Things do not have to be more confusing than they already are. Many of us jumped into the EdTech field because of our love for tech and innovation applied to learning. The science behind some of the modern tools is complex, if often in elegant ways. But as enjoyable as it might be to get heavy with small moving parts, it is also advisable to step back from time to time.
Explain the LMS to a 5-year old engineer
Here’s the exercise proposed by agnostic industry veteran Alex Shortsleeve. Define, in simple words, what the purpose of an LMS is. You are not allowed to mention any features. You cannot mention brands of industry-specific terminology. You can mention certain words, with care. Education, learning, system, platform, knowledge, communication. Feel free to pile buzzwords onto the blacklist. You can, of course, focus on the end user, their raw benefits, and all aspects related to adding value to the activity. You can end with an optimistic, or —why not— utopian note of how LMS further the human endeavor or some such.
How did you go? Shortsleeve, who devised the task, would be the first to admit how much he struggled through it. What is more surprising is that the exercise is not meant to help explain LMS to newcomers. Instead, it is part of a healthy practice if you are a marketer, entrepreneur, or advocate like him.
In a way, we are prey to our knowledge. If we went through some measure of persistent hardship, we can end up “scarred.” Our views inseparable from the pains of making sense of it all. We can’t help but to use the technicalities we’ve surrounded ourselves with. Meanwhile, a blossoming world of incredible phenomena continues to unfold. We know all about systems, activities, modules, integrations. In the meantime, fresh generations of learners are eager to make sense of the world. They have no patience for old things.
A more optimistic view provided Shortsleeve with a few lessons about human learning. It is a project worth contributing to. His expertise does earn him authority, but not the kind others are supposed to bow to. Instead, he carries a unique lesson, that might benefit only a few. Despite short stints in K12 and Higher Ed, he has a true niche. Namely, corporate training and professional development. But helping a few is a condition for a sustainable system of collaborative learning.
LMS, Obscurantism or Enlightenment
There are types of LMS, but knowledge overlaps. This highlights two key elements in the practice of a learning technologist:
- The value of a network. Trends can begin in one place to thrive in another. Or they can adapt and find new ways to add value, to the benefit of all. Take gamification, tied to the youngest learners first, now booming in adult settings. Or microlearning, experimented with across all levels. We are still eager to see where it helps best, and how.
- The importance of openness. Ideas have no copyright, and if they are valuable, they find adaptation wherever they fit. But technologies can remain captive, and some people can slow down learning and innovation for the rest. We have witnessed the result time and again: Polished, siloed solutions with proprietary licenses on one side. Riding along, open, flexible software with an idiosyncratic background. It explains why open source is a way of life for an increasing number of people.
It could be that a healthy way to approach LMS is not from a place of necessity or peer pressure, but of opportunity. A few forward thinking organizations reflect this idea, albeit not to its full extent. The LMS procurement process at Cornell, for example, involved practical and cost considerations. But potential and even name recognition seemed to play larger roles in the final choice. An LMS can be a special kind of ally. As Shortsleeve points out, they can further sophisticated paedagogical approaches and experimentation. Competition and standardization make features an elementary aspect. Yet, long term adoption is a matter of how they keep up. Or rather, how they allow a learning organization to be part of the conversation. Shortsleeve, as well as us, ignores what the future of the LMS is. But he’s been reading the tea leaves. Before, he guessed mobile, scalability and the cloud part of the healthy diet. What’s next might not be hard to guess. Intuitive UIS. Data and analytics. Traceability. More precise ROIs on learning. It could be just a matter of how, and by whom.
Conclusion: A stark reality
There is a more urgent problem: Underusage. LMS seem to enjoy a period that makes having one imperative. Sales teams seem accustomed to prevalent “backwards reasoning” among organizations. They buy in, then find arguments and stats that tell why it was the right choice. Meanwhile, questions of effectiveness and value remain unaddressed. The situation might never change. But chances are you find Shortsleeve practicing on his “unclothed” definition.