In 2006 I was at a distance learning conference, and someone was interviewing participants, asking them to share one prediction that they have about the future of distance learning. I didn’t know that question was coming, so I shared the first thing that came to mind. I started by reflecting on my first experience designing online courses, which eventually led to what most would consider a flawed prediction about the future of the learning management system. I explained that I expected a time in the near future whene the LMS would disappear, replaced by stand-alone elements that could connect with one another, allowing for a sort of personalized learning management system. Why did I make such a prediction and where did I go wrong? Or did I go wrong?
It was around 1996, and I was teaching at a middle and high school in Illinois. I proposed to the school board that we start a pilot online high school program, asking for nothing but permission. In other words, I didn’t ask for any seed money. I had this idea that I could launch an online high school with a zero dollar budget. That means I had to depend upon innovative teachers who were open to trying something new and volunteering their time. I mentioned it at a faculty meeting and was delighted to find a number of interested and committed participants. There was an art teacher, a science teacher, an English teacher, and a social studies teacher. We each decided to get acclimated by picking a course that we always dreamed of offering and meeting weekly to progressively design an online version of that course. As such, we worked on the design of courses in the history of great American leaders, art history, world literature, and a course about the interaction between science and religion.
We didn’t have a learning management system. We started by providing a brief description of the proposed course and the learning outcomes…a minimalist syllabus. From there, I encouraged each of us to come up with some sort of over-arching metaphor upon which we would shape our course designs.
For example, the world literature course was a world travel theme. As students traveled to different parts of the world and experienced the literature of that part of the world, they wrote reflections in their travel journal and earned a new stamp in their “learning passport.”
Each course had such a theme. The history of leaders course focused on a time machine that took you on surprise journeys to the homes of different great leaders in history. The science/religion course took you on a church-shaped rocket ship through the Universe, with a small play on C.S. Lewis’s space trilogy. The art history course was a tour through a fiction museum that was a mix between Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory and a traditional art museum.
To this day, these were some of my most creative and enjoyable design projects. We were not designing with the set features of a learning management system.
We started with a blank canvas, and created some wonderfully innovative courses with rich and engaging learning experiences, narratives that held the course together. After the vision for each course developed, then I started to search for tools that would make each vision a reality.
We basically built the courses on a web server where I added different applications to provide discussion forums or whatever else we needed. There were simulations, reflective exercises, and everything existed within the course theme/metaphor/narrative, similar to how you might design a quality video game.
Later, as I worked with online learning at various schools and organizations, the learning management system developed and became a sort of skeleton upon which courses would be built. As the LMS grew in popularity, it seemed to me that course design processes often become less creative and more factory-like. Even to this day, I lament that shift in the industry, but realize that part of it is due to the fact that more free and narrative-driven course designs take more time, energy and creativity; and enough people seem content with the stale and dominant models that there does not seem to be a drive for something else.
My Flawed Prediction
This was my line of thinking when I answered that question about the future of the learning management system. It was part prediction and part longing for that past experience. When asked in 2006, a decade after my first online course design experiences, I combined my past experience with what was often referred to as web 2.0 at that time. It was also three years after the launch of the first version of WordPress and the growth of the content management system. With such tools, I saw ample room for plug-ins and integrations, and imagined a future where you could take an open source CMS and use it to pull together everything you need to design rich and engaging courses. I truly believed that, by today, we would have seen a decline in LMSs like Blackboard or Desire2Learn, and a new model that allowed people to pull together technologies, plug-ins and resources from all over the place.
Where Did I Go Wrong?
Obviously, my prediction was wrong, or at least my timing. Why? In one way, there was truth to my prediction as many LMSs have APIs and other integration capabilities. If you are paying for Blackboard Learn or Canvas, you can add tons of features through third party integrations. The same thing is true with Moodle and other learning management systems. Yet, the LMS industry is a large one and growing. At this point, I believe that I underestimated three important factors.
TV Dinner Technology
Have you ever eaten a TV dinner, one of those prepackaged meals that you cook in the microwave oven? I realize that taste in food is relative, but comparing those meals to a freshly prepared meal is hardly worth the comparison. If you had a choice between homemade mashed potatoes or what you find in those dinners, who would choose the TV dinner option? Yet, grocery stores stock them and the industry seems to be doing quite well because it is prepared for you, quick, and easy. People seem to often have the same approach when it comes to educational technology and designing blended or online learning. Go with a pre-packaged option that generally works out of the box. The LMS we use at my University right now has entire features that are completely broken, and the company knows about it. Their answer is that they will get to that in the next version. In the meantime, just don’t press that button. Can you imagine buying a car that way? Yet, there is a large enough population that is willing to go with it because they/we don’t have the time, resources, or internal expertise for the do-it-yourself option.
Disruptive Innovations Start as Lower Quality Alternatives
That is how disruptive innovations like online learning work. They are often less functional services that meet the needs of an audience that is not served by the standard service or product. Online learning has done that and people have become content with how things are in online courses and programs. They don’t know what they are missing because they have probably not ever experienced an alternative type of online course. They learn enough and get their credential, so they are adequately satisfied. I was looking at what the best possible future could be for online learning, not the most likely. You can design wonderfully engaging courses in an LMS, but each LMS also has limits and shapes people’s thinking about what an online course should be or do. That has benefits, but it also hinders some of the most creative and unconventional designs. People are generally happy with the limited experience provided with an LMS, so the market demand persists.
The Creativity Gap Plus the Regulation Trap
The type of vision that I was describing for a post-LMS online learning world requires a greater level of creativity and innovation than what is commonplace in the industry today. While there are plenty of wonderful exceptions, the online learning space has become comfortable with a set of 20-30 features, methods and strategies; and 90% of the online courses that you see today consist of those 20-30. We need true learning architects and people committed to design thinking to imagine alternatives. Yet, even if we have those people, there are concerns about complying with external regulations, conforming to policies about security and attendance, or any number of other internal processes that require a largely straightforward approach. Staying in the less creative and simple LMS bubble is a safe choice for people.
Was I wrong? Yes and no. The spirit of my prediction certainly came to be. We are definitely in a new space of integrations, plug-ins, and add-on thirdparty services. However, people are still willing to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for the central LMS that holds all those integrations together. I still see a possible future of an open source, free, or highly inexpensive platform that replaces the LMS; allowing people to select from a storefront of free, inexpensive and other costly third party integrations. It is the Android or IOS app world intersecting with both the open source movement and the LMS world.