LMSs versus PLEs: Acronym Antagonism Again

In reviewing the literature regarding Personal Learning Environments (PLE) and Learning Management Systems (LMS) I found myself returning again and again to my own experiences with both. At this point, I have used most of the LMS options either as a student or teacher.

I finished my graduate degree with a series of online courses using WebCT, finding it to be reasonably effective but awfully clunky. Granted, this was about six years ago and WebCT was soon to be cannibalized. For the last three years, I taught an all online course using BlackBoard and found it also to be reasonably effective but increasingly limited as I got more familiar with it. This year that same course has migrated to Desire to Learn, which is a fairly decent upgrade over the BlackBoard experience, but not without its limitations. Lastly, I have spent the last two years using Moodle for a couple of different teaching purposes, most notably as the online hub for  a hybrid or blended course, depending on the preferred term.

What I kept thinking, as I took stock of all of these experiences, is how in every case I was never asked about the LMS. It was always provided as the only option. I understand this to a small degree being the student, but not so much as a teacher.

Each LMS has its pros and cons, of course, but the truth is the differences are not so great. They are all a bit awkward to use and lack almost all of the elegance that the web can offer. From a visual design standpoint alone, all leave a lot to be desired, despite the customizable options. Some offer more flexibility than others but none of them really give students any genuine customization options. Ultimately, however, I find them all to be terribly restrictive and, as George Siemens put it, more management less learning systems.

What’s more what I have been thinking more and more of late is how a lot of the tools and functionality of LMSs are designed to solve educational challenges that seem somewhat dated, stronger in working with pedagogical models from which I personally have been using less and less. For example, all of these systems make it fairly easy to distribute curricular content in a top-down, knowledge is a product, manner. They often function as little more than as an alternative textbook. While there certainly remains a place for this in many courses there are innumerably cheaper and easier ways to accomplish this.

Additionally, a major component in all is the ability to create tasks like quizzes and other assessments, but most often these are assessment models that are not of much use to me. I have wondered recently if all LMSs essentially work best on a pedagogical legacy that is rapidly becoming less significant or even obsolete and they are not really appropriate to learning or education as we would like it to be.

Apart from the technical limitations, in every experience the ownership of content is very clearly a point of contention. In each of my teaching experiences the institutions make it clear that in providing the LMS they make some claim to the ownership of the content. This is considerably problematic and a serious attack on the disposition of openness that Martin Weller advocates, one that I find attractive and inclined to support.

Prior to teaching with any of these systems, I would cobble together various preferred web tools to use with my students, including blogs for distributing class information, wikis for student content production, and occasional discussion boards for threaded conversation, among others. I have even used the more expansive Ning a few different times, until they began to charge for its use. Usually, I used free  tools individually that I thought were good at doing one thing really well. This eclectic “system” mirrored my own approach to creating my PLE.

I find myself drawn more and more to the notion of the PLE. Of course I have been engaged in developing my own PLE for quite some time which makes me partial. However, the core aspects of the trial and error, process of discovery required to develop a PLE fosters precisely the kind of learner qualities that most educators want their students to ultimately gain. So it seems to me that the establishment of a PLE is a worthy goal of a grander education experience. In my mind using a LMS and PLE are two ways of differentiating instruction, despite the fact that neither is passive or agnostic and can shape both tasks and thought.

Still, there has to be a place for a better more sophisticated LMS. There is no question that a LMS offers educators a lower point of entry for moving into the digital realm. Moreover, I am convinced that more and more educational experiences are going to exist in some kind of hybrid or blended form. So it will become increasingly necessary for institutions to provide some LMS options. Yet, I echo Ewan Mackintosh‘s concerns that when an LMS is rolled out as the only sanctioned solution for an institution that it becomes a de facto ceiling rather than a floor. The truth is most LMS solutions are all too tidy and tightly controlled with no easy way to move or extract content. They possess nearly none of the messy realities of learning.

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