The Mashable One-Stop Shop

So... interesting meeting yesterday, it really got me thinking. We've been on the road this week talking to a bunch of schools, and one meeting in particular sparked the pontifical juices. It was a rough discussion. Funny how rejection always makes you think harder than success.

See, there's a lot of talk right now about student-centered learning, about putting the student in the driver's seat of their education. The LMS, instead of just dispersing static information, needs to be a springboard to new resources and innovative learning techniques. Great rhetoric, although I find it interesting that we're talking about totally transforming the nature of the LMS when I've yet to see even the most successful LMS's take advantage of basic things like AJAX requests and in-page edits. But that's another story. As is the issue of moderate vs. extreme constructivism. Anyway.

Web 2.0 services keep showing up, and educators are finally starting to take note (well, some of them anyway) of their potential for learning. There's a natural push from the innovators to leverage these new technologies in education, and that means including them in the LMS somehow. Maybe even replacing an established feature of the LMS. That's a big change from how things have worked in the past. Traditional LMS's are a one-stop shop. They have their version of a standard list of features, and that's about it. You can add new functionality with plugins, but replacing say, the discussion board, could only happen by throwing a new link somewhere else in the course structure -- confusing faculty and students in the process. That leaves you stuck with whatever the LMS offers, there's no chance to search for best of breed on your standard feature set.

Solution? The impression I got from yesterday's meeting is that you make the LMS into a mash-up. It becomes a skeleton that doesn't offer the features itself, it links to other services that offer the features. Let the teachers decide for themselves. Taken to the extreme, when the teacher first sets up the course they pick from a drop-down list of discussion boards, group messaging systems, gradebooks, file repositories, content management systems, etc. The LMS just keeps student data secure and brings all the resources into one place. That's really just one step up from what the innovators are doing right now -- WordPress for their announcements, MediaWiki for their assignments, and Google Groups for their discussions. All that plus a single point of entry.

While I do see the utility of heading in that direction (and also the challenge of integrating with all those services), I think there's a bigger jump involved than a lot of instructional techs are acknowledging. It's funny, really, because I've described the future of the LMS in almost exactly the same words that I heard yesterday, although I had a slightly different image in mind. I just don't see the LMS becoming quite that... fleshless. I'm not sure that's the right functionality to offer to or require of the faculty.

It's totally awesome to say the LMS should let faculty use WordPress or Blogger or whatever for their announcements, MediaWiki or DocuWiki or whatever for course content, Google Groups or Disqus or whatever for communication, MicroGrade Online or Google Spreadsheets or whatever for their gradebook, YouTube or TeacherTube or iTunesU for their video, etc. But most teachers aren't savvy enough to have a preference. I'd even go so far as to say they don't want to have to have a preference. They don't want to (or don't have time to) go set up accounts at different sites and manage student permissions for every course. They want to have one option for each feature, they want it to be easy and seamless, and they even want it to look the same as everything else so they don't get confused. And that's actually not a bad thing. Most people just want a single tool that does its job without much fuss or fiddle. It's only the rare power user that wants to tinker. You do have to give the power users freedom to innovate, though, or you'll get left in the dust by the competition.

That's why I think an LMS needs to play both fields: they need to offer flexible options for the power users, but also either integrate deeply with or include their own version of all the major components. Then you can throw in some settings that cover most standard alternatives. For example, students could use the integrated blog, but the LMS could also allow Blogger and WordPress URLs instead. A teacher could export their course calendar to Google Calendar -- or maybe the teacher could even import their Google Calendar into the LMS instead. Or the teacher could just use the standard calendar if they like. Likewise a teacher could use the included wiki and file system to build up a repository of learning objects, or point to some external content management system that housed their objects. It shouldn't matter to the LMS which approach they take. By keeping these sort of approaches in mind, I definitely think it's possible to create a one-stop shop that's also mashable. It lets the evolution happen more gradually (and realistically) while still letting the innovators keep pushing the front edge.

The real trick would be in finding a way to integrate with new services as they appear instead of having to wait for the LMS vendor to catch up and recognize the service themselves. Educational software, though important, doesn't have enough of a commanding presence to motivate new services to integrate with it, so the responsibility will probably stay with the LMS to do the integrating. Again, that's another story.


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