Assembling the heterogeneous elements for (digital) learning

LMS characteristics and limitations

This post follows on from previous posts and contributes the next bit of the Product component of my thesis.

Having given an overview of what an learning management system (LMS) is in the last post, this post looks at some of the characteristics and limitations of the LMS model. It’s not complete, but it’s a start.

LMS characteristics and limitations

The introduction of the LMS has started a new round in the struggle between the propensities of technology to define their own paths and academic’s appropriate desires to subordinate the technologies to the values and traditions of the academy (Katz 2003). As with any technology, LMS are not value neutral transmitters of facts but instead carry the values and priorities of their producers (Dutton and Loader 2002). While agreeing with the emergent perspective described by Markus and Robey (1988), the perspective that sees the uses and consequences of information technology emerge unpredictably from complex social interactions, that technology does not unambiguously determine outcomes. This section illustrated agreement with the view expressed by Kallinikos (2004) that systems can have profound effects on the structuring of work and the forms of human action they enable or constrain. This suggests that there exists some value in examining the characteristics and limitations of technical systems. Subsequently, this section draws on the literature around LMS to identify that characteristics and limitations of the LMS, and how those may enable or constrain learning and teaching.

Adoption of an enterprise LMS will require some standardisation of teaching and learning as all available functionality is provided by the system (Luck, Jones et al. 2004). An LMS, by its nature, is structured and has little capability for customisation (Morgan 2003). Current LMS are not customizable for instruction aimed at a specific audience with specific content. (Black, Beck et al. 2007). As two of the most highly personalised sets of processes within institutions of higher education, any attempt at standardising teaching and learning is likely to be radical, painful and problematic (Morgan 2003). The standardization inherent in an LMS exacerbates the pain of adoption by being standardized products designed to support a non-standard base of university academics with different disciplines, teaching philosophies and instructional styles (Black, Beck et al. 2007).

There is, however, value in the standardisation inherent within an LMS as it reduces institutional pain during the selection process (Black, Beck et al. 2007). The same standardisation built into an LMS helps organizations deal with support and training as there is a fixed set of functionality. The design of an LMS is more concerned with providing the organisation with the ability to produce and disseminate information by centralising and controlling services (Siemens 2006). The standardisation embedded in the design of an LMS can create a number of operational conditions that push teaching and learning in a particular direction (Luck, Jones et al. 2004), at the very least limiting possibilities to those supported by the LMS. Managerialism may be the easiest and most natural path for a centrally managed LMS to take (Dron 2006).

The LMS model with its nature as an integrated, enterprise system fits the long-term culture of institutional information technology and its primary concern with centralizing and controlling information technology services with a view to reducing costs (Beer and Jones 2008). An approach that increases tensions created by a long-term cultural divide within universities between the culture of administration – that values efficiency, principles of scientific management and standardized business processes – and the academic culture – more focused on tradition, erudition and innovation (Fernandez 2008). Management perceive information technology as a cost to be minimized while academics see it as a service to be customized for their idiosyncratic requirements (Jones 2004).

The design of an LMS embeds particular world views, for example, the Blackboard LMS – with its origins in the American higher education sector – embodies a a particularly American view with “course” as the standard organisational unit within the system (Dron 2006). Rather than a minor irritation, the inability to modify this assumption requires institutional practice to align with the system, rather than vice versa (Dron 2006). In addition, the course focus on most LMS make it difficult to support communities of students outside of the course structure or to involve non-course participants in online courses (Beer and Jones 2008).

In terms of support for pedagogy, there are views that LMS, in general, does not dictate either a discipline or a pedagogy (Katz 2003). However, there have been some designed with a pedagogical emphasis, generally constructivist, (Stiles 2007), though none have entered the mainstream. Many LMS embed traditional teaching paradigms into them through name, metaphor and user interface (Dutton, Cheong et al. 2004; Stiles 2007). Examples include the use of common terms such as blackboard and gradebook and the use of university buildings to structure the user interface (Dutton, Cheong et al. 2004; Dron 2006; Stiles 2007). While the use of familiar concepts make for a more intuitive interface (Stiles 2007), they can also lead to built-in constrains on the use of LMS (Dutton, Cheong et al. 2004). The very design of the LMS can encourage horseless carriage approaches to e-learning. Giving support for the observation that technology will most likely reinforce the old systems rather than the new paths (Lian 2000).

The values embedded in many common LMS reveal a residue that is clearly transmissive and adds to the banality, confusion and disapointment in the learning and teaching experiences (Sullivan and Czigler 2002; deFreitas and Oliver 2005; Salmon 2005). The tendency towards behaviourist approaches to learning – with an emphasis on parcelling up knowledge into bite-sized chunks – is one of the great weaknesses of the contemporary LMS (Weigel 2005). LMS are largely based on training-type models based on an overly simplistic understanding of the relationship between teachers, knowledge and student learning (Coates, James et al. 2005). A social constructivist approach to learning – with an emphasis on self-governed and problem-based activities – are not very well support by LMS (Dalsgaard 2006). The LMS assumption of a self-paced learner results in most LMS having limited interaction or collaboration tools such as simple chat rooms and discussion forums (Bonk 2002).

Most LMS support more or less the same pedagogy (Robson 1999). The nature of an integrated, enterprise system and its requirement for standardization means it is unlikely that a single LMS will support more than one instructional theory, if that. This would appear problematic given the significant diversity in instructional theories adopted within a single university – whether implicitly or explicitly acknowledged (West, Waddoups et al. 2006). LMS need to become more flexible and customizable in form and allow students and faculty to choose among pedagogies in their structure (Katz 2003) in enable adaptation of the tool to fit each unique situation (West, Waddoups et al. 2006).

The standard and pre-established boundary to learning within an LMS is a course (Weigel 2005). Access to the resources, activities and people associated with learning – and subsequently the learning itself – is restricted to those individuals associated with a particular offering of the course and further to the period when the course is offered (Beer and Jones 2008). Learners contribute to discussions that are closed and removed at the end of the course (Cameron and Anderson 2006). The model of many LMS implementations is equivalent to having students come on-campus blind-folded, taking them directly to their course-related activities, and not allowing them to see or speak to anyone not in their own course (Wise and Quealy 2006). Learning within an LMS is like “walled garden”, outside of the context of the learner’s everyday life, environment and informal learning (Mentis 2008). The focus on the course by LMS also places limits on management. For example, LMS provide only very limited functionality associated with reporting and usage monitoring at an institutional level across multiple courses (Morgan 2003).

The closed nature of many LMS go beyond restrictions on learning. Embracing a new LMS has high entry costs because there are few efficient migration tools (Molina and Ganjalizadeh 2006). Restrictions on migration of content, technical and financial factors can make it difficult for institutions to migrate between different systems (Coates, James et al. 2005). An on-going challenge to management is that observation that e-learning technologies are undergoing a continual process of change (Huynh, Umesh et al. 2003) and that any frozen definition of “best” technology is likely to be temporary (Haywood 2002). The high cost of changing systems can contribute to lock-in (Davis, Little et al. 2008).

LMS vendors are trying to position their systems as the center-point for e-learning (Siemens 2004). The assumption of an enterprise system is that it provides all of the necessary services in one integrated whole. There are, however, increasing perceptions that the LMS may be less significant within the an organisational online learning system (Davis, Little et al. 2008). The LMS may not, on its own, be sufficiently conducive to supporting the design, development and operations required within contemporary learning environments (Segrave and Holt 2003). This is a point expanded upon in the next section.


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Sullivan, K. and P. Czigler (2002). "Maximising the educational affordances of a technology supported learning environment for introductory undergraduate phonetics." British Journal of Educational Technology 33(3): 333-343.

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What is an LMS?


Other information systems in higher education

1 Comment

  1. Your readers may be interested in the next evolution of an LMS – an NLE or Network Learning Environment. Scholar360 LMS-SN is just such an environment, combining all the course tools of an CMS, the learning-centered tools of an LMS, and the collaborative tools of a social network. You and your readers may want to check it out at

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