learning management systems and “disempowerment.”

ECAR just released Web 2.0, Personal Learning Environments, and the Future of Learning Management Systems, a bulletin by Niall Sclater that critically examines the role and functionality of the LMS in higher education (subscription required to access). Sclater makes the salient point that the term ”learning management system” itself “suggests disempowerment – an attempt to manage and control the activities of the student by the university.” The bulletin focuses on several important questions concerning the role of the LMS:

  • “Can we bring some of the social networking facilities that students find so appealing inside the institution?
  • Should we use tools hosted elsewhere on the Internet by others?
  • Should we simply allow learners to select social networking tools for themselves?”

Sclater also summarizes current arguments in the blogosphere for and against Learning Management Systems. I agree that 1) the typical LMS experience ends up rigidly reflecting institutional practices rather than supporting flexible learning, 2) “are being used primarily as storage facilities for lecture notes and Powerpoint presentations,” and 3) despite pledges to not sue at least a few of their competitors, dominant for-profit LMS incarnations are still stifling innovation in spite of their own inane attempts at interface design and functionality.

That said, as someone experienced in the difficulties of facilitating successful e-learning I believe that until expertise in online instructional design becomes more widely diffuse throughout academe that LMSystems are a necessary pseudo-evil. Beyond their obvious advantage to libraries trying to integrate their services into the daily teaching and learning practice of their users, the LMS provides a critical scaffold/structure through which institutions can manage the slow process of e-learning adoption (not to mention simple communication between learners and educators). Students shouldn’t have to learn a new interface every time they enroll in a new class, and a centralized system prevents them from having to do so. Most of the LMS products I have worked with have been disappointing in one way or another, but I am definitely a fan of the open source versions that tend to offer a great deal more flexibility than Blackboard, etc.

The ECAR bulletin also discusses the promise of browser-based and online PLEs (personalized learning environments) that allow students to “take ownership” of their learning process, which has already begun in a number of subtle ways – via tools such as the citation plug-in I wrote about yesterday, for example. Issues in interoperability are very much still a hurdle to truly individualized e-learning, so at present the LMS is an imperfect compromise. Encouragingly, centralized LMSs are improving in a number of ways – Sclater identifies attempts at moving past the course-based model, providing offline access, and integrating social networking features, among others.

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