Suits and punks

A few more thoughts from the world of LMS vendor demonstrations:

A big LMS is now typically so big, and can do so many things, that a vendor with a two-hour timeslot has to make some tough choices.  Which are the hero tools, the unique selling points, the defining parts of the proposition? Which are the has-been features that look like the other guy’s stuff?  At the moment, the answer to the former seems to be content builders, assessment workflow, and performance analytics; and the “you can check this out later if you’re interested” bits are the old communication tools: forum discussion, chat, blogging tools. 

Their shift in attention is relevant to a split on our side. Institutionally, we’re attracted to the bling of analytics and reporting because of the way these tools will help us deal with the pressure to align our outcomes to externally derived frameworks and standards. With half an eye on the operating budget, we want content and assessment to be managed as automatically as possible because this is the only way online learning is going to enable us to do more with less.

But for many academics, key teaching tools are still those that enable students to talk to us and to each other in exceptionally low bandwidth circumstances, on the fly.  And in deference to the hero tools of our trade, we’re still trying to support our students becoming more competent and confident writers, whatever their discipline.  We still want them to have group learning experiences, and as far as possible we want them to generate content and ideas for themselves, not just click through ours and submit the quiz when they’re done.  So we’re probably still using forums and blogs a bit more than the LMS designers might think.

This is where we’ve been getting into a bit of a self-confirming loop with the world of LMS design.  Just as these basic tools have shifted down the design priority list, so many academics have tunnelled out of the walled garden of the enterprise LMS and started using social networking tools for these core teaching processes instead. We’re not hardcore DIY edupunks, I don’t think, as this doesn’t amount to a manifesto or a radical movement, so much as a wish to rescue some of the integrity of our original interests as teachers and communicators from the design agendas of the big systems and their even bigger friends, the publishers.

But I think we may be part of the reason why the executive dream of a one-size-fits-all enterprise level solution has become unrealisable. LMS designers are leaving some of the basic tools strategically underdeveloped because they know that better, more engaging social learning apps are out there for free.  Academics stop using the substandard internal tools because they can’t engage their students in using them, and they’re tired of wearing the backlash against these unengaging environments in their personal teaching evaluations.

So there’s some discreet and unacknowledged internal third-party outsourcing going on, in much the same way as help and support functions are outsourced to Google searching and online user forums. What this means is that in addition to a big shiny new LMS and an implementation roadmap, we’re also going to need better, more flexible institutional IT governance frameworks to line all this up with the university’s external legal obligations as well as its internal QA processes.  If we’re going to perk up our risk appetite and spend more time on the open internet, we’ll need much more joined up policies and audit processes that make it easy for academics to know what they must do, what they can do, and what they perhaps shouldn’t try on their own at home.

Meanwhile, here’s the other take-away: in Australia, LMS company reps mostly wear suits and are still mostly men, even though one or two have clearly researched the culture of their audience and show up in a kind of Casual Friday higher ed mufti.

Whatever else this means, it does make the whole thing a bit like a TV dating game show, which I’m sure feels just as awkward from the other side of the door.

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