SYNKRON August 2014 featured an article about LMS, a topic relevant to anyone involved with distance education. In Norway LMSes are extensively used, or at least purchased, and the institutions of flexible education were not only early adopters of LMS, but in many cases innovators. The article is written from a Norwegian point of view, and because most of the sources are in the native language, they are not listed here. I have also shortened the article a bit. The full version in Norwegian can be found in Synkron:
The LMS isn’t dead –it just smells funny
In the later years, several voices have predicted the death of the LMS, claiming that the LMS is a dinosaur to big and old fashioned to be able to change as rapidly as the new markets demand. I think peoples’ view upon this matter often depends on whether they belong mainly in the educational sphere or mainly in the technological sphere.
My own LMS history started in 2002, when the primary school where I was a teacher piloted the Norwegian LMS giants (although back then they were still in their adolescence) ; itslearning and Fronter. Some years later I found myself working full time for Fronter, so I’ve basically been living and breathing LMS for 11 years.
LMS is an acronym for Learning Management System, although in Norway the LMS is often referred to as a learning platform, a term that perhaps describes the structure rather than the functionality. A third term is VLE –Virtual Learning Environment. I dare say that what you choose to call it says something about your general view on education, and that the students would benefit from more VLE and less LMS.
LMS functionality has been used and developed in Norway since the eighties. Originally it was typically the educational institutions that created their own systems. Among the pioneers were some of FuN’s own members. NKS, NKI and BI all had electronic bulletin boards that the students accessed via phone and modem. NKI, BI and Norsk Nettskole developed their own LMSes during the second half of the nineties. Their systems were adapted to the specific methods of remote education, and the main functionalities were a clearly structured content publishing system, assignment with electronic hand-in and teacher comments, and online discussions. The two commercial platforms; Fronter and itslearning, emerged in the late nineties, and quickly gained market shares in Norway and Europe in general. This early history of the LMS was not exclusive for Norway, of course. In USA they saw the same development; schools and universities creating their own systems that would later be acquired or outcompeted by the large companies.
There are mainly three areas that determine the development of the LMSes:
1) The Market: the customer and the end user is hardly ever the same person. The decision makers are often board of directors of a university or chain of schools, local authorities, or even governments. These decision makers will typically focus on the administrative parts of the systems, and this will in its turn influence the product development.
2) The Users: No LMS can survive for long if the students and teachers don’t log in and perform the expected tasks, or at least some tasks. The end users have different expectations than the decision makers; they want flexibility, access from their preferred devices and an intuitive user interface.
3) The technological development: Innovation in one area triggers innovation in other areas, and the end users expectations grow at the same rate, making it necessary for providers to keep up.
We do know quite a lot about the extent of the use of LMS in Norway, but not that much about the effects. In distance education the LMS is probably indispensable. The LMS is where the students find their learning resources, hand-in their assignments and communicate with teachers and peers. We don’t know how much they use other resources, like social media, but a report published by NTNU states that remote students tend to not communicate with their peers to any great extent. In another report NTNU has demonstrated that LMS is indeed used mostly for administrative purposes, and only secondary for learning related activity, though this report is mainly describing campus education. It seems there is no doubt anymore; internet is here to stay. It also seems likely that the LMS is here to stay, in one form or another. In 2011, Phil Hill wrote about the LMS market:
“This new market that is emerging will look quite different from the market we have seen for the past 6-8 years, and we should no longer view this as an evolving market. But instead view it as a market being disrupted with new competitors and new dynamics.”
So far it seems he is right. This does not implicate that the LMS has to die, but unlike other educational resources that can comfortably develop in the same sedate pace as education in general, the educational technology needs to keep up with technology in general. In Norway we see that schools and universities that discontinue their old LMS tend to switch to a new one rather than encourage students and teachers to pick and choose and arrange their own suite of apps and social media and other software. We see an increasing gap between the users’ expectations and the user friendliness. At the same time we see an increasing need for reports and for data analytics. The first fact indicates that the LMSes need to adapt to the development in personal technology or the students and teachers can’t be bothered to even use it. The second that school owners will depend heavily on activity in the platform to get the required data, and will use their own incentives to get this activity. Anyway, I think it is safe to predict that the LMS of the future will have a lot more M and S than L.
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