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.



A Response to D’Arcy Norman on the LMS/Open Binary

D’Arcy Norman has a great post on his blog where he challenges what he feels is a binary between LMS hate and Open love.  I was really excited by this post because a) I realized how thirsty I’ve been to read actual blog posts again and b) I found it nailed the state of LMS and Open ed tool thinking.

I think where you sit on the continuum of Open to LMS has to do with the kind of institution and institutional resources available to you.  I work at a small but highly productive institution that runs on about 40 million (yes, only one 0 there, folks) a year.  D’Arcy makes the point that institutions use and even require many types of software systems that are as much if not more expensive than the LMS.  However, at small institution, this is a big deal.  When a necessary piece of software like an SIS costs millions, not mere thousands of dollars, the institution weighs its options very, very carefully.  The LMS, in its capacity to be the do everything tool, becomes the only tool by necessity, since financial tools and SIS tools are almost non-optional purchases.

This is fine if you think that the LMS can and should do everything. Or if you think it’s adequate for most of your courses.  The LMS offers the path of least resistance and becomes the de facto measuring stick anytime other tools might be suggested:  WordPress?  Wikis? But Blackboard has those too.  Or, does it integrate with Blackboard? Does it integrate with our SIS?

As D’Arcy points out, scale is important here, and at small institutions it matters for different reasons.  At a large institution, scale matters because of the shear number of students to which a platform has to be rolled out.  At a small institution with much smaller numbers, it matters because of the lack of resources (skilled people) to implement anything more complicated or resource intensive than clicking a button.

Ironically, a small institution is constantly challenged to not take the path of least resistance.  In our case, we are different because we can offer small class sizes, experiential learning, and overall a different kind of learning experience for students.  Next to the F2F experience, the LMS experience can be very bland, since it is really designed around certain assumptions of what a F2F experience is in higher education, and what is needed in an online equivalent. Therefore, at my institution we are required to give more focus to tools that can provide a much more meaningful online experience, and increasingly this means looking more broadly at a wider range of tools, and even creating some of our own tools.   For us, this is innovation for the right reasons, and we like to think that it is about doing the right thing for the students, even if it’s not as easy. Open tools, at least part of the time, provide us some ability to do this.

Which takes us back to the resource problem.  If all of the ed tech budget is sucked into the LMS, it doesn’t leave much for the innovation budget.  So which is more important? Choice #1 is stable, easy-ish, and guaranteed to take care of most of the institutional ed tech needs in one handy license.  Choice #2 is perceived as risky, potentially more resource intensive, and a bit of an unknown.  At the end of the day, the question has to be asked–is innovation a nice-to-have, or is it essential to the sustainability of the institution, who exists to provide a meaningful learning experience for students that is different from the bigger institutions?  For us, the LMS is like a big comfy lay-z-boy that you can’t get out of, even though you probably should.

#ETUG and the 1994 flashback

Screen Shot 2014-06-15 at 11.44.18 AMI spent that last couple of days at the ETUG Spring workshop, which was a bit of a special one for the ETUG crowd given that it was the 20th anniversary edition.  The Langara location was itself a bit of a flashback for me, given that my first real post secondary job was at Langara only 13 short years ago.  For added fun, ETUG  invited us to think about the state of educational  technology 20 years ago in relation to our lives at that time.

The backstory

I found myself thinking about that a a fair bit during the 2 days, since there were so many subtle reminders of where we were and how we’ve evolved in higher education ed tech spaces.  In 1994 I was a first year grad student at Université Laval in Québec City in the department of Didactique des langues secondes (Bilingual Education).  My program, which had been mapped out by my thesis supervisor, was going to focus on self-directed language learning and ed tech.  But I had zero interest in ed tech.  I had selected my supervisor based on my interest in geo-political linguistics  and language ecology and William F. Mackey was an international heavyweight in that area (eg. in 1994 he was publishing in an edited volume called La Ecología de las Sociedades Plurlingües/The Ecology of Multilingual Societies–good stuff, even today). But according to Mackey, there were no jobs in this area, and he was refusing to take on students in that topic, directing them instead to the fantastic future of educational technology and applied linguistics.

The problem was that in 1994 educational technology was largely inaccessible, expensive, dull, and visually unappealing.  There was no internet at ULaval in 1994.  Instead, we were treated to discs on slow computers that allowed students to practice vocabulary (affordance: Immediate feedback!!), or highlight text on the screen while reading (affordance:  cognitive strategy!!).  The limousine of educational technology came in the form of the video disc , and MIT’s À la Rencontre de Philippe , a branching interactive fiction released on video disc, was admittedly a shining star in the sea of dull.

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My job was to create a computerized version of  English Through Pictures, which I never did, because I got bored, started taking weaving and textile arts classes at the CÉGEP de Limoilou in their fantastic Métiers d’Art program , and eventually dropped out completely of my Masters.  It took 5 years of doing other things and the appearance of the internet for me to pick it back up at UBC.

The ETUG connection

ETUG opened with a great keynote by @jenterysayers on maker culture, which had me reflecting on the tensions between maker and academic rigour, craft and art, applied education and “academic” education. But I also found it curious how so many ed tech/IT people are attracted to the idea of making or craft. In my case, craft has certainly been a necessary antidote to time spent in front of a screen.

There was also a strong thread of “open” at ETUG via numerous presentations, and this was also a good opportunity to reflect on both the 1994 state of journals, and ed tech software.  I spent a lot of time in the library photocopying journal articles from the approximately three journals on ed tech and language learning that existed at the time (CALICO, System, CALL).  If the open internet had been around in 1994, I likely would have been able to finish my masters project back then without  a lot of cost or effort.  Being an ed tech grad student in 1994 was pretty lonely, and I could have connected more widely with a great community of people like ETUG for support and advice, which highlighted for me how important that community has become.

On the flip side, I attended a great session by Esther Thiessen on the LMS, which really showed how little the LMS has changed in the past decade and a half and provoked us to think about why there are some things in ed tech that have not really changed at all.  This is where I think there is room to do more making at our institutions–the LMS hasn’t changed because we don’t feel like we have the means or authority to change it, and it’s become a sort of ball and chain that we drag around. I hope that in 20 years we can look back on this problem and reflect on how far we’ve come thanks to openness and good community.