“I fought the LMS…”: My First 10 Years With Learning Management Systems

This weekend I stepped in it. I made the mistake of challenging Jim Groom in public on his casual claim that “the open web kicks learning management systems (LMS) asses when it comes to teaching and learning in higher ed”. Oh, I meant what I said, and in a couple subsequent Twitter conversations I both suggested my point of view and gave notice that I am willing to be the champion for the LMS in some kind of a throwdown.

Yes, Bill, ^ for you.

I know, it seems to be a pretty masochistic position to put myself in. The LMS doesn’t have a lot of enthusiastic supporters in general, and even though people who use Canvas get pretty excited about it, let’s be honest: we’re talking about a toolset that most educators still don’t think twice about.

And even though I’m coming a little late to the revivification of the argument (D’Arcy Norman and Phil Hill have both pretty much covered it in the last 48 hours) I’m going to get into it anyway. Primarily because I already have posts drafted in WP.

Now, I realize the disclaimer on most people’s mind is, “Jared works for Canvas, so of course he’s going to defend the LMS.” That’s why I’m going to begin by stating my work for Canvas doesn’t explain my point of view or my willingness to defend the LMS; rather, my point of view and my willingness to defend the LMS explains my work for Canvas. So, to quote Jim, who started this whole thing, “Let’s talk about me”:

Many of my closest higher ed colleagues, like me, began developing online learning experiences through HTML, email, and bulletin boards. My first job in higher ed (1997) was converting paper-based independent study courses to HTML pages, and copyediting transcripts of video courses to text for accessibility purposes. As CSS hit the scene I spent hours with Anton Maximov et al, working under Kevin Reeve to build some of the first web templates for online course materials as a means of making our work more efficient while improving the presentation of content so that it would be easier for students to read on the screen.

I then joined the Special Education department, which was developing one of the first hybrid online certificate programs aimed at reaching rural special educators throughout the state. We cobbled together a system consisting of HTML & CSS for content delivery, and a combination of Sorenson EnVision and NetSupport for live audio/video conferencing coupled with screensharing. We adhered to two ideals in that era: “Keep the technology out of the way of learning,” and “Just f’ing make it work.”

I’m not writing this to show off my bona fides (ok, maybe a little); I’m writing this to show that I know it’s possible to piece together an effective technology system that’s not based on the LMS.

USU's SPED website template for early online coursesHTML frames and tables. Email and WordPerfect. And no LMS. Those were the days.

Indeed, when Utah State University first purchased a license for WebCT (1999) my response was to rebel. I personally found that WebCT’s clunky user experience and lack of aesthetic drained the joy out of using the web, and what little convenience WebCT provided was nullified by the bugs and inconsistency and sheer effort it took to work in the system.

But teachers started asking about WebCT. Sure, in part, they didn’t like me telling them they should use Netscape Composer to edit their web pages. They didn’t like working with WS_FTP. But there was more to it. Faculty wanted to share their PowerPoints. They wanted to instantly release grades, but privately, to individual students. They wanted to send updates to the entire class to help students better prepare for face-to-face sessions.

At that time, the WebCT discussion forum was still not as good as our external bulletin boards, but when the LMS began to do it’s primary job and ease the management tasks (most prominently, automated student enrollments from the SIS), most teachers who were interested in using technology were willing to accept a trade off. Despite all of imperfections in the LMS, we didn’t see it as just an admin-serving management system, as Audrey Watters suggests. We new that the LMS was trying to extend teaching and learning. It’s just natural that it based it’s core functionality on facilitating traditional classroom practices.

And let’s remember, this was an era where people could, apparently, still sell this:

If you laugh at this, you’re indirectly laughing at my mother, who had a copy in her office. No one laughs at my mother.

And when faculty came in to our technology workshops, the most oft-cited reason besides personal interest was pressure from their students to begin using technology to make learning more convenient and flexible.

I have to credit the LMS with setting up the possibility for frustrated faculty to access new technology that enabled them to save time and resources. While some people gag when they hear “efficiency” as a value, to me it simply means you save time and energy to devote to different or more important practices. Teachers were able to gain efficiency and save resources by moving certain “tried and true” classroom activities and tasks to the web, and students with non-traditional backgrounds and diverse locations gained convenience of access to higher education without sacrificing the quality of the experience. Indeed, the LMS was a step up for many of them as it was a connected, albeit closed, learning experience.

Which is why I was most interested to discover that, in some cases, the LMS actually enhanced teaching and learning.  For example, many instructors I worked with in the early days of LMS experimented with a rather different kind of quiz, one that was open-book, allowed multiple attempts and gave automated feedback so students could learn from their mistakes and practice retrieval instead of just review. Student discussions that would inevitably dwindle to nothingness at the end of a live session would continue on in online forums, in a fashion more participatory and thoughtful that would be uniformly possible f2f. Sure, you could accomplish these things without the LMS, but not without the hassle of disassociated systems and identities.

In case I didn’t mention it, use of technology wasn’t something we could take for granted. For example, this, too, sold, apparently:

Circa 2003

Don’t get me wrong: WebCT was still a pretty terrible system, and I myself wouldn’t have taught with it if you paid me for it (well, actually, I did, but just once). Still, the LMS was all most instructors could handle, and the idea of teaching on the open web with available tools just couldn’t compete. Guys like John Krutsch made those early LMS days more tolerable by slowly but relentlessly hacking the functionality we really wanted onto the system that increasingly couldn’t keep up with the times.

Untitled3I had to include a snapshot of WebCT at some point.

So we broke our fair share of rocks in the hot sun, and we helped teachers do what they wanted to do with the LMS, our minds concocting fantasies of what life could be like on the outside. We didn’t do it for administration, though we served their interests by growing enrollments and reducing resources; we didn’t do it just for faculty, either, though we loved to see them excited by the idea of learning to harness technology (and what edu-nerd doesn’t like to see instructional design and learning theory slip in through the back door?). We did it primarily for the students. We studied student survey responses to the online courses, we looked at learning outcomes, and we tried to decipher logs for signs of what worked and what didn’t, what was engaging and challenging and was potentially leading to better learning, and what was a waste of time.

Flash forward to 2005(ish), when “Web 2.0” was on many educators’ minds as a new wave of services that made it easier for anyone to express themselves to anyone who was interested in participating. New web services and social media made the legacy LMS look like what it was: A slow-moving cruise ship that locked passengers in their cabins. It didn’t care about user experience. It didn’t care about integrating with social media. It didn’t care about encouraging novel practices or experimentation. But those were really just symptoms; the sickness was that the LMS vendors didn’t care about what was happening in our culture and in our communities as connectivity and multimedia exploded through the open web.

Instead, the LMS vendors seemed pretty focused on themselves: WebCT was acquired by Blackboard, and even though at the time WebCT was the superior platform, Bb failed to live up to its promise to maintain WebCT, and promised instead to implement the best of WebCT into Bb. That didn’t happen, and my colleagues and I who used WebCT became increasingly disillusioned with the LMS. Then Blackboard tried to patent the fundamental elements of any LMS. They used the patent to promptly sue D2L. Twice.  (At the time, we wondered why they didn’t sue Angel, too, but later the reason became obvious: Bb was preparing to acquire them, too).

As an education technologist fascinated with the development of new ways of growing learning and making meaning through connections with content and people around the world, the LMS was bumming me out. In light of increasingly lousy human services, lack of system reliability, and negligible movement on bug fixes or feature updates (remember when Bb released “blogs” and they were really just discussion forums with “Blog” in the label?), you can’t blame us for thinking the LMS was a bad actor, doomed to fail.

Blackboard has Blogs, Really!We were so excited to get blogs from Bb. Finally. Sheesh.

So people started debating the value of the LMS as we knew it vs the values described in Personal Learning Environments. At UVU, we began thinking about alternatives. We ran Moodle side-by-side so we could facilitate faculty sharing of their online course material as open courseware (UV Open, 2007). We began evangelizing MediaWiki as a collaborative online platform for academic content (WikiLearn, 2008), and we followed in the footsteps of Jim Groom and others by creating a campus-wide academic publishing platform built on WordPress (On.UVU, 2009).

Like they say, “If you build it…”

Actually, they don’t come. And for a while, we didn’t care. We built these things because we believed (1) the future of teaching and learning will be open, and (2) it was about damn time we broke away from the traditional LMS. We also believed, perhaps a little bit selfishly, that we should spend most of the few faculty development resources we had on those instructors who shared our vision.

Meanwhile, the major players in the LMS space where still arguing over patents and apparently doing little to help their users teach and learn better. By the time the Bb patents were eventually overturned, I wasn’t really paying much attention anymore.

Instead, I saw people like Jon Mott and Dave Wiley writing about a loosely coupled network for teaching and learning, Michael Feldstein planning a Learning Management Operating System, and a couple of youngsters named Brian and Devlin talking to anyone who would listen about their plans  to reinvent the LMS as a modern, open learning platform that balanced power between teachers and students.

To be continued…

11 thoughts on ““I fought the LMS…”: My First 10 Years With Learning Management Systems

  1. Scott Leslie

    I look forward to part 2, because so far I very much agree with the history you’ve laid out. For me though the defence going forward isn’t to claim LMS are good so much as entrenched. Incumbency’s a b****.

    1. jaredstein Post author

      Cool! Hindsight’s a weird thing, so I never know if I misremember or inflate things that actually happened.

      I do remember that you and I met for reals at WCET when we were paired up in a session talking about this very question. Was it 2006?

      1. Scott Leslie

        2006 sounds about right. Frankly, this whole latest round of apologia and criticism of LMS and their alternatives has me cringing excessively. It really hasn’t moved much past where things were at in 2005-6. I actually went back and dug through presentations from back then to make sure I wasn’t imagining things. Ah well, la plus ça change….

        1. Mike Caulfield

          I think there were very good arguments to be made in 2006 (and for several years after) that LMS’s were one of themajor roadblocks to the open education approach to things. They still present some roadblocks, and not even Canvas is where I’d like it to be. But given what’s happened over the past four or five years, it’s hard for me to see LMS’s as the main issue anymore.

          In fact, one of the reasons I’ve admired Instructure is they’ve pushed the open stuff (and the LTI stuff, and the repository stuff) at a time when most institutions aren’t seeing the benefits of that yet.

          If you want to know why most students don’t get the networked education they need, it’s honestly that many faculty and much of administration are deeply antagonistic to it.

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  3. Alan Levine (@cogdog)

    I’m nodding in agreement. I spent a lot of time and effort trying to help faculty at Maricopa Community Colleges use, create web sites via teaching HTML, file transfer, dealing with media. It was a lot of steps, way too many for most people.

    What the CMS (as Mike Caulfield noted, originally they were Course Management Systems) seemed to offer was a single place to create and organize materials. I saw them as an interesting appliance.

    It was maybe 1997, 1998 I started seeing in our system at least 2 colleges independently license WebCT and 2 or 3 individually licensed Blackboard. At the time, WebCT had better functionality but Blackboard had better (relatively) interface, sort of a Mac / PC thang. But the interest was on creating course materials, adding things one could not do easily in HTML (quizzes, remember “Hot Potatoes”?). If I remember the SIS integration was exporting data from the system and importing as text / CSV files to generate courses.

    I tried to corral effort to get our folks at least collaborating and looking at perhaps pooling resources for licensing (eventually they went all Bb about the time of the WebCT fold in). I did at one system event in 2000 manage to get both Matt Pittinsky from Bb and Murray Goldberg from WebCT for a quasi debate. They were kind of nice to each other.


    Creating Feed2JS http://feed2js.org was a hack I used for a few reasons, but one that paid off was allowing people to get RSS feeds to display inside a CMS. I understand it is still used for that in Bb.

    They do seem to follow D’Arcy’s trajectory of adding on more bolts and brackets to perform admin tasks beyond the initial interest.

    But my memory really is of supporting it as a means to make the creation of web content easier.

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