Addressing LMS limitations with online learning networks

Following is a description and rationale behind a research project we are hoping to undertake with one or two degree programs over the coming terms. It is based on a conference paper. To summarize we are hoping to address some of the inherit limitations of Learning Management Systems by supplementing the course based LMS with a program wide online learning community. The intention is to enhance the student experience by facilitating social engagement at the program level with a minimum of extra staff effort.

What are online learning networks?
Learning networks are self organized online communities designed to facilitate lifelong learning” (Berlanga et al. 2007)

What are some of the advantages of participating in an online learning network?

· Tacit knowledge. Members of an online learning network can draw upon the contextual experience of other members. Industry analyst firm Gartner estimate that situations for individuals in organizations that require tacit knowledge will double between 2006 and 2010.

· Informal Learning. Informal learning is the unofficial, unscheduled, impromptu way most of us learn to do our jobs. Informal learning is like riding a bicycle: the rider chooses the destination and the route. The cyclist can take a detour at a moment’s notice to admire the scenery or help a fellow rider. Formal learning is like riding a bus: the driver decides where the bus is going; the passengers are along for the ride. People new to the territory often ride the bus before hopping on the bike.

· Informal forums for Q&A. People are often more comfortable asking what they perceive to be ‘dumb’ questions in an informal forum of their peers.

· Professional Networking. Members of online communities can gain affiliations with other folk in their discipline.
· Sense of community. Research has shown that a strong sense of community amongst groups of individuals leads to greater individual commitment and satisfaction within the field of endeavor. Astin’s theory of student involvement contends that students learn by being involved and the quality of student involvement can be measured by their interactions.

What are the limitations of Learning Management Systems that drive this project?

· Content focus. Most LMS are content focused and this they tend to do well. There is even some research such as ladyshewsky’s that suggests that the learner/content interactions provided by an LMS are often better than face-to-face teaching. However other research stemming from Rhode as well as Anderson and Dron suggests that LMS are found lacking on other interactions such as learner-learner and learner-instructor. This could be due to the nature of the tools provided to facilitate these interactions as indicated by George Siemens. Siemens goes on to say the tools provided are implemented in a locked down, do it our way structure.

· Organizational and instructor focus. LMS give value to organizations by providing a means to sequence content and create a manageable structure for instructors and administrators (Siemens 2004). The use of ICT in tertiary education has impacted more on administrative services than on fundamentals of learning and teaching (OECD 2005).

· IT Culture. IT departments make decisions based on centralizing and controlling services with a view to reducing costs (Mossberg 2007). The applications and tools available to individuals has been far outstripping the usability and functionality of the technologies provided by organizations.

· Informal Learning. Informal learning accounts for over 75% of learning in organizations (Siemens 2004). LMS don’t tend to allow informal learning.

· Course Based Designs. Learning is limited to individuals enrolled in a course for a term which excludes other folk like industry practitioners and alumni.

Requirements of an online learning network

· Homepage and shared workspace

· Conversation places

· Repository

· Search facility

· Definition of member ship

· Management tools

The Plan is to take a degree program whose component courses are hosted on the learning management system and create an online learning network that provides information and conversation for the whole of the program. By creating a web presence and utilizing the various publicly available tools such as RSS, and Yahoo pipes we hope to create a learning network that is relevant, organic and requires a minimum investment of instructor time.


University IT governance and Innovation

Most universities in Australia are using a Learning Management System (LMS) (Byrnes et al. 2004) and most of these Universities are using Blackboard ™. This has lead to a situation where most Australian universities are using an LMS from a single vendor even though they have variences in their LMS requirements. For example the University of Queensland has mostly on campus students while Central Queensland University has a large proportion of distance and international students yet they both use the same LMS (Blackboard). According to Siemans (2004), “LMS’ offer their greatest value to the organization by providing a means to sequence content and create a manageable structure for instructors and administration staff”. It could be said we have the situation where most Australian universities are using the same LMS and have chosen this LMS for reasons of utility to the organization. Add to this that university IT departments are often concerned with centralization and control and it could also be said that this situation has limited the scope of innovation and experimentation around eLearning by limiting the diversity of eLearning options available to instructors. This is not to say that IT departments are necessarily wrong as they often centralize for valid reasons such as:

1. Avoiding duplication of effort.

2. Improved security.

3. Standardize operations.

4. Allow for more specialization.

5. Cut costs

However it could be said that a single-vendor solution in a locked down environment, can be stifling for innovation and experimentation as IT departments typically stamp out non-standard installations and shadow systems via strict, and often blind, policy enforcement. Walter S. Mossberg (2007), a personal technology columnist for the Wall Street Journal, describes information-technology departments as the most regressive and poisonous force in technology today. He goes on to say IT departments make decisions on keeping technology centralized and although lesser known software may be better, technology departments are likely to use big-name products for their own convenience. Another flow-on effect of centralization is that often to perform a ‘technical task’ requires one to be a member of the IT department and outsiders are not permitted to engage in such an activity regardless of the requirement.

In the context of eLearning, experimentation and the resulting innovations are critical as the technologies available to the average web user are evolving at a phenomenal rate. So the question remains that in a centralized, locked-down, single-vendor environment that seems typical in Australian universities, how can the organizations promote experimentation and innovation?

Stefan Thomke (2003) outlines six principles organizations can follow to unlock their innovative potential.

1. Anticipate and Exploit Early Information Through ‘Front-Loaded’ Innovation Processes

2. Experiment Frequently but Do Not Overload Your Organization.

3. Integrate New and Traditional Technologies to Unlock Performance.

4. Organize for Rapid Experimentation.

5. Fail Early and Often but Avoid ‘Mistakes’.

6. Manage Projects as Experiments.

Unfortunately the strict IT environments typically encountered in a university don’t tend to allow the liberties required to apply these principles in any meaningful way. However many people are still circumventing IT department boundaries through the use of shadow systems which can be an indicator effectiveness of official IT systems. If more and more people are using shadow systems it could indicate a ‘coal face’ issue with the official system and perhaps IT departments would do better by at least considering the rationale for the existence these systems rather than removing unofficial systems out of hand.

The big question is how can we promote experimentation and innovation in a typical university environment with a typical university IT ecosystem?

“Large IT Shops Branded “Regressive” and “Poisonous” | Advice and Opinion.” (Accessed May 1, 2008).

“The importance of innovation.” (Accessed May 1, 2008).

Byrnes, Ron. n.d. “The Distribution And Features Of Learning Management Systems In Australian Universities And Their Role In Student Assessment.” (Accessed May 2, 2008).

Hiner, Jason. n.d. “Sanity check: Five reasons to centralize your IT department | Tech Sanity Check |” (Accessed May 2, 2008).

Siemans, George. 2004. “elearnspace. Learning Management Systems: The wrong place to start elearning.” Learning management systems. The wrong place to start learning. (Accessed May 2, 2008).

Thomke, Steffan. 2003. Experimentation Matters: Unlocking the Potential of New Technologies for Innovation. . Harvard Business School Press.

The challenges of learning networks

I’m attempting to write a paper for the CQU Lifelong Learning conference held in June this year on Learning networks and how current university ICT mechanisms restrict their development. Specifically I’m looking at the requirements of a learning network and how learning management systems are restricting innovations like learning networks in online education.

Lifelong Learning
According to Edwards et al (1998) the modern adult is subject to an ever-increasing explosion of information which in turn places a greater emphasis on learning, which is ongoing, rather than content, which will soon be out of date. More succinctly George Siemens (2004) states “know-how and know-what is being supplemented with know-where”.

Discipline Based Learning Networks
A method that is increasingly used to promote both lifelong learning and professional knowledge is learning networks. Learning Networks are self-organized online communities designed to facilitate lifelong learning (Berlanga et al 2007). According to Koeper & Sloep (2002) in these communities learners participate, actively creating and sharing activities, learning plans, resources, and experiences with peers and institutions.
Inhibitors to online learning networks
Most online learning mechanisms like learning management systems provide leaner-content interaction effectively (Siemens 2004) and there is some research like Ladyshewsky (2004) that indicates it may even be more effective than traditional methods like face to face. However due to the centralized, administrative approach that most learning management systems take, the tools to provide learner-teacher and learner-learner interactions are basic if they exist at all. George Siemens (2004) makes the observation that only recently and in limited ways have LMS vendors started extending tools and offerings beyond simple content sequencing and discussion forums. He goes on to say that while this is progress it’s still within a “locked-down, do-it-our-way” platform. Some of the limitations of LMSes I look at are:

  • Environment.
  • Organization and Instructor focus.
  • Innovation and approach
  • Informal learning.
  • Course based models.

Digital Asset Management @ [somewhere]

The use of digital assets such as audio, video in education at an organization like [somewhere] is an important factor considering online/distance student population. How do we engage these students online particularly when we are using 1990s style learning management systems that produce very bland HTML at the very best? Part of the solution I feel lies in delivering content that makes intelligent use of video/audio that catches the student’s interest, is pedagogically sound and utilizes ‘trendy’ technologies such as Podcasting, youtube, slideshare etc. However these delivery methods and protocols are irrelevant if the systems used by the organization that creates or utilizes these media assets doesn’t have effective systems for creating, cataloging and delivering the content in a timely, efficient manner. Enter the Digital Asset Management System or DAM.

Some of the problems associated with the way digital assets are being managed include.

  • Currently the digital assets aren’t cataloged in any searchable or reportable manner.
  • Copyright and attribution information isn’t being tracked.
  • ROI is poor due to lack of re-usability.
  • Management of associated infrastructure such as storage servers is extremely difficult due to the lack of metadata.
  • Digital assets are becoming much easier to produce by the average user increasing the quantity of assets in circulation.

My opinion is that a simple, usable DAM would solve a whole range of issues including some of the ones listed above. The core business of the organization is education and the Academics are the conduit of the core business so the system must be made with this cohort firmly in the fore mind. How do we go about it?

There are roughly  three groups who produce digital content at [somewhere].

  • The Video Production Group or VPU.
  • Flexible delivery services or FDS.
  • Other staff like academics and FBI techs.

Each group has some specialized requirements but the process for all groups can be summed up simply in the following stages.

  1. upload of the digital content via a web page that is linked to a database that records metadata on the digital asset leveraging data provided by systems such as LDAP to help in field pre-population.
  2. processing of the digital asset such as video/audio transcoding to selectable formats.
  3. moving the processed asset to it’s long term storage such as a NAS. This step is automatic and doesn’t require user intervention.
  4. Publishing, including automatic publishing where possible to student facing systems as well as user notification.

In my mind I see a system like this developing in an organic fashion. We start with the basic upload pages and a simple hosted database and develop as required using modular construction with few interdependencies between facets of the system thus reducing ongoing development costs with future changes. An example of change might be a move away from Learning Management Systems to Personal Learning Environments which will be all the easier with the organization’s digital assets cataloged and easily accessed by the user. The easier it is for the Academic to find and publish their desired digital asset the better the system. More to come as time permits.

First Steps to Building an online learning community.

I will soon be embarking on a project as part of a graduate certificate in Flexible Education Delivery which involves building an online community for a specific program at CQU. (Luckily I’m doing this with some smart people who have a wealth of teaching experience). So in preparation for the first meeting tomorrow I’ve been doing some reading on how to maintain a healthy active  online learning community. First of all I found some interesting references to definitions of a community and how the definition has changed with the advances in technology that removed the obstacle of distance that hindered interpersonal communication.

Researchers now consider the strength and nature of relationships between individuals to be a more useful basis for defining community than physical proximity (Hamman, 1999; Haythornthwaite & Wellman, 1998; Wellman, 1997; Wellman & Gulia, 1999a)

An online community can be described as people who come together for a particular purpose, and who are guided by policies (including norms and rules) and supported by software” ((de Souza & Preece, 2004; Maloney-Krichmar & Preece, 2005; Preece, 2000).

I found this article by Caleb John Clark (1998) ,while quite old, to be somewhat useful to someone like me who has very little experience in education. To roughly summarize:

  • Online learning communities are grown, not built. Online learning communities should be grown, not built. Online communities are strongest when grown by members into unique and supportive, environments.

1. Communicate the purpose of the community
2. Specify the ritual and requirements of membership
3. Decide on the participation and personality of the leaders
4. Provide clear guidance for new members
5. Offer growth opportunities for established members.
6. Create a policy for handling disputes and disruptions
7. Cultivate cyclic rhythms for events and communications.

  • Online learning communities need leaders. Online learning communities need leaders. Leaders are needed to define the environment, keep it safe, give it purpose, identity and keep it growing.
  • Personal narrative is vital to online learning communities. Personal narrative is vital to online learning communities. Personal stories and experiences add closeness, and provide identity, thus strengthening online communities.

Another interesting aspect of online communities is the ‘lurker’. It can be expect that only 10-20% of the regular visitors to any online community will actively participate while the rest quietly watch and listen. According to Stacey Horn in her book Cyberville(1998) this is ok. So long as the leaders are encouraging participation in a comfortable environment let the lurkers lurk.

The tail wagging the dog. Working for the IT system.

“In its current form I think most people would tell you that it hasn’t delivered a lot as compared to the old system… what we’ve said in terms of re-implementing is that if you’re going to take a system like a PeopleSoft system or a SAP system you have to come from the premise that it’s been developed usually with best practice in mind. What you should always try to do is rather than trying to modify the system to suit your processes at all times try to look at ways of modifying your processes to suit the system.”,139023166,120279146,00.htm 

Is it just me or the tail wagging the dog? Shouldn’t the systems work for the organization? What I find amazing is how many businesses are slaves to their IT systems. A classic example is the rise of Point Of Sale systems in the late 80s, early 90s. Shops moved from 7 department cash registers to POS systems and found they needed more staff due to the inflexibility of the software supplied with the POS system which required every item of stock to be checked in before the system would even allow it to be sold. Maybe software isn’t so soft?

An interesting side effect of the dominant  IT system is the way managers perceive it’s value. Here at the University where I work we have a multi-million dollar Peoplesoft system that costs an incredible amount to maintain and ultimately is only an administration system yet management don’t seem to question the associated costs of this but question the value of the student facing systems that are our principle source of income.

“March 29, 2004 (Computerworld) — Ohio’s attorney general has filed a lawsuit against PeopleSoft Inc. seeking $510 million in damages over a problematic installation of the company’s ERP and student administration applications at Cleveland State University.  “,10801,91720,00.html

June 23, 2006 (Computerworld) The 11-campus North Dakota University System (NDUS) continues to work on a troubled rollout of PeopleSoft ERP and academic software that critics said has exceeded budget and missed deadlines.

Apparently I’m not the only one who questions the wisdom of Peoplesoft but I don’t believe the problem is just with Peoplesoft. There is a massive industry of consultants, standards and compliance around IT. ITIL is another example of standardizing what should be common sense and I’m sure the ITIL consultants are rubbing their hands together over this latest fad. More to come.

Graham Attwell’s ‘The future of eLearning’

Well the holidays are over and it’s time to start thinking about personal learning environments again. I’ve read a paper by Graham Attwell on PLEs which for me, raised some interesting ideas.

  • Employers also increasingly wish to see evidence of the ability to apply skills and knowledge in a particular context. PLEs could facilitate such presentations, in an extended form of an e-Portfolio and through links to an e-Porfolio.”
  • “the embedding of computer based communication within the tools of the workplace. This offers the opportunity to develop learning environments whilst simultaneously accessing and shaping the production and business process through such interfaces.”

I’m particularly interested in the notion of the blending of the learning environment with the work environment.