What If… We Made the LMS Truly Modular?

I think we all understand that the LMS as a tool is a pretty cruddy one. It does a lot of things, some well, many not in ways that you, as an instructor would prefer. At last year’s Fusion conference, we heard D2L speak about their LTI integrations, and how Brightspace was the integrated learning platform. I’ve heard that many people envision what D2L are selling as a hub and spoke system – where Brightspace (or the Learning Environment, or even more crudely, the LMS) acts as a hub – and the tools connected are the spokes. I wonder what things would look like if we extrapolate that idea out to the nth degree?

For instance, you could replace the gradebook with a tool that worked for you – Google Spreadsheets, Excel online, or a box plot device. Chalk and Wire has replaced Canvas’ gradebook in one instance, and I’m sure that the inefficient tools of any LMS are things that one would want to replace. Does that mean the all of them? For some snarky folks, yeah, that would mean all of them. Those folks should just teach in the open web.

The LMS also provides a fairly elegant way to get student data into your course area. That’s probably something instructors or faculty wouldn’t want to do. Hell, I’m glad we have someone on my team that wants to do it because it’s an ugly job.

And for many, the content management of these systems are pretty good. In D2L’s case, the way the content tool works is pretty decent (now if hide an item means really hide any evidence of the item, we’re talking). Imagine if you could take elements of one system you like (say Angel) and add-in features to allow for customization for the individual course needs?

Or how about replacing the groups tool with some other mechanism?  Quizzing is something that people already are pushing to publishers like Pearson or McGraw Hill, but what about up and comers like Top Hat or Poll Everywhere (which, lets face it, is essentially a quiz engine wrapped in a polling tool)? Discussions become a Disqus link at the bottom of a item in the content area… there’s lots of clever fun to be had with this idea.

Now to some extent, you can do this already (depending on how locked down your system is by your systems administrators). Change the navigation bars to point to tools you use connected through LTI – however you have some issues with doing this yourself. The biggest one is that at some point, you’ll run into some technological problem that you can’t solve easily. I suspect, that’s what the Internet is for.

At some point one (or many) of you will point out quite rightly, that this sounds an awful lot like what the web is (or more accurately, was). And my answer is yeah, that’s about right. Used to have websites that we plugged bits of HTML into to make what we needed. Until it was commodified.

You can probably draw a comparison to the modern LMS to Facebook – mostly everyone uses it but would probably use a better system if everyone else went to it first. Universities would consider another model as long as everyone will come along. However, in the current higher education system, where we have seasonal and precarious work dominating instructional positions – there’s no time or want to develop a better way. The LMS works as a co-conspirator in the commodification of education. It’s not directly responsible, but it plays a  part in making education at university an easily packaged and consumed affair. The LMS isn’t alone, Coursera, Udacity, those type of MOOCs are equally complicit, or maybe even moreso.

And that’s a more likely reason we’ll see a modular LMS. More vendors get opportunities to get into different institutions that aren’t their current clients.

Publisher Integrations with D2L

So I’ve tried to write this post several times. Tried to work up some semblance of why anyone would care about Pearson or McGraw Hill and integrating either publishers attempt at crafting their own LMS into the one that our institution has purchased (at no small amount).

Then it hit me while going through Audrey Watter’s great writing (in fact, go over there and read the whole damn blog then come back here for a quick hit of my snark). The stuff that I’ve been challenging Pearson and McGraw Hill on is stuff that we should be talking about. I’ll encapsulate my experiences with both because they tie nicely together this idea of giving private interests (eg. business, and big business in this case) a disproportionate say in what happens in the classroom.

The concept is really twofold. One, why are we providing a fractioned user experience for students? This disjointed, awkward meld is just a terrible experience between the two parties. Login to the LMS, then login again (once, then accept terms and conditions that are, well unreadable for average users), then go to a different landing page, find the thing I need to do and do it. Two, students are being held hostage for purchasing access (again!) to course activities that in any sense of justice, would be available to them free. Compounding this is the fact that most of these assessments are marked, and count towards their credit. And there’s really no opt-out mechanism for students. Never mind the fact that multiple choice tests are flawed in many cases, but to let the publisher decide how to assess, using the language of their choice, is downright ugly.


So Pearson approached us to integrate with their MyLab solution about two years ago. We blankly said no, that request would have to come from a faculty member. Part of that is fed by my paranoia about integrations, especially when they require data transfers to work, part of it is that frankly, any company can request access to our system if we allow that sort of behaviour. Finally a faculty member came forward and we went forward with an integration between Pearson Direct and D2L. I will say that parties at D2L and Pearson were incredibly helpful, the process is simple and we had it setup in hours (barring an issue with using a Canadian data proxy which needed some extra tweaking to get working correctly). The issue really is should we be doing this? The LMS does multiple choice testing very, very well. MyLabs does multiple choice testing very, very well. Why are we forcing students to go somewhere else when the system we’ve bought for considerable sums of money does the very same thing well? Well the faculty member wanted it. What we’ve found is that most faculty who use these sorts of systems inevitably find that students don’t like jumping around for their marks.

Additionally, when the company has a long laundry list of problems with high stakes multiple choice testing, how does this engender faith in their system?

McGraw Hill

Again, all the people at McGraw Hill are lovely. None of them answer any question about accessibility, security or anything it seems straight. That may be because their overworked, that may be because they don’t know. None of the stuff I’ve seen is officially WCAG compliant, however it may have been created prior to that requirement being in place, so they may get a pass on that one. The LTI connection is very greedy, requiring all the options to be turned on to function, even though D2L obfuscates any user ids, and it bears no resemblance of an authenticated user (thanks, IMS inspector!) it still needs to be there or else the connection fails. What kind of bunk programming is this? Why is it there if you don’t use it? Why require it? Those questions were asked in that form in two separate conference calls, to which most went unanswered. I did receive a white paper about their security, which did little to answer my direct questions about what happens to the data (does it travel in a secure format? who has access to this feed?) after it leaves D2L and is in McGraw Hill’s domain.

Now I’m paranoid about data and private companies. I immediately think that if you’re asking me to hand over data that I think is privileged (here’s a hint, it’s all privileged) you should be able to at least answer why in the name of all that is unholy, that you deserve to have access to it, and if I agree to give it to you, what happens to that data, when it leaves my system and sits on yours. That should be easy to answer and not require any sort of thought. It makes me wonder if anyone is asking these questions at all. They must? I mean, everyone is thinking about this sort of stuff right?

Answers for 2012

Every year I try to do a Questions for the year – themes that I think will be interesting to explore and think about. At the end of the year, I go back and see how wrong I was.

For 2012, the Questions are here.

For those questions here’s some answers:

1. Pearson LMS? No big deal. I think the Blackboard free LMS is more important in the LMS space, but Pearson may be doing some things, but nothing big or earth shattering. Of course, a lot of faculty I work with don’t use Pearson texts.

2. Web mining useful? Ultimately yes, but increasingly difficult to do. With Twitter becoming more walled off, Instagram way more walled off and Facebook increasingly walled off, it’s much more difficult to use something like Ifttt to get something cool to mashup. It’ll be interesting to see how open data sources survive, and whether APIs will wither. I’d like to see more open data – I think it’s where we’ll see growth and interesting possibilities emerge. From an economics standpoint, these sorts of niche areas will be tremendous economic generation in the future.

3. MITx? In and of itself is not that big, but EdX, Udacity, Coursera and the others are making MOOCamania running wild on you. Credentials is still a big thing, but I suspect that’s the gateway and where these startups will make their money – partnering with a school who will rubber stamp their findings – or partially rubber stamping credit.

4. Android tablets in Education? Big fart of air. iPads still rule. Android will suffer for the hundred of crappy tablets and lag of killer apps on the platform. For phones, it’s fine; for tablets, not so great.

5. Learning Technologists? Still play their/our marginal role.

Questions for 2012

1. Does the Pearson LMS gain traction with anyone seeing as Desire2Learn and Blackboard have both integrated with Google Apps for Education? It’s interesting for me because the University I work at now is looking at replacing their internal e-mail system with Gmail for students to start off with, but will later expand that to everyone. They’ve also made an announcement that Google Apps for Education are coming, which I think is a huge deal, but everyone else seems to not be talking about too much.

2. Will web mining for information be a growth concept in 2012? I’ve seen Pattern, a python based toolset to access information, as well as sites developed like Ifttt which makes programming logic available to the masses in an easy to understand format (almost like Yahoo Pipes). There’s a lot of hope for Ifttt, at least from my perspective, it does take a bit to manipulate to get it to work.

3. Does MITx make an impact? I suspect it will, it could change the whole model of distance education and if it’s MIT that’s assessing and stamping approval, that’s a huge thing. However, does it mean that the credibility of MIT as a credential granting source takes a hit (ie. does more people with MIT education mean that it is worth less in the long term?) or are we looking at a real paradigm shift, where the credential means less and the knowledge exemplified means more?

4. Android tablets are cheap, but are they any match for the quality (and sheer amount of apps available for media creation) of an iPad in education? I know there’s no evidence to suggest that iPads help learning (starts halfway down that page), however it does allow a form factor that beats a laptop as a mobile learning device – as we could consider any Internet enabled device a learning device – it’s up to that pesky user to actually do something with it rather than play Angry Birds or Super Stickman Golf. By the way, Android tablets also have Angry Birds. And Super Stickman Golf – so consider your productivity screwed on either device.

5. Will Learning Technologists become even more important a bridge for faculty and technology? I provide support for the LMS at the institution but I also can help design learning, use different strategies and suggest ways to embed learning deeper by using different tools in and outside the LMS. I’m a big fan of wikis providing they are used in a way that support and demonstrate the learning. I think there’s two ways institutions can go – one tell faculty to just worry about teaching and research, and let the technical side be developed by a techie. The other is to demand the faculty learn the technology, and use it to be supported by a techie. Either way, the technologist is there to support. I think the successful institutions will have technologists that can be given room to explore where the technology is going without being too far ahead of the faculty needs. That sweet spot is hard to find, and lots of institutions will fail at it.

Google/Pearson LMS

So I’ve been fairly critical of the Pearson/Google LMS – I really don’t like the idea of Google getting it’s hands on educational demographic  data – especially in the K-12 market, which is a market that many advertisers salivate over (kids after all, drive parental purchase decisions). I also dislike the idea that one publisher has a step up in regards to content published within the LMS. When I hear the words “open” and “free”, I don’t think of Google (although Android is a tasty alternative mobile OS) or Pearson.  Stephen Downes started a thread on Google+ that deals with  a lot of the criticisms that I raise as well.

Pearson, in my experience, have tried to muscle in on LMS territory for a long while. I can recall being embedded in a Language Studies department and Pearson making presentations to faculty about how things like MyCommLab, their textbook/website/testing one-stop solution and boasted of their integration with a series of LMSs. Well, they couldn’t exchange marks data with Desire2Learn, and they couldn’t even think of how First Class might integrate with it. Turns out the integration they had was with Blackboard (which wasn’t available at my institution).

Even when presented with a space on Desire2Learn, Pearson couldn’t figure out a good way to export marks from the MyCommLab to Desire2Learn. Now they may have fixed that issue, I haven’t worked with Pearson or my former employer for a year now. Somehow I doubt it. Technologically, it’s actually not that hard, myCommLab would have to export a CSV in the way that D2L expects it. Even more slick would be an XML transfer of data using the IMS standards and some ASP/PHP code to facilitate that exchange. Seems that Pearson and I have different ideas of what “open” and “free” mean.

Here’s another issue. Google makes a lot of money gathering information about you. They already know a lot, and they do see knowing you as a value statement. Combine knowing about you and what you want to know about in school provides a whole different dimension of you. I’ve harped on about how different facets of one’s life manifest themselves in different online personas.  Google+ doesn’t allow for my school persona to be apart from my record collecting punk persona or my techno-programmer persona. Google (and Facebook) sees me as one person, and that one person can only have one persona. If you look at my Amazon profile, you’ll see I’ve bought conspiracy books, edtech books, punk history books, an anime DVD and a VHS to USB dongle. It’s a bit of a mish mash. Amazon recommends some weird stuff, most of it correct, but it doesn’t have the context to understand that the conspiracy books were gifts for my brother (at his request). I don’t have much time for conspiracies the equivalent of modern day science fiction.  Google is attempting, by gathering all your data from all your personas, to understand you real world contexts.

Those misgivings aside, my cynical side wants to have more separation between publishers and academics (much like the illusionary separation of church and state).

NOTE: After I originally posted this, Google has clarified it’s position with the OpenClass LMS. Which makes OpenClass even less useful in my opinion. I still wonder if I can import a McGraw Hill package into a course?

Questions for 2011

So, as we approach the end of a year, we start to see the predictions, wrap-ups and trends for the next few years as well as the year that has passed. Seeing as I almost always end my blog posts with a question – here’s five questions for the year 2011.

1. What makes anyone think that the video games push (mostly by the iOS platform devices, but Xbox, Playstation and Wii) has anything to do with formal education? Trying to harness gaming to teach formal concept is like riding a chicken. Useless (for both you and the chicken). People play games to escape what they don’t like about their own life – much like why people watch TV, use the Internet or whatever other hobby one might have. They don’t necessarily want to have learning forced on them in their own homes. That isn’t to say that educational games can’t be good (although they mostly are dreck), or shouldn’t be attempted. They shouldn’t be expected to fill more than a niche.

2. Why haven’t educational institutions really pushed for a mobile learning environment? It seems like logical growth from the LMS, and there’s a lot of affordances that can enhance learning. Situated, just-in-time learning has a greater impact for learning than plain old quizzes in the LMS. Why haven’t the engineering departments demand more Geo-location devices? Why haven’t literacy skills groups put forth the same sort of effort that the BBC World Service has in Bangladesh? That sort of ingenuity could help the impoverished and undereducated in Canada (and in Hamilton). One of the biggest hurdles the urban poor have is literacy skills. Why is no one doing this locally? Moreover, why are our LMS’s so pisspoor as a mobile website.

3. Will the consolidation of the web conferencing tools that education typically use (Wimba and Elluminate) mean that new companies with new models will arise? We’ve locally seen a couple of contenders – BigBlueButton is easy to use and has most of the features one would want, as well as SabaCentra for Northern Ontario – but will most institutions just cave in and use Blackboard Connect? It seems like that may be the case.

4. Wither edupunk? Much like punk rock did after the halcyon days of 1977, the widespread punk phenomenon died out and either got co-opted into new wave or went further underground, got harder and faster, became hardcore and rather dogmatic by 1984. Since then, there hasn’t been a lot of innovation in the genre, except that the music has gotten uglier and more punishing (and less like music). Edupunk seems to have hit that moment where people either pass the moment or become more underground. I have hope that much like punk music in 2010 (which has been a weak year for new releases – on vinyl no less – in the genre), edupunk will be a vibrant, thriving option in 2043.

5. What will Pearson as a publishing giant and accredited University mean? Well, it’ll give the hucksters at University of Phoenix and Full Sail a run for their money. I’m not saying those institutions are bad per se, I’m sure a quality education can be had there. I’m not sure that an educational institution should have profit as it’s motivation.