Assembling the heterogeneous elements for (digital) learning

Making the LMS/VLE "mythic"

In my last post I pointed to a talk by Postman that outlined five things we should know about technological change. This list has resonated me due to my involvement with elearning within universities and feelings that it is failing, often due to naive views of how technology can be implemented and what effects it will have on teaching and learning. This post continues/starts an attempt to make connections with Postman’s list and elearning.

Has elearning failed? Zemsky/Massey versus Sloan-C

Back in 2004 a report came out entitled “Thwarted Innovation: What happened to e-learning and why.” (Zemsky & Massey, 2004). It caused quite a furore because it basically claimed that elearning had failed. Claiming a major flaw in something that a lot of people hold near and dear is, to the cynical amongst us, a well-known and quite effective publishing strategy for increasing citations (150+ on Google Scholar) – an important measure of academic quality. But there can be to it than that. That’s one of the points this tries to make in general, without making any final claim about the Zemsky and Massey (2004) report.

Their claim that elearning had “failed” was always going to get a rise out of Geoghegan’s (1994) technologists alliance.

Aside: note of the date on the Geoghegan quote – 1994. This is not an idea arising from the last 10/15 years of elearning. It’s from a previous period in the history of technology-mediated learning. But I feel that it still applies to today’s practice of e-learning.

Geoghegan (1994) identifies the technologists alliance as including

faculty innovators and early adopters, campus IT (IT here is instructional technology – US phrase that includes instructional designers and information technology folk) support organizations, and information technology vendors with products for the instructional market.

I’m guessing that the Sloan Consortium (Sloan-C) could quite easily be included as a member of the technologists alliance.

Not surprisingly, Sloan-C and its members formulated a response to Zemsky and Massey. You can find it here. I’m currently working through their response, but I was struck by a particular quote that seems to connect with one of Postman’s five things.

Making elearning mythic

Sloan-C’s response to Zemsky and Massey, includes the following

That is, until technology becomes used without being noticed and, more importantly, without interfering with the mission of online education—i.e., delivering knowledge to anyone anywhere, articles such as TI may continue to be produced, claiming that eLearning has failed. Sloan-C is proud to be a part of the world-wide movement to insure that eLearning does not fail!

The “technology becomes used without being noticed” immediately made me think of Postman’s fifth idea about technological change, i.e. it becomes mythic. Postman describes it as

a common tendency to think of our technological creations as if they were God-given, as if they were a part of the natural order of things.

Now, it appears that the Sloan-C folk were trying to suggest that the difficulty and unreliability of the type of technology mentioned in Zemsky and Massey (2004) is a major problem and explanation for their findings. That is, problems with the implementation meant that it wasn’t transparent, but when those problems are fixed, all will be good.

Postman points out the problem when a technology becomes mythic

When a technology become mythic, it is always dangerous because it is then accepted as it is, and is therefore not easily susceptible to modification or control.

Problems with mythic technology

Back in the late 80s and early 90s, my current institution had quite a large, and to some extent in some areas of activity, very power distance education centre. A centre responsible for helping the university develop and deliver print-based distance education materials. For that centre, print-based technology had become mythic. i.e. if you did distance education, you used print.

The entire centre, its workflows, practices and structures were set up for print-based technology. Such technology required a lot of money and resource, and hence the inertia of that thinking is huge. It is a good 10 years since it became obvious that print-based distance education materials were becoming only a small part of a much broader collection of experiences enabled by e-learning. However, until very recently, print-based materials was still the focus of most of the money and most of the people and processes within that organisation.

Even now, many long-term academics within the institution are still expecting the old ways of print-based education to continue, even though organisational change has made that next to impossible.

Print-based education had become mythic. It became impossible to modify it. Even to question it. Even though some of us have been doing it for well over 10 years.

LMS/VLE – the mythic practice of institutional e-learning

When it comes to current practice of elearning within higher education, I’ve seen this again and again. Especially around the question of learning management systems/virtual learning environments. The selection and implementation of a LMS/VLE has become the standard, accepted and often unquestioned approach to elearning within universities. Surprisingly, that unquestioning approach is still strongly held even though there is a growing body of literature and personal experience arising from folk who have had to use and support these systems within universities.

Arguably, what has become mythic is the assumption that it is the responsibility of the institution to provide the infrastructure. So even when institutions get a small idea and think “we’ll have to do something with blogs or wikis”. The immediate assumption is that the institution must provide the blog or wiki. Only the institution can be assumed to reliably provide what is required by students.

Only a small step from there, is the idea of out-sourcing. i.e. the institution can save itself some money and resources by paying an external company to provide the infrastructure. The trouble is that this is really inserting a proxy into the equation. It still assumes that it is necessary for the institution to provide the infrastructure, the system. In this case they simply pay someone else to do it, but they are still paying it.

It’s re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

The same thing applies to open source learning management systems/virtual learning environments. It’s still the same approach that has become mythic.


The above has traveled broader afield than I had intended, and I have to get onto other things. So a quick summary of what I was thinking I might have covered in the above:

  • The adoption of an LMS within universities is mythic amongst a number of folk, current extensions (open source or out source) retain the old fundamentals, just add a few wrinkles.
  • The type of response provided by Sloan-C might be explained by folk for whom elearning, or some definition, has become mythic and consequently their response might be, at least partly, faulty. (As I read their response more I’ll form an opinion on that one).
    Actually, I just returned to that document and found I had reached the end. Sorry, but I don’t find it a convincing response. The major aspect of the response is to point to 20 million online learners. Quantity doesn’t tell us anything about quality of the learning experience – much of the literature suggests it is very poor. There are also other measures such as cost, return on investment etc.

    It then points to the National Centre for Academic Transformation projects which spend a lot of money and resources performing some radical transformations. I don’t see this practice scaling well.

  • Equally, Zemsky and Massey’s view might be flawed either through one or a combination of their lack of knowledge of e-learning – possibly through flawed methods (which appear to be there), or by being to stuck in their own patterns.

Point 1 above, raises the question of what is the alternative? Or perhaps what are the alternatives? Some will say personal learning environments. For me these are only a small aspect of the alternative. As the thesis work gets finished, I’ll share more of what I think the alternative is here.

Extension to the summary

Anyone who knows my work or has skimmed my publications will assume that the alternative answer I will propose will be Webfuse. This is the instantiation of the design theory I’m formulating for my PhD

Most people will be wrong. This is because most people are still stuck with the mythic nature of the LMS. They think Webfuse is an LMS. This can be seen in the rhetoric being circulated within the institution.

This perception is best illustrated by the comments I’ve been getting for 10 years. Why don’t you sell Webfuse?

Comments of this type assume Webfuse is an LMS. That it can be sold just like Blackboard, Desire2Learn or it can be made open source like Moodle or Sakai. They are wrong.

Webfuse is a different kettle of fish all together. The “mythic nature” of the LMS is perhaps one of the biggest hurdles to overcome in explaining the difference. Something I still need to work on.


Geoghegan, W. (1994). Whatever happened to instructional technology? 22nd Annual Conferences of the International Business Schools Computing Association, Baltimore, MD, IBM.

Zemsky, R. and W. F. Massey. (2004). “Thwarted innovation: What happened to e-learning and why.” Retrieved 1st July, 2004, from


Postman’s – 5 things to know about technological change and e-learning


Poor craftsman – or the "blame the teachers" excuse

1 Comment

  1. maximiseict

    Hi, David,

    I like your consideration of a mythic LMS/VLE. Both as an innovator of some long standing and in relation to your notes on both e-Portfolios and VLEs I feel that I must respond.

    There is nothing more heartbreaking to a craftsman than to see a good tool being badly used. Or conversely, in relation to the concept of Mythic Practice, when chauffuring my guests they so often compliment me on the car rather than the driver. This certainly applies to VLE implementations.

    I suspect that there is nothing more complex than trying to match the requirements of a large university with any VLE tool. Perhaps there is a mismatch between the definition of ‘innovation’ and the adoption of a new tool. If one understands the purpose of innovation as meeting ‘human need’, then we can clearly see that in such cases the ‘human need’ has not been properly identified in the first place. And certainly sufficient feedback loops have not been embedded in the initial design process.

    You can find a short paper originally produced some years ago that looks at the processes of innovation and what we can learn about innovation: Innovation.pdf

    Kind Regards,
    Ray T

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