Back in November 2007, Martin Weller, a Professor at the Open University wrote that, in his opinion, the VLE/LMS is dead – “but we’ll probably take five years to realise it”. It’s been almost a decade since his post, and there has been plenty more written about the LMS. In fact, Google returns almost 20,000 results for the search term “LMS is dead”, and just recently Jim Groom wrote a widely-shared and commented-upon post about it.
Yet, it seems, the truth is that the LMS is not going away anytime soon. Why is that? Why have the alternative solutions mentioned in Martin’s post withered and died while the LMS lives on? Why would anyone in 2017 use an LMS? Curiously, the answers are right there in the post from 10 years ago:
Meanwhile, the reasons Martin gives in that post for moving away from an LMS have largely been negated by developments over the last ten years. Here’s his original list of the benefits of using a ‘small pieces, loosely joined’ approach instead of an LMS:
- Better quality tools
- Modern look and feel
- Appropriate tools
- Avoids software sedimentation
- Disintermediation happens
Back when he wrote this post, I would have agreed with all of Martin’s points, envisioning a future filled with users merrily skipping between platforms into the sunset. I’ve learned a lot since then, and it’s pretty clear that a ‘small pieces, loosely joined’ is unlikely to ever happen. The LMS market is growing, not shrinking.
My reason for thinking about all this is because I’ve just started doing some work with Totara, an organisation I first came across back in 2012 when they built the Open Badges functionality for Moodle. Since then, while their code remains open source, they’ve ‘forked’ from the Moodle codebase. They’ve also got Totara Social, an ‘enterprise social network’ platform.
Interestingly, Totara are in the process of removing ‘LMS’ from their branding. That doesn’t mean that the concept of the learning management system is dead. No. What’s happening here is that the term ‘LMS’ has become a ‘dead metaphor’. It no longer does any useful work.
To quote myself, elsewhere:
The problem is that people will, either purposely or naïvely, use human-invented terms in ‘incorrect’ ways. This can lead to exciting new avenues, but it also spells the eventual death of the original term as it loses all explanatory power. A dead metaphor, as Richard Rorty says, is only good as the ‘coral reef’ on which to build other terms.
A learning management system, in essence, is a digital space to support learning. It doesn’t particularly matter what you call it so long as it:
- Has the functionality you require
- Costs what you can afford
- Is reliable
The reason I’ve accepted this piece of work with Totara is because they tick all of my boxes around their approach to this space. They’re innovative. They’re open source. They’ve got a sustainable business model. I’m looking forward to helping them with developing a workable vision and strategy around their community that fits with their pretty unique partner network approach.
As regular readers will be aware, and as betrayed by the introduction to this post, my background is in formal and informal learning. The Learning & Development (L&D) space is relatively new to me, so if you’ve got tips on people to follow, places to hang out, and things to read, please do let me know!
Photo by Jon Sullivan used under a Creative Commons BY-NC licence.
I’m always wary on the rare occasions I’m in any form of disagreement with Audrey Watters. It usually shows I haven’t read enough or perhaps have grasped the wrong end of the stick. However, in Disciplining Education Technology, to me she asserts something that I certainly don’t feel is true:
Education technology is already a discipline; education technology is already disciplinary. That is its history; that is its design; that is its function.
Perhaps this perspective is a function of my geographical location. The edtech sector is tiny in the UK, and the closest that educational institutions seem to get to ‘edtech’ is employing learning technologists and technicians. Again, I may be wrong about this; it may be just invisible to me. However, it seems to me that if edtech is indeed already a discipline, it’s almost entirely US-focused.
Martin Weller, also UK-based, gives reasons (my emphasis) for embracing the idea of a ‘discipline’ of edtech:
- “[I]t allows us to bring in a range of perspectives. One of the criticisms of ed tech is that people come in from one discipline and are unaware of fundamental work in a related one. So the Ed Tech discipline might well have components from psychology, sociology, education, computer science, statistics, etc. This would help establish a canonical body of texts that you could assume most people in ed tech are familiar with.”
- “As well as establishing a set of common content, Ed Tech can establish good principles and process in terms of evaluating evidence.”
- “[I]t creates a body against which criticism can push. When a subject becomes a discipline, then it is not long before you get a version of it prefaced by the word “Critical”. Critical Educational Technology sounds fine to me, and could sit alongside Practical Educational Technology to the mutual benefit of both.”
An additional point I’d add is that formalisation and scaffolding creates career paths for people, rather than them having to reside in the spaces between other disciplines. Look at the field of Design. There are schools within the discipline, there are career paths, but there are also consultants and freelancers who are seen as part of the bigger picture
As a UK-based consultant who sees edtech as my ikigai, you’re often seen as ‘outsider’ unless you’re in Higher Education or work for a vendor. Work in schools and colleges is also often looked down upon. Bringing everyone together and establishing norms, processes, procedures, and ‘canonical knowledge, could make it easier for people to move in and out of various organisations and institutions. It would certainly make funding easier.
Of course, the $64,000 question is who gets to decide what constitutes the discipline? I’d hate to see that discussion locked up in expensive academic conferences sponsored by vendors, and/or happening in paywalled academic journals. Perhaps paradoxically, open educators are exactly the kinds of people in the best position to push for a discipline of edtech.
I’m definitely in alignment with Audrey when she talks of the importance of a ‘radical blasphemy’ against the establishment of orthodoxy. My concern is that, currently, this orthodoxy isn’t explicit. What we’ve got is an implicit orthodoxy predicated on vague notions of terms such as ‘edtech’ and ‘open education’. As I’ve already argued, I think we can move towards more productively-ambiguous notions, whilst avoiding the pitfalls of edtech as (what Richard Rorty would term) a ‘dead metaphor’.
Perhaps the crux of the problem is with the word ‘discipline’. It certainly has negative connotations, and focuses on control. Given that ‘field’ is a near-synonym, I’d suggest that perhaps we use that instead? I’d very happy introducing myself to people by saying that I “work in the field of edtech”.
Perhaps we need an unconference…
Over in the Mozilla Webmaker Google+ community it’s the final day of our online discussion as part of Open Education Week. Today’s prompt asks: Do we need to protect the Open Web and Open Education? If so, who or what from? How do we do that?
My short answer to this would be yes we do need to protect Open Education and the Open Web. We need to protect them from commercial, proprietary providers looking to profit from creating silos. How do we do that? I’d argue by innovating in ways that are different from those looking to make a quick buck.
It’s obvious, but worth stating: I’ve no problem with people charging for services. The issue is more to do with the overall landscape. If all you’ve got is shiny silos from which to choose, it’s a frustrating pseudo-choice. Openness proposes and provides a different way to do things than following the logic of the market.
The problem is that ‘Open’ is an ambiguous term and seems to have become the latest fad. Martin Weller points out that in many ways ‘Open’ is the new ‘green’:
The old “open vs. proprietary” debate is over and open won. As IT infrastructure moves to the cloud, openness is not just a priority for source code but for standards and APIs as well. Almost every vendor in the IT market now wants to position its products as “open.” Vendors that don’t have an open source product instead emphasize having a product that uses “open standards” or has an “open API.
As Audrey Watters has eloquently stated, the fight is now who gets to decide what counts:
This battle involves the ongoing struggle to define “what is open.” It involves the narratives that dominate education – “education is broken” and “disruption is inevitable,” for example – and the “solutions” that “open” purports to offer. It involves a response to the growth of corporate ecosystems and commercial enclosures, built with open source technologies and open data initiatives. And all of this, I would argue, must involve politics for which we shouldn’t let “open” be an easy substitute.
As the term ‘MOOC’ (Massive Online Open Course) has shown, you can’t have it both ways: if a term includes enough ambiguity and flexibility to be widely adopted, then those who originally defined it no longer have control over the definition. It’s out in the wild. Like a virus, the definition mutates over time.
It’s not the word ‘Open’ we need to protect, it’s the spirit behind it. We’re fighting a losing battle if we expect a word to mean the same thing for all eternity. Instead, as a community we should create, sustain and release new terms to help shed light on the things we believe to be important and hold dear.
Finally, as Audrey reminds us in the quotation above, to align yourself with an agenda of Openness is a political statement. As such we should be prepared to get our hands dirty and fight for what we believe.
Image CC BY-NC-SA John Carleton