Assembling the heterogeneous elements for (digital) learning

Why learning management systems will probably go away

I’d like to argue – and yes it is perhaps a case of wishful thinking – that there are reasons to suspect that learning management systems (LMSs) will probably go away. Or at the very least, identify some forces that are pushing that way.

The post is mostly in response to Tony Bates post “Why learning management systems are not going away”, but it is also inspired by this post from “Music of Deskchairs”.

To some extent, as I’ll suggest below, this could become an argument about the definition of what an LMS is and just how long it, whatever it is, is going to stay.

But first, a word from Chris Dede (a Harvard Prof of education no less) to lay the foundation for an aspect of my argument. In this 1m39s mp3 Dede argues that the assumptions about learning that underpin “our best learning environments” are severely flawed.

Why the LMS may go

Bates’ lists four reasons he thinks the LMS is here to stay:

  • Instructors and students need a structure for teaching in terms of topics, sequences etc, the LMS provides that structure.
    Yes, based on my experience a vast majority do. But there’s debate to be had around whether the LMS is the tool for this structure to be provided. Whether the limitations of the structure provided by the LMS will be too constraining as more interesting and useful tools develop.

    The broader question is what will happen as different pedagogical models – e.g. MOOCs, open teaching and other more social models currently being explored by a range of folk – become more prevalent. The diversity of learning is going to push against the constraints of the LMS as we currently know it.

  • Instructors and students need a private place to work online.
    I don’t deny the pressure on academics and students to modify their statements when in the open. No matter how much I deplore the need. However, the LMS is not the only private place on the Internet. Any number of spaces can be private. But the assumption that these places are truly private is just a bit mistaken. The ease and lossless nature of copying in an online world means that what is private can become public very quickly.

    Frankly I don’t say anything in an online medium – public or private – that I won’t stand by because I’m aware that there’s always a chance what was private could become public.

  • The choice is not either an LMS or web 2.0 tools
    I agree with this one. I’ve been working on BAM/BIM since 2006 as an example of this trend. We also did some work around a “Web 2.0 course site” in 2007, see the image below. Based on this experience, however, I do believe that when an “LMS” really starts to work effectively with Web 2.0 tools, then the very nature of the system and how it is supported also needs to change. In particular, it moves away from the “you can only use what’s in the integrated system (LMS)” approach currently popular. This will be a challenge, just a few weeks ago I was told “not to use any non-ICT approved cloud services”.

    Home page for Web 2.0 course site

    Rather than be the central provider of all online services as it is know. The LMS will have to become the “glue” that binds web 2.0 tools and institutional requirements together. To work really well the task of choosing and integrating Web 2.0 tools has to start moving into the hands of the users, not the developers. This starts becoming a very different type of beast. See the argument below.

  • Institutions are increasingly reliant on the LMS, especially for accountability.
    The argument here is that administration is increasingly reliant on the LMS as the place to check on student performance, for appeals and accountability. Bates does not suggest this is a good thing, but states it is the reality.

    Of all the arguments this is probably the strongest one in terms of creating inertia around the LMS. In reality, it is management that makes decisions about LMS selection. They may engage in democratic and open decision making, but in the end, if they want something…This perspective does ignore a couple of points, which I’ll pick up below.

    One point I will make now is that this perspective seems to miss the post-LMS ideas of the loosely coupled gradebook that are tightly connected to the last point. With the rise of big data there are just as good, if not better, methods for accountability/analytics available for use with Web 2.0 tools as with the LMS.

VLEs and not LMS?

Which raises the whole question of what an LMS is. From an information systems perspective, the historically dominant product model of an LMS has been the monolithic, integrated product model. Everything you ever need for X is in the integrated product that is sourced from a single vendor. You don’t need anything else and in fact integrating it with anything else is really difficult.

But there is another product model – best of breed. Light, Holland and Wills (2001) perform a comparative analysis of the monolithic versus best of breed approaches. That’s where the following table comes from. If an LMS is going to effectively integrate the rapidly growing number of high quality external applications (including Web 2. 0 tools) then it is going to have to move heavily towards a best of breed model, not an ERP/integrated model.

But it doesn’t stop there. How an organisation supports and uses a best of breed model is radically different from an ERP/integrated model. For example, with a best of breed approach there is a lot more time and effort placed on being sympathetic to the context, rather than making the context suit the tool. The organisational units supporting a best of breed system require radically different skill sets.

Bates’ suggests

we should be thinking more broadly than just the LMS. Instead we should be thinking about virtual learning environments

If we’re to think about more broadly about the VLE, rather than the LMS, then I would argue we’re having to think more about the best of breed approach than the ERP/integrated approach.

Table 2.3 – Comparison of major differences between ERP and BoB (adapted from Light, Holland et al. 2001)
Best of breed Single vendor ERP
Organisation requirements and accommodations determine functionality The vendor of the ERP system determines functionality

A context sympathetic approach to BPR is taken A clean slate approach to BPR is taken
Good flexibility in process re-design due to a variety in component availability Limited flexibility in process re-design, as only one business process map is available as a starting point
Reliance on numerous vendors distributes risk as provision is made to accommodate change Reliance on one vendor may increase risk
The IT department may require multiple skills sets due to the presence of applications, and possibly platforms, from different sources A single skills set is required by the IT department as applications and platforms are common
Detrimental impact of IT on competitiveness can be dealt with, as individualism is possible through the use of unique combinations of packages and custom components Single vendor approaches are common and result in common business process maps throughout industries. Distinctive capabilities may be impacted on
The need for flexibility and competitiveness is acknowledged at the beginning of the implementation. Best in class applications aim to ensure quality Flexibility and competitiveness may be constrained due to the absence or tardiness of upgrades and the quality of these when they arrive
Integration of applications is time consuming and needs to be managed when changes are made to components Integration of applications is pre-coded into the system and is maintained via upgrades

The Blackboard ERP/BoB approach

Reflecting on the Blackboard purchase of some open source service providers, Music for Deckchairs points to this video from Blackboard which starts by asking “Where does the educational experience need to go?” And closes with the very “best of breed”-like quote “And it should build on everyone’s best”.

At the same time it’s showing how the broad range of Blackboard’s tools and systems can invade the entire educational experience, at least in terms of a formal university experience. When I watch this video I am very much reminded of the Kaplan University video showing the brave new world of education and the “TPACK” mashup video pointing out how this wonderfully exciting view of the future is mired in the practices and assumptions of the past.

Diversity, complexity and disruption

Which brings me back to the Dede quote from above. Too much of the past decision-making around education within universities is based on the assumption of sameness and ignorance of the diversity and complexity of learning and the context surrounding learning.

Sadly, I don’t see much evidence of organisations that are grasping the increasing importance of this fact. So I’m guessing to some extent Bates is right, the LMS is probably here to stay.

But I also think that a range of factors are providing those interested in this diversity and complexity with the capabilities to route around the on-going sameness underpinning universities. So the LMS may well go away, eventually.


Light, B., Holland, C. P., & Wills, K. (2001). ERP and best of breed: a comparative analysis. Business Process Management Journal, 7(3), 216-224.


bim2 – What's working for coordinator


bim2 – working on coordinator – part 1


  1. One point I didn’t make in the above post was about the inevitability of “integrated systems” annoying people and its basis in history.

    Currently ERP systems within higher education are creating enormous inertia and stable systems drag. e.g. I know one university where the managed operating environment (MOE) on all university computers is still running IE v8 (IE v9 has been out for over a year) mainly because the web-based interface to its ERP doesn’t work with IE v9.

  2. Hi David, great post. I would agree with your critique of Bates – might I add a couple of ideas?

    I think there are two issues here.

    First, the reason LMSs will not go away – these have little to do with learning and teaching (though it is possible to use an LMS effectively, though with a lot of effort). LMSs will not go away because they have become a staple component within the framework of contemporary higher education and universities are heavily invested in them. Moreover, the way in which they constrain learning to simplistic models of topics, sequences, disconnected discussion opportunities, and then layered on top of that recreations of the classroom experience (lecture recordings, live chats), happily suits the economics of higher education – cut price, mass over quality. So, effectively, the techno-social quality of LMSs is not as much of an issue as the underlying economic structures.

    Second, and more fruitfully, LMSs will go away because they don’t in any way capture the fragmented, multi-tasking, semi-synchronous flow of information, communication and curation which defines current uses of the web by most students. In other words, students will stop using LMSs because they don’t work ‘right’. Some empirical evidence for this comes from the declining importance of the bulletin-board ‘discussion group’ (lauded in the 1990s as the most significant new learning technology). In our online courses, there’s less and less use of them and more and more informal learning happening through alternative discussion channels which students claim to be easier to use, more connected to their everyday lives and so on.

    Finally, I am not sure that VLE is particularly helpful either – I mean, are not most university students already in a virtual learning environment (the internet)? It’s not an organised environment, perhaps – it’s wilder, more random and potentially not suitable, but the challenge is this: if students are already on facebook, tumblr and so on, moving them OFF those places to study in specialised VLEs could either waste time, fail to motivate them, or misalign current skills with learning outcomes. I also think that the ‘web 2.0’ thing is dead and buried as well. I devoted considerable time to thinking about how a ‘Web 2.0’ approach could help improve education ( ) but am now starting to think that a very different paradigm is needed. In trying to keep Web 2.0 simple and pragmatic (so as to attract people to its benefits), I think I’ve lost something.

    Ultimately, perhaps, the changes we are now experiencing are deeply social – yes, enabled by and even explicitly technological in their means, but rooted in the economic and social developments of the world around us. For me, the real conceit of the LMS (which will kill it eventually, or render it a stunned mullet, still in operation but of little value), is that students must learn within formalised spaces, controlled and structured by universities. The LMS excessively formalises learning, rather than creating opportunities for a continuum of informal to formal learning.

    • G’day Matthew,

      I agree with all your points.

      The only space for disagreement comes down to definition of terms, in particular around “Web 2.0” and “VLE”. I’ve tried (and probably not succeeded) in using those terms as Tony Bates intended in his post.

      In terms of the VLE, I was thinking of something along the lines of the loosely coupled gradebook idea and to some extent BIM. Something that tries to appropriately glue together “the fragmented, multi-tasking, semi-synchronous flow of information, communication and curation which defines current uses of the web by most students” and the need for universities and teaching staff to view, analyse and mark/accredit that usage and at the same time to address issues such as accountability, efficiency etc

      This is not the typical usage of VLE – especially in the UK setting – but appears to mirror some of Bates’ intent when he talks about “bring in the outside world into our teaching, while at the same time providing the privacy and security that most instructors and students feel is an essential condition for learning.”

      On a related note, I can see evidence of institutional ePortfolios demonstrating the same conceit you identify around the LMS.

      Thanks for the comment.


    • I appreciate this post and comments very much, as this is such a thought-provoking time. The point that resonates strongly for me is that the LMS is still typically driven by a conceit masking as a convenience: that formalised and standardised learning equates to good learning. Students don’t report that this is the case — they just don’t. The LMS experience is rarely gripping, even if it gives us the opportunity to demonstrate that everyone had exactly the same unexciting time. To this extent it resembles that other tired format, the lecture, only with even less opportunity for unscripted surprise.

  3. Hi David,

    yes — I think your use of VLE is a nice one, which I didn’t appreciate first time around. I had been using it in the classic british sense which is, effectively, the same as LMS for that context.

    Bates’ concept of bringing something in from the outside, but in a way that secures the environment when required, is a positive step. Privacy and security are, indeed, key issues (especially given the rampant ‘radical transparency’ of Facebook – see the work of Kate Raynes-Goldie on this). My sense is that we need to find strong and effective uses of the transition from private to public and back again as part of learning and teaching – in other words, it’s not the technology which matters but the way it affords certain possibilities not otherwise available. For example, we know that one of the benefits of collective electronic discussion is the ability to communicate privately with an individual about their comments in public while not intervening in the public debate – this is something which you can’t do in a purely face to face environment. So, the point is not to use this technology but instead to think ‘how can this opportunity for blending public and private create new opportunities for learning enhancement’.


  4. David, while I don’t think that LMSs will go away, I do think that they will evolve, and be complemented by, an ecosystem that creates a different sort of learning environment, much as you describe above.

    I think there’s other evidence of this you might consider, too. ADL, the organization that shepherds SCORM (I can hear the silent jeers as I type) is moving forward with a lot of community involvement in a next generation of SCORM, starting with the “Tin Can API.” I’d encourage you to look into what’s happening both here ( and here ( We just kicked off the open spec effort and we’re meeting weekly, releasing version 1.0 in June.

    Don’t mean to spam, but I hope that this is helpful.

    • G’day Aaron,

      One of the beauties of the net is the diversity it enables, so, I don’t think it’s spam but yes I did silently jeer when I heard SCORM mentioned ;).

      The evolution you describe – “an ecosystem that creates a different sort of learning environment” – is a much nicer way of describing how I was using “VLE” in this discussion. So, obviously I agree.

      I am, however, both optimistic and pessimistic about the direction of that evolution. A lot of the folk driving that evolution are coming from a certain mindset which might push the evolution in not so interesting directions.

      Thanks for the pointers. The “simple lightweight” in the Tin Can API FAQ sounds promising. The notion of a learning record store appears to have some glimmers of resonance with learning analytics, something else I’m playing with.

      All very interesting. Thanks again.


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