Wednesday, April 23, 2008

What is an LMS, Really?

The notion of a "Learning Management System" or LMS has long dominated the discussion and practice of E-learning. This was understandable at first; an LMS is essentially a large content tracking and delivery mechanism (built atop some database engine). It addressed immediate considerations for automation of learning delivery both for online and classroom education; those considerations included:
  • The ability to disseminate CBT and other electronic content over the web.
  • The ability to support online course registration / subscription.
  • The ability to support learner progress tracking.
  • The ability to support some form of online assessment.
At the heart of this issue was the desire to provide some type of virtual metaphor for the classroom and the desire to automate a number of traditional, existing processes while simultaneously opening up new channels for education delivery. The LMS helped accomplish some of this, but also acted as a barrier for further innovation by entrenching much of the status quo approach to Learning Management as a process and a philosophy. This has led to a number of resulting issues.

Core Definition
A Learning Management System provides web-based access to Learning Content and various Learning administration capabilities. The exact nature of the content available and the administration features provided varies based upon product vendor. Multiple content standards are utilized, most notably SCORM and AICC. The majority of LMS products have tended to couple content delivery with content / learning assessment and this is also reflected in the standards mentioned.

The one question that has been continually posed to vendors LMS and e-learning practitioners who view the LMS as the engine that drives a typical enterprise learning solution is this: can or should the LMS adopt a more open content model. This is not a new question, since 2000 many have looked at creating flexible "Learning Object" standards and many vendors have produced solutions that represent hybrid compositions of LMS and Content Management System (CMS) - otherwise known as a "LCMS." Others have extend the LMS in the direction of Performance Management (previously often referred to as competency management). This is a variant that is very focused on assessment.

However, at the same time another crop of solutions - originally referred to as Learning portals started attacking the virtual classroom metaphor more directly. These solutions tend to have some LMS (usually lite) capabilities built-in and are used to deliver learning at universities and other institutions. There a quite a number of ways to refer to them; Virtual Learning Environments, Collaborative Learning Environments, Personal and so forth.

Impact of the LMS
The true impact of the LMS seems to have been an arbitrary imposition of pedagogy on E-learning before such a consolidation of approach was warranted. This means simply that many assumed that there was a right way to provide E-learning before really understanding what their true options were and how those new options might impact the way that learning is managed as a process and an IT solution. Many if not most of us have found web-based technologies to be fairly liberating - we have come to expect that this will always be the case in most instances where traditional activities are made "virtual." This didn't happen in E-learning - with a world of content available to us we restricted ourselves to a very narrow interpretation of what was "appropriate." The content standards and pedagogy imposed by early E-learning solutions prevented them from achieving widespread adoption - this in fact explains why nearly all of the major universities and other educational institutions are now using the Learning Environment paradigm to deliver their offerings instead of the early LMS-driven solutions.

As noted in other posts, E-learning as a practice is and should always have been technology agnostic. In other words, the approach taken to what solution mix to use, what process mix to use what approach to content to use - should be flexible and not bound to any particular technology, product or pedagogy. The E-learning practice is about solving problems, not posturing to determine who is right or what is 'better.'

Copyright 2008, Semantech Inc.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008