 document, how would I do it? I’d like to share some preliminary thoughts here and hope that they’ll perhaps inspire some discussion.
- Evaluate Institutional Needs – Too often, institutions get hung up on features, but the need should be cast wider. Of course, there is always cost and support. However, what are the ultimate goals and objectives – are they to grow a distance-learning program? Retain students? Offer mainly web-enhanced and hybrid courses? Participate in a consortium or share courses across institutional boundaries? Try not only to look at present institutional needs, but those that relate to the future as well.
- Consider Online Content – More frequently than not, institutions of higher education anticipate updating, reviewing, and considering standards for their online courses at the same time they move LMS. With the growing demand for differentiated content and, as Phil Hill identifies, the increasing overlap between the LMS platform market and the content market, it becomes important to consider all possible alternatives to the LMS.
- Keep an Open Mind – This is open in all sense of the word – open-to-open source, open or Creative Commons licensed content, and open to LMS alternatives. Of course, this is not to say that one of these should be selected, but this attribute as well as the willingness to do some research should lead to a much more streamlined RFP.
I wanted to write all of this down before the much-anticipated WCET webinar; I look forward to hearing the opinions of the panels and comparing them to my own. This is an important conversation and I’m glad to have a part in it.
I admit, with the acquisitions that Blackboard has made over the years, I could not resist the Star Trek reference. However, the ramifications for this latest move by the LMS heavyweight are quite far reaching, especially in terms of the impact it could have on the open source marketplace for learning management systems. Realize, that as large as Blackboard’s market share is, even after the acquisitions of WebCT and Angel, their market share as been decreasing–slowly, but decreasing still. This is the type of move that could be considered a game-changer, as long as there is a commitment on the part of Bb leadership to leverage Moodleroom expertise rather than bury it.
(Does anyone remember the story of Quark and mTropolis?)
From our perspective here at Learning Through Play & Technology, there are some definite upsides as well as some potential bad news from this move. We’ll take a few days to survey the education landscape and present our analysis. In the mean time, we encourage you to take a look at what Ray Henderson has to say on the topic.
I can’t believe that it’s been as long as a month since I was invited to join GoodSemester. The email has been sitting in my inbox since February 15th, waiting for me to make the time to attend to it properly. On March 15th, however, the folks at GoodSemester announced that anyone could sign up for an account, for free, no invite required.
So much for exclusivity.
But exclusivity is not really the point of platforms like GoodSemester. The platform is designed to take advantage of connections between people and materials to generate knowledge. For instance, the primary means of sharing content in GoodSemester is through Notes. Although the types of content supported by this feature are fairly standard, the sharing capabilities inherent in the system are not. Authors can keep notes private, restrict them to course participants, or make them globally available. If the later is selected, notes are licensed under Creative Commons, meaning that others can use them with proper attribution. Under ideal conditions, therefore, the note becomes a collaborative item with the initial author able to see changes that others have made and participate in the conversation. In GoodSemester, the function most commonly seen as analogous to the classroom lecture is made collaborative; however, any attempt to compare GoodSemester’s notes and notepad to LMS content functionality soon falls apart. It is like comparing apples and oranges; there just isn’t enough in common to make a worthwhile comparison.
This sparks questions about how we can categorize GoodSemester. Is it an LMS? I don’t think so and the folks who created the platform agree with me. In a recent interview with the company founder Jason Rappaport, Michael Feldstein acknowledges the difficulty of categorizing the product. He also identifies this as an issue typical of today’s marketplace:
And one of the questions platform developers and teachers alike are asking is how much functionality do you really need? Is it just WordPress? Is it WordPress plus Google Docs? Is it WordPress, Google Docs, and grade book? Is it a simple LMS with only a handful of tools and an app store? There are lots of different models.
He’s right, of course. It seems that most of the new technologies that I’ve evaluated for teaching are designed to do a few things in a near revolutionary fashion rather than all things as expected. They pit openness, collaboration, and an individual focus again products that define themselves as system. If there’s one thing that I know about all of the products that I use to facilitate instruction is that they are not systems.
But the question is that whether all of these products that-are-not-systems relate to the systematic mindset that so pervades how institutions of higher education approach technology. This is never more evident than in LMS selection process. Since 2002, I’ve participated in these sometimes very long, very drawn out activity that seems to question everything, other than whether the institution really needs an LMS at all. The fact that an institution needs a system to take on the complex and increasingly vital operations associated with hybrid and online learning almost goes without saying.
I’m not going to quibble with whether the institution needs a system or not, but the burgeoning of tools reinventing how we teach online begs the question of why schools can’t create their own system? Rather than embarking on a process to select an LMS, it would be so much more cost effective and efficient to pour that energy into building an LMS from all of the pieces and parts abounding in the marketplace.
It is becoming increasingly clear that institutions need to step away from the apparent safety of buying an all-in-one solution and start exploring the possibilities of building what they really need.
In today’s issue of The New Yorker online, James Surowiecki has an article titled, “BlackBerry Season,” that is a very interesting take on the decline of the Research In Motion smartphone that dominated the marketplace–before the arrival of the iPhone and then Android phones in the consumer marketplace. Surowiecki writes:
“The easy explanation for what happened to R.I.M. is that, like so many other companies, it got run over by Apple. But the real problem is that the technology world changed, and R.I.M. didn’t. The BlackBerry was designed for businesses. Its true customers weren’t its users but the people who run corporate information-technology departments. The BlackBerry gave them what they wanted most: reliability and security. It was a closed system, running on its own network. The phone’s settings couldn’t easily be tinkered with by ordinary users. So businesses loved it, and R.I.M.’s assumption was that, once companies embraced the technology, consumers would, too.”
I have made similar statements regarding education technology in various entries in this blog (such as Prediction: Commercial Applications Will Drive Education Use… Yet Again), and based on Surowiecki’s article, the sentiment that consumers can drive what was widely considered to be enterprise software systems spans across industry verticals. Let’s parse the above passage from the context of education technology solutions, such as the learning management system, and note the situational similarities:
- The BlackBerry was designed for business.
- The learning management system was designed for education.
- Its true customers weren’t its users but the people who run corporate information-technology departments.
- Its true customers weren’t students but the faculty and administrators who run higher education institutions.
- The BlackBerry gave them what they wanted most: reliability and security.
- The learning management system gave them what they wanted most: control over the institution-student interaction.
- It was a closed system running on its own network.
- It was a closed system running on its own network.
- The phone’s settings couldn’t easily be tinkered with by ordinary users.
- The learning management system’s layout and configuration couldn’t easily be tinkered with by students.
- So businesses loved it, and R.I.M.’s assumption was that, once companies embraced the technology, consumers would, too.
- So education institutions loved it, and the learning management system’s developers assumption was that, once institutions embraced the technology, students would too.
Does anyone else see what I’m seeing? The point I’m making is that so many of the tools that pass for technological innovation within the higher education landscape (and not just learning management systems) are simply solutions developed for the wrong customer. Ultimately, the technology adopted and used effectively in higher education will be the innovations that students bring with them from their own personal lives and empower them to take control of their own education. Clickers, for example, have no place in the classroom when students can easily find clicker apps for their smartphones. Technology only has the power to transform if it is actually embraced–and not forced upon the user for reasons of convenience of management.
Surowiecki concludes his article in this way:
“Companies have quickly come to love consumerization, too: a recent study by the consulting firm Avanade found that executives like the way it keeps workers plugged in all day long. And since workers often end up paying for their own devices, it can also help businesses cut costs. One way or another, consumers are going to have more and more say over what technologies businesses adopt. It’s a brave new world. It’s just not the one that the BlackBerry was built for.”
Breaking this passage down, we understand that higher education institutions should come to love the consumerization of technology in the teaching and learning space, as educators will like the way it keeps students plugged in all day long. And if students end up paying for their own devices, we could see reductions in the cost of resources and materials that institutions need to purchase. It’s clear that students are going to have more say in what technologies higher education institutions adopt. The question is, what companies are built to take advantage of this dynamic?
The advancement of gaming technology from one generation to the next is mind-boggling. It’s hard to believe that in what has become known as the ‘Video Game Crash of 1983,’ the industry virtually fell out of existence, with revenues dropping from $3.2 billion to $100 million in 1985. The cause of the market crash was also fertile grounds for the solution—a glut of subpar and poorly developed games and systems drove consumers away. The solution, therefore, was a focus on innovation and quality to woo consumers. Ultimately, the Nintendo 64 and Sony’s Playstation reinvigorated the market in the mid 1990’s. Microsoft entered the game and elevated competition with its Xbox in 2001, in side by side competition with the new Nintendo GameCube. It’s hard to find solid numbers because the definition of video gaming can vary, but most estimates indicate that industry revenue is now over $20 billion a year. Current developments of the Wii and Xbox 360 prove that companies are still willing to innovate and invest to take their fair share of a very large pie. Market penetration is significant—sales estimates in the United States would indicate that over half of US households have at least one advanced gaming system. The likelihood of the market compressing again as it did in 1983 is slim to none. Consoles are advancing in technological capability much faster and in different directions than the home PC, tablet, and mobile device. Is there an implication in the advancement of these platforms for education? If LMS designers are open-minded, there certainly could be.
The concept of using a gaming console for learning is certainly not new. Pictured, an Xbox is employed at the AT&T Oaks Course outside San Antonio to help golfers lower their handicaps before actually embarking on the course. By using the Xbox Kinect, one can imagine that the same Xbox will soon analyze and advise the same golfers about their swing.
Another classic example is the evolution from Rock Band to Rocksmith. Whereas users once plugged a toy push-button guitar into their game consolses, all of their time invested was wasted when it comes to real-world application. With the advent of Rocksmith, the guitar used is now the real deal—meaning gameplay is translated to real-world skills. Though many critics pan the game and its effectiveness, it is only a first incarnation. If the market demands it, new versions will evolve that increase effectiveness.
More academic pursuits are already available. For example, “Let’s Learn Japanese” (http://marketplace.xbox.com/en-US/Product/Lets-Learn-Japanese-Beginner/66acd000-77fe-1000-9115-d802585504ac) is an early venture into language learning. Microsoft also now partnering with Sesame Workshop and National Geographic to pitch the Kinect as a potential tool for ‘embodied learning’ that puts children right into the action (http://content.usatoday.com/communities/gamehunters/post/2011/10/microsoft–kinect–xbox-360-learning/1).
So how can the innovation and advanced interactive features of the current generation of game consoles be harnessed for higher education? The answer may lie in supplementing online learning environments rather than replacing them. Consider the strengths of the game console as a potential supplemental tool to bolster the weaknesses of the traditional LMS:
Ease of navigation and familiarity to users. Students who grew up interacting in a three-dimensional online world can easily translate those skills to academic challenges. If navigation through academic software mimics traditional RPG’s with user friendly tools like Kinect and the Wii remote, there is one less hurdle to separate student from success. The fear of navigating a new online system is summarily removed.
Interconnectivity. Many games rely on the integration of game consoles with internet activity. For example, the Wii version of Club Penguin allows children to transfer their achievements and rewards to their online Club Penguin account, accessed through a web browser. All that is required is a network connection. Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure takes it one step further, and records data via RFID to figurines, which can then be synchronized online as well. The point is, if students can complete exercises, master objectives, and progress sequentially in course material on their game console, that information is very easily submitted and stored to an online LMS.
Standalone functionality. Every LMS is based on the assumption that students have consistent, high-speed internet connectivity. Furthermore, a high volume of server capacity is necessary for large institutions to support all students. Server downtime or network congestion can frustrate students attempting to frantically meet deadlines. If students can complete drill-and-practice work, view videos, and participate in simulations locally on their game console, and rely on internet connectivity only for the purpose of uploading and recording progress, the demands on network speeds and server capacity are reduced.
Availability and inexpensiveness. The processing power of an Xbox 360, for the cost of under $300, rivals most laptops (the custom CPU is a triple core processor running at 3.2 GHz) and the graphics power is naturally better (500 MHz GPU with 512 mb GDDR3 RAM). The amount of downtime due to viruses, hard drive failures, etc. becomes almost a non-issue compared to what students experience with their laptops. And as mentioned previously, a great many households already have access to game consoles.
I’m not suggesting that playing video games replace scholarly writing or course interaction in online LMS’s. I am, however, suggesting that we can harness the power of the tools that already exist to provide an exciting and different way to engage students, taking full advantage of technology the PC world has not yet embraced. The PC is being left behind in the way people use technology today, and replaced with tablets, PDA’s, and even game consoles. It’s time for the world of education to innovate in these different spaces to engage today’s learner.
In the past, I have postulated on this blog that the current model of online education is obsolete. The expression Web 2.0 has been in use for at least eight years to describe the interactive nature of the internet, but the world of academics has made scant effort to embrace it. While online education relies on dated, asynchronous tools such as email, discussion boards, and drop boxes, even our leisure pursuits have become vastly more interactive and vibrant…think Farmville, Second Life, and even beyond. When I say we need to think “outside the box,” I am not talking about a tired cliché. I am talking about that box under your desk that plugs into your monitor. In other words, online education does not have to be confined to your computer. Why not take advantage of the other box sitting next to the TV in virtually every household—the gaming system?
When evaluating any process, device, or system, I like to ask this: If there was nothing already in existence, no preconceived notion of how it is ‘supposed’ to work, and we invented it today, what would it look like? Sometimes you can hypothesize about such things and it avails you nothing because you are restricted by what is already in place. Take, for example, the highway system. You can’t just erase what’s already in place and start over if you want to redesign the traffic flow of a city, much less the whole country! But in online education, the same can’t be said. Nothing prevents us from starting over from scratch, and designing it based on the tools that are in existence today. We are not committed to the established pathways of the past in a physical sense. Starting over is scarcely more difficult than pressing the ‘delete’ key!
My next focus in reimagining online education will be to discuss the advantages of utilizing common elements of Web 2.0 and gaming systems simply to spark discussion. These elements include avatars, interactive environments, RFID interactivity, and the introduction of gaming systems as academic tools. Today I want to focus on avatars.
The current model of learning management systems is hallmarked by detachment of student, instructor, and peers. It is possible for students in many online learning platforms to pass a course and earn credit without ever having a real-time conversation with instructor or peers. Sometimes this gap is bridged by requiring at least one conference call or online session. Even so, students who prefer to ‘lurk’ can remain as disconnected as they choose. Teachers who choose not to share personal information or even a profile picture are easily perceived as an uncaring, non-present grading ‘robot’ by students. It can be difficult for instructors to have a real understanding of who students are, and to take their work in context when they cannot visualize the student as an individual. Consider teaching thirty or more students in an online course, and having no knowledge of their identity other than a name—and what if you have four Kimberlys in your class? Yet this matters to students…A distance educator at Boise State University explained that her research about online learning revealed that students frequently complained about having an unengaged or uninvolved instructor as a reason for their dissatisfaction (Magna Publications, “Distance Education Retention: The SIEME Model,” Retirement & Retention, December 2005). This is partly a byproduct of the flat nature of online instruction. So how can avatars promote a more personal connection in online coursework?
The avatar, in its most basic form, is a representative incarnation of a person. Before you participate in virtually any social media interactive game such as Farmville, you must first design your avatar. The importance of the avatar is not that it is an exact replica of the individual, but that it is a representation of what the individual wishes to present about himself or herself. This makes it a much less intimidating tool than using a webcam, for example. The self-conscious student (or instructor for that matter) can share only those elements of identity they are comfortable to share. Overweight? Bad acne? Gender confused? Afraid of age discrimination? Your avatar can represent you in a way that you are comfortable.
When using most LMS’s, students and instructors are unaware of the ‘presence’ of others engaged in the course concurrently. In an interactive room where an avatar represents the presence of participants, interaction between student, peers, and instructor becomes natural. A student is far more likely to ask the teacher questions if they can ‘see’ the teacher in the room, rather than having to send an email and wonder if it will be received and returned. By establishing a presence in the room at regular intervals, instructors can create an environment that promotes interactivity.
The web service Voki (http://www.voki.com) provides instructors with the ability to create an avatar and give it a voice. While this still lacks the interactivity of a robust, multi-participant environment such as Second Life, it may be a beginning point for instructors who are interested in providing a new ‘face’ for students to connect with in their course. If students were to interact the same way, discussion posts could actually become just that—discussion posts, not written papers gleaned and reproduced from a textbook or a website. This tool is still asynchronous, but it represents a step in the right direction—true interaction that fosters the development of personal connection and dialogue between students and instructors.
In my next article, I will elaborate on the potential of gaming systems as academic tools.