Different perspectives on the purpose of the LMS

Antonio Vantaggiato gives one response to a post from Donald Clark titled “Moodle: e-learning’s frankenstein”. Clark’s post is getting a bit of traction because it is being seen as a negative critique of Moodle.

I think part of this problem is the failure to recognise the importance of the perceived purpose to which Moodle (or any LMS) is meant to serve. Just in my local institution, I can see a number of very different perceptions of the purpose behind the adoption of Moodle.

In the following I’m stealing bits of writing I’ve done for the thesis, some of it has appeared in previous posts. This probably makes the following sound somewhat pretentious, but I’ve gotta got some use out of the &%*#$ thesis.

The importance of purpose

Historically and increasingly, at least in my experience, the implementation of e-learning within universities has been done somewhat uncritical with the information technology taken for granted and assumed to be unproblematic. This is somewhat surprising given the nature of the universities and the role academics are meant to take. However, in my experience the selection of institutional LMSs is driven by IT and management with little room for critical thought or theory informed decision making.

Instead they rely on a very techno-rational approach that takes a very narrow perspective of what technology is, how it has effects and how and why it is implicated in social change (Orlikowski and Iacono 2001). A different perspective is that technology serves the goals of those who guide its design and use (Lian 2000).

This is important because many, if not most, universities follow, or at least profess to follow, a purpose driven approach to setting strategic directions (McConachie, Danaher et al. 2005). The implementation of an LMS is being done to achieve specific institutional purposes. The very definition of a teleological design process is to set and achieve objectives, to be purpose driven (Introna, 1996). When an institution engages in selecting an LMS, the purpose is typically set by a small group, usually organisational leaders, who draw on expert knowledge to perform a diagnosis of the current situation in order to identify some ideal future state and how to get there.

Once that purpose is decided, everything the organisation does from then on is about achieving that purpose with maximum efficiency. By definition, any activity or idea that does not move the organisation closer to achieving its stated purpose is seen as inefficient (Jones and Muldoon, 2007).

Differences of purpose

Many of the folk responding to Clark’s post who are defending Moodle have their own notion of the purpose of Moodle, usually how they have used it. Others draw on the purposes espoused by the designer(s) of Moodle. There is little recognition that there exists a diversity of opinions about the purposes of Moodle.

A little of this diversity is represented in discussions about how Moodle is used in individual courses. For example, this comment mentions that Moodle does teacher centered very well. i.e. if a teacher sees the purpose of a course site to distribute information, Moodle can do that. This comment makes the point that Moodle is a tool, the pedagogy is not about the tool, it is about the approach.

Now, while to some extent that is true, I also agree with Kallinikos (2004) that systems can have profound effects on the structuring of work and the forms of human action they enable or constrain.

While Moodle’s designers may have all sorts of wonderful intents with the purpose of Moodle. Within a university the purpose assigned to Moodle by the people implementing it and supporting play a significant part. The processes, structures etc that they put around Moodle within an institutional setting can enable or constrain the purpose seen by the Moodle designers and the purpose seen by the staff and students who will use it.

Moodle/LMS as an integrated enterprise system

Due to the complexity of implementing Moodle for a largish organisation the people driving Moodle implementations within universities are usually IT folk. It is my suggestion that the purpose they perceive of Moodle is that of an integrated, enterprise system. A university’s LMS forms the academic system equivalent of enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems in terms of pedagogical impact and institutional resource consumption (Morgan 2003).

To slightly paraphrase Siemens (2006), the purpose of an LMS for the institution is to provide the organisation with the ability to produce and disseminate information by centralising and controlling services. 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 LMS is designed to provide an organisation with all the tools it will need for e-learning. Weller, Pegler and Mason (2005) identify two approaches to the design of an LMS: monolithic or integrated approach, and the best-of-breed approach. The monolithic approach is the predominant approach and seeks to provide all common online learning tools in a single off-the-shelf package (Weller, Pegler et al. 2005).

The evidence of this purpose can be seen when you go to your LMS folk and ask them “I’d like to do X”. The response to this question will generally be not what is the best marriage of pedagogy and technology (the best blended learning) to achieve your goal. The response to this question will generally be “How to do X in the LMS”. Regardless of how much extra work, complexity and just plain inappropriateness doing X in the LMS requires.

If all you have is an LMS, every pedagogical problem is solved by the application of the LMS.

What should the purpose of an LMS be?

BIM is a representation of what I think the purpose of an LMS should be. i.e. the LMS should provide the services that are necessary/fundamental to the university/institution, and only those. Increasingly, most of the services should be fulfilled by services and resources that students and staff already use and control.

BIM provides academics teaching a course a way to aggregate blog posts from students and, if they want to, mark them. Those marks are integrated into the Moodle gradebook. The assumption is that marking/accreditation is one of the main tasks a university performs and that there aren’t external services that currently provide that service.

There are, however, a great many very good and free blog services. So students use their choice of blog provider (or something else that generates RSS/Atom) to create and manage their contributions.

The purpose of the LMS isn’t to provide all services, just those that are required for the institution’s tasks.

Eventually, the term LMS becomes a misnomer. The system isn’t about managing learning. It’s about providing the glue between what the institution has to provide and what the learners are using. The purpose is about achieving the best mix of pedagogy and technology, rather than on how to use the LMS.

This perspective obviously has connections with Jon Mott’s (2010) article and the various folk who have written about this previously.

References

Beer, C. and D. Jones (2008). Learning networks: harnessing the power of online communities for discipline and lifelong learning. Lifelong Learning: reflecting on successes and framing futures. Keynote and refereed papers from the 5th International Lifelong Learning Conference, Rockhampton, Central Queensland University Press.

Jones, D. and N. Muldoon (2007). The teleological reason why ICTs limit choice for university learners and learning. ICT: Providing choices for learners and learning. Proceedings ASCILITE Singapore 2007, Singapore.

Kallinikos, J. (2004). “Deconstructing information packages: Organizational and behavioural implications of ERP systems.” Information Technology & People 17(1): 8-30.

Introna, L. (1996). “Notes on ateleological information systems development.” Information Technology & People 9(4): 20-39.

Lian, A. (2000). “Knowledge transfer and technology in education: Toward a complete learning environment.” Educational Technology & Society 3(3): 13-26.

McConachie, J., P. Danaher, et al. (2005). “Central Queensland University’s Course Management Systems: Accelerator or brake in engaging change?” International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning 6(1).

Morgan, G. (2003). Faculty use of course management systems, Educause Centre for Applied Research: 97.

Mott, J. (2010). “Envisioning the Post-LMS Era: The Open Learning Network.” EDUCAUSE Quarterly 33(1).

Orlikowski, W. and C. S. Iacono (2001). “Research commentary: desperately seeking the IT in IT research a call to theorizing the IT artifact.” Information Systems Research 12(2): 121-134.

Siemens, G. (2006). “Learning or Management System? A Review of Learning Management System Reviews.” from http://ltc.umanitoba.ca/wordpress/wpcontent/uploads/2006/10/learning-ormanagement-system-with-reference-list.doc.

Weller, M., C. Pegler, et al. (2005). “Students’ experience of component versus integrated virtual learning environments.” Journal of Computer Assisted Learning 21(4): 253-259.

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