Perspective: A Meteor Strike May Cause LMS Systems to become Extinct!

Dr. Charles Severance, University of Michigan School of Information

Today’s learning management systems, such as Sakai, Blackboard, Angel, Moodle, and others, represent a very mature and smoothly functioning ecosystem. These systems are all mature enough that the majority of faculty and student users are generally satisfied – regardless of which system their university has chosen. Increasingly, these products adopt each other’s features and are slowly beginning to look like clones of one another. This behavior is quite natural in a well diffused market, where the only way to get a new customer is to take that customer away from a competitor. The right marketing approach in a saturated market is to claim “we have everything they have – and more!”. Products compare themselves with the others in the market and adopt features to either gain an edge over a competitor or take away a competitor’s edge in some area.

One might see this seeming stability and maturity in the ecosystem as the “golden age” of Learning Management Systems. However, when things start to appear to be “too stable” – perhaps it really means that we are waiting for a disruptive change to move us in a new direction and evolve and grow. When we look back a few years from now, we may realize that this was just the late Jurassic period and the current crop of LMSs are the Tyrannosaurus, Triceratops and Apatosaurus – unknowingly waiting for the meteor to strike.

There is a significant unsolved problem when moving course information between Learning Management Systems and Open Educational Resources such as the MIT Open Courseware initiative. There is a similar tension moving course content between commercial publishers and LMSs. Currently, the LMS holds the ‘high ground’ in the conflict with content producers because we force students to use an LMS. Content producers must convince the teachers to adopt their content and then bring the content into the LMS. So, in order to reach their market, content producers are forced to adjust to the technical demands of the LMS vendors – even if those technical demands change each time the vendor produces a new release of the LMS. There is a lucrative sub-industry in the publishing business to take a copy of publisher content and produce up to 5-10 versions of the same content for the each LMS.

The problem is no better when we are taking content out of an LMS. To produce an Open Educational Resource from LMS-based materials, there is often a completely custom, high touch/high cost process to extract, convert and clean up the materials so they can be published into the OER Repository. Of course, once in the OER Repository, other teachers want to use the materials and so they need to pull the learning resources *back into* their local LMS. The need to go through two painful conversions to get “open” learning content out of one LMS and then back into another makes the cross-flow and remixing of learning content between different LMS systems via OER repositories virtually impossible and sadly rather rare.

The meteor strike will happen when the owners and holders of content tire of the current situation and decide to take the initiative and simply change the rules of the game. Content holders will realize that the current crop of Learning Management Systems are mostly a set of “learning gadgets” arranged around a simple content management system. It will quickly become clear that it is easier for the learner to bring the Learning Management System “gadgets” to the content than laboriously convert and copy the content into the LMS. We should not redundantly embed learning resources in hundreds or thousands of Learning Management Systems just so the content can be “close” to the learning gadgets.

Bringing the learning software to the content has many benefits. There is a single carefully curated and maintained copy of the materials. The providers of information can more easily track use metrics and report on impact. Commercial content providers can build scalable business models that do not include tailored conversion and duplicative content handling. Dramatically reducing the production and logistics costs of published materials may lead to new attractive business models for publisher-provided content as well as greatly increase the reuse of open materials.

What is needed is a way for the LMS to “tag along” as the user moves between various sources of content. In essence, the LMS should be a small unobtrusive menu layered on top of the content. This “embedded” LMS has all of the features of the current LMS offerings. It does not have to be any one LMS system – it can even make use of best-of-breed existing tools and capabilities in Moodle, Angel, Sakai, Blackboard or others as long as the current LMS providers invest the time to make their tools and capabilities available as widgets.

The content must be able to retrieve a list of LMS tools to use and identify the appropriate learning context for the current student viewing the material. With this approach, literally thousands of students in hundreds of learning contexts could be simultaneously using the same freshman calculus materials at an OER repository such as Each student is given a personal set of tools appropriate for an individualized learning context.

At a high level, the approach is quite simple – we borrow a well-understood pattern from service-oriented architecture called “inversion of control”. The content does not know in advance which LMS will be used — instead, at the moment the student visits the content page, the content contacts a central server and asks “what tools are configured for the current viewer of my content”. The tools are then displayed in a menu bar that hovers unobtrusively over the content. The learner experience consists of traveling from one content page/site to another and this little LMS toolbar just follows them around. The toolbar can even have a “Content Map” tool that leads the student from site to site.

This is accomplished in a similar manner to Google Analytics, Google Maps, or Google Friend Connect. A bit of JavaScript from a trusted source is embedded in the content and handles all of the management of determining which tools are appropriate for the current user viewing the page and displays the appropriate menu above the page. When a menu item is chosen the learning gadget pops up on top of the content. The gadgets can run back on the servers at the students’ campus – the content does not even know the identities of the students visiting the content. All of the logging and identity is stored back at the system that is running the widgets. All of the orchestration of identity, menus, and tool launching can be handled by an emerging FaceBook-like standard for learning – IMS Learning Tools Interoperability.

When the content providers decide to enable the use of learning management system widgets on top of their content, the transformation from LMS-centered learning to student and content-centered learning will likely happen very rapidly.

If this approach is widely adopted it will dramatically change the role of the LMS in education. The move away from LMS-centered thinking to content-centered (and web-centered) thinking in teaching technology could be the meteor-like transformative event that may make the current LMS walled-garden approach extinct in a few years. Of course, this new approach is open and standards based so it allows any LMS to produce an “embedded” version of itself for use in this new content-centered learning environment.

Perhaps the dinosaurs will evolve instead of going completely extinct after the content meteor hits. The more adaptable LMS platforms will survive by evolving to grow wings and feathers and learning to fly.

If all goes well, perhaps a few years from now when learners, mentors and teachers are flying around the web, learning as they go, clever embedded versions of Moodle, Angel, Sakai, and Blackboard will be their ever-present “co-pilots” along with a new and diverse set of learning tools to meet the needs of portfolios, lifelong learning, user-centered learning, and ideas that we have not even imagined.