Dear LMS companies (and other ed tech sales people),

Thank you for getting in touch with me, and for not bothering our VP and President and CIO after I didn’t initially respond to you voice mail or email request to talk about the latest features that your LMS has to offer.  In the six years I’ve been in this job, I’ve had the opportunity to speak with many of you, both in person and via other means.  I admire the enthusiasm and patience you have in a role where I personally would struggle, especially when trying to get people like me excited about your latest offerings.  I suspect it must be very deflating to talk to people like me, and I always feel bad if I feel like I’ve wasted your time. This is actually the inspiration for this letter…

The first thing you need to know about us (JIBC) is that we are not your typical university or even college for that matter.  We are a publicly funded institute focused on training and educating people in public safety fields.  As an institute this means we offer everything from short certificates to degrees and post grad certificates.  However this also means that a big part of our education is short courses – intensive 2 or 3 day courses where students are engaged in immersive, hands-on, applied learning.  We call a lot of what we do “simulations” even though this generally means different things to different people. We try and simulate real life events (train derailments, burning buildings, mass casualty events) with or without technology, and have students immersed in these events to apply their learning.  We have an entire campus dedicated to burning things and putting out fires, in addition to a car race track, and at our main campus we have a fake courtroom, fake apartment building, and a building dedicated to scenario-based learning.  Oh, and (unusually for Canadian post secondaries) a gun range in the basement.

Interestingly, about 30% of what we do is online (for a variety of different reasons that I won’t get into here).  Our students are highly dispersed geographically, largely considered adult learners, and generally have an ongoing, lifelong learning relationship with our institution.  They come from professions that aren’t the sit-at-your-desk variety, which I label as mobile.  You may see where I’m going with all this, but let me elaborate a bit further.

  • For the most part, we don’t operate and design for a 3 credit, online course paradigm. This is what LMS’s do quite well.
  • We need a variety of tools that are well suited for short, micro moments of learning.  We’ve found that WordPress is really good at this.
  • A growing percentage of our courses are open, which we’ve found works best in open tools like WordPress.
  • We are a small budget institution with a need for a variety of ed tech tools, but not the ones that come with LMS’s – your latest eportfolio tool is not a sell.  And blowing our entire ed tech budget on a do-everything LMS is not our chosen strategy.
  • As a small budget institution, we need creative solutions to creating a non-resource intensive ed tech infrastructure.  More on that over here courtesy of @clintlalonde.
  • Our mobile needs are not met by simply app-ifying the LMS.  Our context for and view of mobile learning is very different (more on that here).
  • There are no ed tech tools (LMS or other) that are designed for synchronous online scenario-based learning. We created our own, and it is a core learning technology that is in the process of being commercialized.

So what can an LMS company do?  Well, the last time we had a vendor here, we took them on a tour of our applied learning spaces.  They showed interest but didn’t take notes even though we tried to drop them some clues as to where the dev group might want to put their heads.  For starters, I would suggest a well informed brainstorming session on applied learning – what does it look like, what do people do in it, what is the use context? Then perhaps a session that seriously unpacks what a course is or needs to be in that context.  Then I would take a group around to community colleges and vocational institutes that are doing some form of distance learning because you will probably find that they are doing some interesting and creative things with technology and program design.  Then perhaps go back to the drawing board and collaborate with some institutions on solving their problems before you try and sell them an out of the box package.  Case in point…if you had showed up at our doors 5 years ago with a synchronous, scenario-based online learning took, we would have taken a serious look at it and not bothered developing our own.  Or, if you had partnered with us in developing it, we would have found a mutually beneficial relationship.

Thanks for listening…I look forward to seeing where you go in the future.



Mobile Learning at an Applied Institution

We’ve been asked on numerous occasions about our mobile strategy–how we got there and where we are going next.  Oddly, we are rarely asked the why question, but for me that is really where it starts.

The Context

When I first came to JIBC 4 years ago, mobile was on my radar as the latest thing but I was already at that stage of ed tech dis-illusionism where everything sounded like a buzzword. But the more I learned about this peculiar institution– which boasts a relatively unusual range of course offerings, course formats, and professions and pathways–the more mobile became interesting.  When a particularly savvy program area pitched the idea of an app, explaining that it would eliminate the need to carry stacks of binders of info into the field, the lightbulb went off.  Mobile wasn’t a nice to have here, it was an ed tech necessity.

The necessity factor is in fact much more nuanced.  Institutional data shows that our students have a long term/lifelong relationship with the institution. There’s a lot to be unpacked here, but put simply, JIBC is embedded in professional and physical communities who send their people to us for training, who then go back to their communities, only to come back later for further training.

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The Assumptions

Once you consider this JIBC student trajectory, the method to our mobile madness makes a lot more sense.

1. We teach to professions that aren’t the sit at your desk variety.  First responders are generally on the go, in the field, and attached to some sort of mobile device.

2. Experiential learning, simulations, or active case scenarios, are a primary method of training.  These simulations take place, for the most part, outside of a classroom environment.

3.  Learning, while on the job or at the institution, has a fair bit of just-in-time characteristics.

4. The tools and resources that are used while in their JIBC program are the same tools and resources that are used in their professions.

Our initiative is based on the above assumptions and criteria.  Number 4 is critical–everything we’ve created for mobile is something that could be used by a community, a professional, or a student in our programs.  This is also one of the reasons why most of our mobile initiative projects are free or open.

The Mobile Initiative: Evolving towards a strategy

While we have a mobile initiative, I wouldn’t say that we are at a point where we can call it a strategy.  Through some donor funding, we’ve been able to create a favourable environment for experimentation and learning and failing.  We’ve done this by funding equipment, small pilots, and contributing to boosting the infrastructure.

1. We funded the purchase 2 class sets (50) of tablets for loaning and pilots.  This number also required the purchase of some Griffin charging/syncing stations, a mac mini, and covers.

2.  We funded the development of some iOS apps. None of these apps have cost more than $3000.

3. We funded the purchase of an array of program specific apps.

4. We funded some instructor/program-initiated pilots. Most of these are simple projects that can be done off the side of a desk with a little bit of pilot money for equipment, or staff or contractor backfill time.  We don’t require the pilot to succeed, we only require that lessons learned be shared.  Most of these pilots have cost less than $3000.

5. We funded some necessary IT  infrastructure pieces, such as Airwatch licenses for the mobile device management system, and technology for a “classroom of the future” that is designed with mobile in mind.

We try and make it as easy as possible for people to bring an idea to our centre and to try it out.  We make sure everybody understands that we are learning as much as they are.  We emphasize that we don’t have all the answers, but the purpose of pilots are to better understand what is needed, what should become integrated, and what we shouldn’t bother with moving forward.

The next stage is to articulate considerations for a strategy. So far what has emerged is:

1.  Good campus wifi is essential to making this work.  (We have some work to do here)

2. Although we started with creating native iOS apps, WordPress has been a very effective alternative for certain projects.

3.  The idea of a learning ecosystem is helpful in deconstructing the learning environment–for a tablet program, the tablet provides the platform for all the bits that make up the program learning ecosystem.

4.  A mobile device management system (MDM) with something like Airwatch is essential for moving from small, isolated projects to more integrated, program level thinking about mobile.  It basically allowed us to move into the big leagues.

5. Mobile thinking should probably be the default at our institution, given who are students are, where they come from, and where they are going.

Presentation for ETUG 2014
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Innovation in Higher Education

I spent the better part of last week at CNIE 2014 in Kamloops where I got to enjoy some good sunshine, great TRU hospitality, great music, and good presentations and conversations with old and new colleagues.  It was probably the first time I’d been to a conference where I left with a feeling that there was a common angsty thread in many of the discussions around innovation, nicely kicked off by Audrey Watters and already captured on her blog Hack Education (how does she do that so fast??) and wrapped up by Brian Lamb (not yet posted but hopefully captured).

Screen Shot 2014-05-20 at 2.39.05 PMThe purpose of my presentation–slides here–was to talk about how an over-investment in the LMS occurs at the expense of innovative tools that we need in our sector to address our teaching and learning problems.  I don’t feel like vendors really provide us  with the tools we actually need, and perhaps they shouldn’t be providing them anyways.  I use JIBC as an example of an institution whose roots are genuinely in experiential, real-life, and applied learning, but as more and more of our contact hours go online, we are left with few, if any tools that allow us to do appropriately.

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The LMS is both everything and nothing at our institution–it allows us to go online with our content and provide greater access to the students we reach in 183 communities across BC, but it is hardly the ideal tool for experiential and applied learning.  It is also not ideal for open courses such as this one (for which we increasingly use WordPress), 1-3 day short courses (the bread and butter of our institution), or very specific learning environments such as simulations.

In my presentation I point to three examples of tools created at public post-secondary institutions in response to problems that needed to be solved that couldn’t be solved by an LMS.  The first was Praxis, a web-based synchronous tool created at JIBC for conducting live simulation “exercises”.  This tool is now an increasing part of our programming, because it allows us to do online what we were well-known for face-to-face.



The second is Radicl, a BCIT- created tool for the Medical Radiography program which allows for logging and critiquing images between instructors, students, and preceptors.

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The third is one I was introduced to at the conference, a type of competency tracking tool called Power for logging medical student case logs, created at U of T Faculty of Medicine in conjunction with a vendor.

Screen Shot 2014-05-20 at 2.46.29 PMAll of these tools demonstrate the degree to which public post-secondary education can be innovative and create innovative tools. Unfortunately, they are all currently closed innovations despite being tools that have relevance and use across the sector.  U of T shares IP with the vendor that developed it, and both Praxis and Radicl aren’t currently open for use in other institutions.  In an era of diminishing institutional resources these tools are viewed by administrators as potential revenue streams and there is really no incentive to offer them up as open source tools to be shared across the sector.  We would rather spend millions on low risk, yet low satisfaction (for the most part) vendor products than create tools that address our teaching and learning contexts and share them across the province.   We view open tools as risky and resource intensive, yet we have entire teams dedicated to enhancing the LMS experience for students.  We think that our institutions are too small or incapable of creating innovative things, yet we forget that  the sector collectively has the capacity to take back our agency that we so willingly give to vendors who don’t share our interests.

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There is no doubt that vendors have created a buzzword out of  innovation.  But in the same way that public education has been able to take back textbooks and scholarly publications by adopting an open approach, a parallel activity needs to happen around open and collaborative innovation of our teaching and learning tools.  To me, this is a much less risky, and more sustainable approach to our sector.