The Battle of the Learning Management Systems

D & G

David and Goliath in a detail from Michelangelo

Yesterday, I wrote about Google's continuing movement into the  learning management (LMS) world, and a reader sent me an opinion piece that says that the "Goliaths" of the LMS world are losing ground to the "Davids." The author of that piece, Carol Leaman, does not tell us who these "Davids" are by name. Are they the more open systems like Moodle and Sakai? Is Google Classroom one? It's hard to think of Google as a David when we know it is a Goliath.

But the real takeaway from the essay is that after about two decades of LMS use advancements have not kept pace with expectations for both academic classroom use and for the training of employees.

The author gives numbers (from Ambient Insight) that show global revenues of $46.6 billion in 2016 declining to $33.4 billion by 2021 with the U.S. corporate segment having a negative 33.9 percent growth rate.

What are schools and companies looking for? The wish list includes platforms that are mobile-first, cloud based, drive voluntary learner engagement and use what we are learning from cognitive science about mapping knowledge to how learners best acquire it.

In my seventeen years of using various LMS and doing instructional design for both higher education and corporate training, I noticed a gap between those two markets. Much to my initial surprise, organizations outside academia were much more concerned with being able to measure knowledge, mastery and growth by learners and correlate it to business results.

It shouldn't have surprised me that companies wanted a return on their investment (ROI) in an LMS and in training costs and employee time. Surely, we have these concerns in education too, but our "assessment" follows different models. Education has several centuries of precedents for measuring learning. Some of them work in the modern classroom. Some do not. Even fewer work in an online environment.

The LMS field is still young.  Many people consider FirstClass by SoftArc (which the United Kingdom's Open University used in the 1990s) as the first modern LMS. Blackboard, WebCT and others appeared at the turn of this century. But learning management systems were preceded by computer-managed instruction (CMI), and integrated learning systems (ILS) which offered a way to manage instructional content and also manage student data. When I started in online learning at NJIT in 2000, we used the term CMS (Course Management System). If you consider in this history the terms ILS (coined by Jostens Learning) and CMI (originally used to describe the PLATO Learning Management system), then we can go back to the 1970s and find systems for computer-based instruction being offered that were content-free and a separate product from the course content.

About ten years ago, mergers in the learning industry brought the LMS into the same house as publishers of content. This was a meetup that I have always seen as dangerous for education, but probably good for corporate clients. I don't want to see curriculum coming from a vendor, even though I have to concede that textbooks have unfortunately driven course design for a very long time.

Will Goliath(s) fall and if so, who and what will bring it down? 

I received an email letting me know that Carol Leaman is the CEO of Axonify, so the David in this story is Axonify. 

Following the Expansion of the Google Classroom

Google Classroom is now used by more than 20 million educators and students. It is used by teachers in schools as a limited but free learning management system (LMS), and I am sure Google is using it for their own developers who are building educational technology.

This academic year, Classroom updates show some of the direction this project may take. There were changes to allow more individualized work for differentiated learning. Google saw that teachers were creating "workarounds" to differentiate their instruction. Now, when creating an assignment, post or question, teachers can choose whether to share it with the entire class or just with a subset of students. Designers using full-featured LMS (Canvas, Moodle, Blackboard et al) have been doing that for at least ten years.


There are also updates that are more for the teacher, such as notifications to manage student work. Teachers now receive two new types of Classroom notifications—one when students submit work after the due date, and one for when students re-submit work. Again, these are features that have been offered in other LMS for quite awhile.

It seems that Google is moving towards creating a fully-featured LMS. Will that expanded product remain free, or are they moving towards a competing commercial product?

Updates that are more for developers, such as new capabilities to the Classroom API to make integrations with Classroom more seamless, also seem to indicate future expansion, Integrated applications can now programmatically add materials to coursework or student submissions and can modify existing coursework they’ve created. For K-12 schools the demands to integrate arelessthan those in higher education, but grading and student information systems (SIS) become criticl when any LMS is used in an "enterprise" manner. Other educational applications have been integrated with Classroom since the launch of the API, including tools like Flat.IO, Classcraft and Little SIS. I'm sure Google is monitoring these uses with an eye to future development of their Classroom platform.

The Exploitation of Adjunct Faculty



I recently read a very strong opinion piece by Kevin Birmingham on what he calls "The Great Shame of Our Profession" - how the humanities survive on the exploitation of adjunct faculty. Birmingham spoke at a ceremony last October for winning the Truman Capote Award for his book, The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses . Though the audience expected a talk on literary criticism, what they got was criticism of another kind. Though he writes from the perspective of someone teaching in th humanities, this situation crosses over into all departments.

It is the Sisyphean plight of adjunct faculty trying to cobble together a "full time" academic career from a part time profession.

An excerpt:

"...I am one of over one million non-tenure-track instructors working on a temporary or contingent basis and whose position offers no possibility of tenure. To be contingent means not to know if you’ll be teaching next semester or if your class will be canceled days before it starts. Most adjuncts receive less than three weeks’ notice of an appointment. They rarely receive benefits and have virtually no say in university governance... Tenured faculty represent only 17 percent of college instructors. Part-time adjuncts are now the majority of the professoriate and its fastest-growing segment. From 1975 to 2011, the number of part-time adjuncts quadrupled. And the so-called part-time designation is misleading because most of them are piecing together teaching jobs at multiple institutions simultaneously. A 2014 congressional report suggests that 89 percent of adjuncts work at more than one institution; 13 percent work at four or more. The need for several appointments becomes obvious when we realize how little any one of them pays. In 2013, The Chronicle began collecting data on salary and benefits from adjuncts across the country... According to the 2014 congressional report, adjuncts’ median pay per course is $2,700. An annual report by the American Association of University Professors indicated that last year "the average part-time faculty member earned $16,718" from a single employer. Other studies have similar findings. Thirty-one percent of part-time faculty members live near or below the poverty line. Twenty-five percent receive public assistance, like Medicaid or food stamps. One English-department adjunct who responded to the survey said that she sold her plasma on Tuesdays and Thursdays to pay for her daughter’s day care. Another woman stated that she taught four classes a year for less than $10,000... Sixty-one percent of adjunct faculty are women."

Social Media Research Tools

Social media can be viewed as a distraction. Some people rely on it as a news source. Companies use it for marketing purposes. And some of us study it in a more academic way.

In higher education, we at least touch on all four approaches. Some teachers find it all a useless annoyance. In communications and journalism courses, it is studied as another medium. In business school, it has moved into marketing and advertising courses and conversations. Beyond the theories of social media use, there is learning about the design and analysis of social media.

Studying online communities and social networks is leading to developing new tools and methods for analyzing and visualizing social media data. One of the better compilations of social media research tools has been curated by researchers at the Social Media Lab at Ted Rogers School of Management, Ryerson University.  Their site has more than fifty tools that they have reviewed academically. Many are free tools to use and are fairly simple to implement and use to collect data for analysis, while others require some programming experience.

Using MOOC Data

codeThe MOOC - massive and online and sometimes open - has been around long enough that there is now massive data collected about these courses and their participants. And yet, there is not much agreement about what it all means for changing education online or offline.

EDUCAUSE recently posted "Harvard and MIT Turn MOOC Data into Knowledge" which uses data from the Harvard/MIT edX Data Pipeline. This is an open-source effort to manage MOOC data among higher education institutions.

What can we learn from all the clicks within learning management systems (edX, Canvas, Moodle, etc.)? We could find out how much time students spend reading texts, watching videos, and engaging with fellow students in discussions.

Data at the MOOC scale offers possibilities for new insights.This Harvard/MIT partnership also offers possibilities with MIT perhaps focusing on analyzing Big Data and Harvard, via its Graduate School of Education, addressing the educational responses.

Using edx2bigquery (Google’s BigQuery) and XAnalytics (a dashboard that connects to Pipeline), will allow other institutional representatives to interact with edX data. This is all beyond my experience, but I look forward to results.

A Failure of Media and Information Literacy

fake newsWe heard a lot about the "fake news" that we (Americans) were consuming in 2016. The election of President Trump brought the topic to the top of the news feeds. 

Fake news is a new entry for Wikipedia which describes it this way: "Fake news is a type of hoax or deliberate spread of misinformation in social media or traditional news media with the intent to mislead in order to gain financially or politically. If often employs eye-catching headlines or entirely fabricated news-stories in order to increase readership and online sharing."

Though some fake news is about making a profit in the same way that clickbait does by ad-revenue generated compensation, some of it is to forward a political or social agenda.

Some fake news sources are anonymously hosted or lack known writers and publishers (which makes it more difficult to prosecute sources of fake news for libel or slander). It is hardly a new kind of news.

I wrote earlier this year about fake news and information literacy, but the more I read about it, the less optimistic I am about the situation improving.

Our history courses taught us in earlier decades and centuries about yellow journalism and political propaganda, and some of the same strategies are used. But the media, 24-hour news' appetite for content and especially the Internet and social media have made it so much easier to produce and distribute it to the world.                

As an educator, I'm anxious about the spread of fake news, and I wonder if the current commitment, or lack thereof, to media literacy programs is enough to combat its spread.

We have been teaching at all grade levels for a long time about fact-checking and verifying the accuracy and veracity of sources. We did it as educators with print and we adapted it in the digital and Internet age. But I don't think it's working. It is not only the younger generations that seems to be taken in by fake news, but also older generations who are long out of the classroom.

Danah Boyd is a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and the founder/president of Data & Society. In her book, It's Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens, she examines how "...society fails young people when paternalism and protectionism hinder teenagers’ ability to become informed, thoughtful, and engaged citizens through their online interactions." 

I remember well trying to get my fellow faculty to examine, use and teach students how to wisely use Wikipedia back in 2001. It was a tough sell. Boyd has seen the results. She says "Students I met were being told that Wikipedia was untrustworthy and were, instead, being encouraged to do research. As a result, the message that many had taken home was to turn to Google and use whatever came up first. They heard that Google was trustworthy and Wikipedia was not. Understanding what sources to trust is a basic tenet of media literacy education. When educators encourage students to focus on sourcing quality information, they encourage them to critically ask who is publishing the content. Is the venue a respected outlet? What biases might the author have? The underlying assumption in all of this is that there’s universal agreement that major news outlets like the New York Times, scientific journal publications, and experts with advanced degrees are all highly trustworthy."

The time is now to review how we teach media literacy.

Am I hopeful? No. Not if we continue teaching it the way we have in the past few decades.

Danah Boyd feels "The path forward is hazy. We need to enable people to hear different perspectives and make sense of a very complicated — and in many ways, overwhelming — information landscape. We cannot fall back on standard educational approaches because the societal context has shifted. We also cannot simply assume that information intermediaries can fix the problem for us, whether they be traditional news media or social media."

Boyd writes that "As a huge proponent for media literacy for over a decade, I’m struggling with the ways in which I missed the mark."

What needs to change? A lot. She says that we need to "build the social infrastructure necessary for people to meaningfully and substantively engage across existing structural lines." I don't know how we do that. I don't know anyone who has a new approach in place. But I agree with her that we can't ignore hate speech, fake news, biased content and propaganda online and expect that things will get better.