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. 

No More Classrooms

classroom via pixabay

Jeffrey R. Young moderated a panel at the Reimagine Education conference  that was a debate on the question, “Is the Classroom Dead?” There were two people making a case for the need for in-person gatherings of learners (the traditional classroom) and two arguing that the classroom has outlived its usefulness. 

Young's own post about it had what might be a more accurate title question: What If We Stopped Calling Them Classrooms?

What do you picture when you think of the word classroom? A teacher in front of a group of students in a room that probably has rows of seats/desks. How does that model match trends in education today?

NJIT once had the trademark on the term "virtual classroom" and that was often used in the early days of online education to describe what we were trying to do. The instructional design of the time followed the term and tried, as much as possible, to reproduce the classroom online. That meant 90 minute lectures, sometimes recorded in a physical classroom live before other students (lecture capture is still being done today). It meant having ways to "raise your hand" and respond to questions or ask questions. It meant tests and quizzes and ways to submit work and a gradebook.

But is that the way we should design online learning? Is it even the way we should be teaching in a physical classroom today?

One thing we seem to have gleaned from MOOCs is that the optimal length of video lectures is 5-7 minutes. Has that been adapted to most face-to-face or even online courses? No. Should we be teaching in a classroom in chunks of 7 minute lessons?

Not calling a classroom a classroom solves nothing. Calling a school library a media center doesn't mean much if the physical space and its contents remain a library.

Yes, this post is more questions than answers, but perhaps questioning what the classroom is in 2017 is where we are right now.

Collaborating Online 8 Years Later

I clicked on a post here that I wrote in 2008 while I was directing the Writing Initiative at Passaic County Community College. We were using etutoring for writing and were part of a consortium of colleges in the northeast. ( - part of the Connecticut Distance Learning Consortium) We supplied tutors to support the service based on the amount of usage our students put into the platform and our students used it a lot. 

As part of our writing-intensive courses in the Writing Initiative, students could submit their work up to three times and received a reading and comments from one of the consortium writing tutors (generally higher ed instructors with at least a Masters degree).

PCCC does have labs and tutors for the ESL students and for students entering at a Basic Skills level (pre-college) but did not have a center for college-level students. That is how eTutoring was introduced. We did build a writing center as part of the Initiative, but this online collaboration was an important part of the project.

Some students and teachers still don't trust online courses, but those courses, etutoring and online collaboration are almost a necessity at this point for many schools to supplement face-to-face experiences. 

We saw many similarities between what we do on the ground, and what we do with writers in the computing cloud, and another aspect of this was online collaboration with students and with colleagues. 

Back in 2006, we were trying out Writeboard Since many of our colleagues had never used something like that before, I invited people to try out a collaborative page. That page still exists! If you go to the Collaborative Writing document that I started in 2008 at, you can still login using the password: collabwrite.  

Knowing how reluctant readers of blogs are to comment on posts (here's a post on another blog of mine about just that), I suspected that there was a good chance that the response to the would be underwhelming - and it was just that.

But 8 years have passed and using tools like Zoho and Google Docs for collaboration are more common and Writeboard seems primitive. I feel that also is the way wikis are viewed, though collaborative websites still aren't easy to do.

mobile sample

I use Dropbox as often as shared Google files. We have not gone "paperless" despite hearing that battlecry for about 25 years, but it is rare that I email a file or hand someone a paper document to read and make comments. Getting feedback from a larger group, keeping track of everyone’s copies, and maintaining one "final version" is really difficult if you're not collaborating online in the cloud.

With services like Dropbox, you share your file with several people at once, and they can leave comments on specific parts and maintain one version. 

Now, Dropbox Paper is another way to help teams create collaborative docs and share important information. They also have a new Paper mobile apps for iOS and Android that you can use for on-the-go access.

It is progress that online collaboration is much more common with researchers and writers who also share email, files and meet live with web conferencing.

You can ask people - perhaps your students - to upload files to your Dropbox even if they don't have an account.

I keep telling people to sign up for a free Dropbox account if only to protect important files (docs, photos, whatever) with automatic backup. Usually, people do it AFTER their hard drive crashes, which is like buying insurance after the accident.