What follows is the first draft of the “Product” section for an ASCILITE paper (the overview for the paper) I hope to finish by tomorrow……just a bit of wishful thinking. Much of it has appeared in this blog previously, just now trying to wrangle it into a formal publication and all the limitations (e.g. space) that brings with it.
It’s a first draft, so comments and suggestions more than welcome.
One of the defining characteristics of the industrial e-learning paradigm is the reliance on the Learning Management System (LMS) as the product for organizational e-learning. Despite the associated complexities and risks almost every university seems compelled to have an LMS (Coates, James, & Baldwin, 2005). The LMS is an example of an integrated or monolithic information system. This type of information system brings with it a set of advantages and disadvantages. On the plus side, an integrated system offers cost efficiencies and other benefits through standardization but, at the same time, such systems constrain flexibility, competitiveness, autonomy and increase rigidity (B Light, Holland, & Wills, 2001; Lowe & Locke, 2008). Such systems are best suited to circumstances where there is commonality between organizations and stable requirements with low uncertainty. This does not seem to be a good description of tertiary e-learning, either over the last 10 years or the next 10. This section looks at two of the repercussions of this mismatch – 1) organizations and people must adapt to the system; and, 2) the single vendor limitation – before describing the alternate principles from the ISDT.
The first repercussion of an integrated system is captured by this comment (Sturgess & Nouwens, 2004, n.p.)
we should seek to change people’ behaviour because information technology systems are difficult to change.
This is a comment from a technical staff member participating in CQUni’s 2003 LMS selection process. This comment, rather than being isolated, captures the accepted industry best practice recommendation to implement integrated systems in their “vanilla” form because local changes are too expensive (Robey, Ross, & Boudreau, 2002). Maintaining a vanilla implementation constrains what is possible with the system, limiting change, innovation and differentiation and perhaps being a contributing factor in the poor pedagogical outcomes observed in industrial e-learning.
For example, in 2007 an instructional designer working on a redesign of a CQUni course in Nutrition informed by constructive alignment was stymied by the limitations of the Blackboard LMS. Blackboard could not support the required number of group-based discussion forums required by the new course design. Normally, with an integrated system the pedagogical approach would have to be changed to fit the confines of the system. Instead the implementation of the course site was supplemented with use of one of the Webfuse discussion forums that allowed the fulfillment of the original educational design. Academic staff teaching large first year courses using the Webfuse BAM functionality faced a similar situation when CQUni adopted Moodle. Since Moodle did not provide similar functionality these staff would be forced to change their pedagogical approach to fit the capabilities of the integrated system.
The regular forced migration to another version of an LMS is the extreme example of the organization being forced to change in response to the technology, rather than the technology fitting to the organizations needs. It is not uncommon to hear Universities being forced to adopt a new LMS because the vendor has ceased supporting their current system. The cost, complexity and disruption caused by an LMS migration contributes to this “stable systems drag” (Truex, Baskerville, & Klein, 1999) as the institution seeks a long period of “vanilla” use to recoup the cost.
Another characteristic of an integrated system is that the quality of the tools available is limited to those provided by a single vendor or community. For example, a key component of the recent disquiet about the Curt Bonk MOOC hosted within a Blackboard LMS was the poor quality of the Blackboard discussion forum (see Lane, 2012). Reservations about the quality and functionality of the Wiki and Blog tools within Moodle are also fairly common. LMS-based tools also tend not to fare well in comparisons with specialist tools. For example, when LMS-based blog tools are compared with tools like WordPress. In addition, integrated systems tend to support only one version of every given tool. Leading to the situation where users can pine for the previous version of the tool because it suited their needs better.
The ISDT formulated from the experience of developing Webfuse proposes 13 principles for the form and function of the product for emergent e-learning. These principles were divided into 3 groups:
- Integrated and independent services.
Rather than a system or platform, Webfuse was positioned as glue. It was used to “fuse” together widely different services and tools into an integrated whole. Webfuse was an example of a best-of-breed system, a type of system that provides more flexibility and responsiveness to contextual needs (Ben Light, Holland, & Wills, 2001). For example, when the existing discussion forum tool was seen as limited, a new discussion forum tool was selected and integrated into Webfuse. At the same time the old discussion forum tool was retained and could be used by those for whom it was an appropriate fit. While new tools could be added as required, the interface used by staff and students remained essentially the same. There was no need for expensive system migrations.
- Adaptive and inclusive architecture.
Almost all LMS support some form of plugin architecture where external users can develop new tools and services for the LMS. This architecture, however, is generally limited to tools specifically written for the LMS and its architecture and thereby limiting what tools can be integrated. The Webuse “architecture” was designed to support the idea of software wrappers (Sneed, 2000) enabling the inclusion of a much broader array of applications.
- Scaffolding, context-sensitive conglomerations.
Most e-learning tools provide a collection of configuration options that can be used in a variety of ways. Effective use of these tools requires a combination of skills from a broad array of disciplines and significant contextual knowledge that the majority of academic staff do not possess. The most obvious example is in the overall design of a course website. Webfuse had a default course site conglomeration that combined a range of institutional data sources and Webfuse tools to automatically create a course site. A key aspect of the Webfuse wrappers placed around integrated tools was the addition of institutional specific information and services. There are significant, unexplored opportunities in adding scaffolding to e-learning tools that enable distributed cognition.
Writing about the need for universities to embrace diversity Thomas (2012) talks of Procrustes who
would stretch and sever the limbs of his guests to fit the size of his bed. We, too, are continuing to stretch and shape our higher education to a particular standard to the detriment of students and society alike.
In terms of e-learning, that “particular standard” is defined by the products we are using to implement industrial e-learning.
Coates, H., James, R., & Baldwin, G. (2005). A Critical Examination of the Effects of Learning Management Systems on University Teaching and Learning. Tertiary Education and Management, 11(1), 19-36. Retrieved from http://www.springerlink.com/content/r21987609l3g1h58/
Lane, L. M. (2012). Leaving an open online course. Retrieved from http://lisahistory.net/wordpress/2012/04/leaving-an-open-online-class/
Light, B, Holland, C. P., & Wills, K. (2001). ERP and best of breed: a comparative analysis. Business Process Management Journal, 7(3), 216-224.
Lowe, A., & Locke, J. (2008). Enterprise resource planning and the post bureaucratic organization. Information Technology & People, 21(4), 375-400.
Robey, D., Ross, W., & Boudreau, M.-C. (2002). Learning to implement enterprise systems: An exploratory study of the dialectics of change. Journal of Management Information Systems, 19(1), 17-46.
Sneed, H. (2000). Encapsulation of legacy software: A technique for reusing legacy software components. Annals of Software Engineering, 9(1-4), 293-313.
Sturgess, P., & Nouwens, F. (2004). Evaluation of online learning management systems. Turkish Online Journal of Distance Education, 5(3). Retrieved from http://tojde.anadolu.edu.tr/tojde15/articles/sturgess.htm
Thomas, J. (2012). Universities can’t all be the same – it’s time we embraced diversity. The Conversation. Retrieved June 28, 2012, from http://theconversation.edu.au/universities-cant-all-be-the-same-its-time-we-embraced-diversity-7379
Truex, D., Baskerville, R., & Klein, H. (1999). Growing systems in emergent organizations. Communications of the ACM, 42(8), 117-123.