Digital education starts with an LMS to organise learning

As a technology-savvy educator, I fell in love with Learning Management Systems (LMS) from their early beginnings. LMS organized my work better than by any analogue means, they facilitated my students’ online access to teaching- and learning materials and, in recent years, such systems allow for the more interactive realization of curricula.  I remember when we installed the first Moodle versions on our local server at our international college in Thailand more than a decade ago. Little later, I experimented with Google Classroom and worked full-time with Blackboard LMS (modified with Laureate Lens) during my Masters at the University of Liverpool. Most online courses that I took with Oxford University, back then, were fairly effectively conducted via Moodle.

Currently, using Canvas LMS for the Medienfaktur at the University of Oldenburg, I enjoy the luxury of employing one of the most advanced and user-friendly systems on the planet. Canvas, to me, represents the pinnacle of LMS development. From mobile access to learning analytics to great tools such as the ‚Speedgrader‘, this is digital beach-front property. We upgraded Canvas LMS with Pronto, a team-communication platform for synchronous communication. If you haven’t yet started in digital education, get a suitable LMS.

However, taking my pedagogical experiences during the COVID-crisis into account, I increasingly regard Learning Management Systems less and less suited to guide the future of Higher Education. Lately, I feel the constraints of centralized LMS limiting advanced modes of learning. In the following, I shall discuss some new ideas with a focus on Higher Education. The story is about how we outgrow advanced software templates.

At a closer look, all LMS serve traditional educational delivery modes

The bottom line is that all LMS, logically, support the structure of traditional curricula and modules. The smallest common denominator of colleges, polytechnics, and universities from around the world are traditional course structures that involve the handing-in of assignments that will later be graded by lecturers and/or peers. We may add all the bells and whistles of modern LMS, such as personal learning paths and formative assessment options to the equation but at the end of the day, we are still dealing with a prestructured, predominantly teacher/ lecturer- generated learning environment based on traditional (often weekly structured) topics and content. There is nothing wrong with that as long we do not plan for pedagogical models that require a greater autonomy of learners, especially for process-based, semi-structured teamwork.

YoTribe is an innovative example of how new collaborative tools evolve. Such tools support what we call ‘Open Social Spaces’: Learners decide their modes of collaboration. Another great example is the ‘Unhangout‘ developed by MIT.

Which are the drivers of advanced learning?

We could argue that any LMS can support pretty much any type of pedagogy, from content-delivery to letting students work on projects and in groups. The only question is if the lecturer, or program designer, is smart enough to create challenging topics and problem-sets, entailing more innovative assessment- and learning methods. The ABC workshop format is a great example.

De facto, practically all commercial and Open-Source LMS are built around the facilitation of course- and module structures. Pedagogy comes second and is facilitated via the LMS by the users. Do you see where the argument goes? LMS are not primarily built around (a) the social setting of learners (supported by their academic and technological resources), (b) the challenge or problem at hand or (c) the structure of the learning process. All these drivers are treated as secondary phenomena that get a posteriori facilitated within an LMS.

But doesn’t any learning require an overarching centralized management system? If we share the assumption of standardized education, perhaps. However, in Higher Education our expectations of what entails higher psychological learning processes differ. An example: Following a problem-based Learning/ PBL approach, it is assumed that the driver of learning is authentic problems and challenges while learning depends on the active involvement of learners as reflective practitioners. So why are digital learning environments not built around these drivers?

‘Social Making’: Where it differs from centralized LMS

Let us stick with the PBL example. The first step in advanced learning processes is the climate setting and getting to know each other. Traditionally, this is facilitated in a discussion forum where participants post self-introductions and answer to the postings of peers. This setting is already a major simplification of social processes that limit learners to, what I consider, fairly superficial connections. If participants had advanced tools at their disposal where they can exchange more complex profiles, including their biographical background, competencies, personality, mindset and motivating factors, a far deeper, more meaningful online socialization could be facilitated.

Another central step of PBL is self-directed learning. We still let students individually roam online libraries to find useful information on the challenge at hand. If we are lucky, they know how to construct useful search-strings and they look up relevant libraries. What students need during complex problem-solving would be customizable dashboards that empower their research. Why can’t we employ more powerful tools?

Screenshot of MIT’s ‘Unhangout’ from the MIT Media Lab learning Initiative (Source: MIT): Breakout Rooms and synchronous communication have become best practice.

Research from various sources, not only libraries, needs to be organized, triangulated, annotated, and shared with others. Information needs not only to be found but automatically redirected from preselected Internet sources to the learner’s dashboard. We need to learn with the Internet, bi-directionally, not only from the Internet by passively looking things up. Programmable AI pattern-recognition modules could support learners in finding more relevant sources. It becomes obvious, that such personal learning environments would be sophisticated spaces by themselves. We do not have them yet on this level.

Future learning environments would resemble existing team management and – communication software solutions. The difference is that solutions would be integrated into a ‚foyer‘ moderated by the lecturer(s) in charge, a common learning space where all teams meet and share feedback.

Without further illustrating all other parts of the potential digitization of the PBL process it should become clear, that the resulting (open, more autonomous, and technologically empowered) learning platforms of the future share little with the LMS as we know them today. The term of ‚social making‘, coined by my colleague Michael Viertel and myself, refers to the idea that learners are empowered to creating the social conditions of their learning. This includes norms and values. It includes not only prior knowledge but the awareness of existing prior mindsets and motivational factors, the scaffolding of shared resources, and the creation of an interactive and fair learning environment that is accessible to all.


Since our work in higher education is increasingly based on project work as well as teamwork, traditional LMS, which are more geared towards secondary and primary education, reach the limits of their design when it comes to collaborative problem-solving. What we need is a new digital learning environment that empowers personalised learning as much as it empowers teams. Unlike commercial team collaboration software, new solutions need to support the academic context at hand.

LMS are a great solution for primary and secondary education. However, when it comes to tertiary and higher education, given the assumption of a more complex digital world that can only be mastered collaboratively, it is time for us to build a new generation of digital learning environments. Many of us have outgrown standardised education and what we want, at the bottom of our hearts, is to develop young people not just for the acquisition of knowledge and competencies, but their social mindsets, advanced soft-skills and ethics that are required to master the 21st-century.

Sir Ken Robinson, who sadly passed away last month, would definitely correct me here and extend the call for more creativity to all schools and ages. For him, education was not a mechanical, but organic process. LMS, we might argue, do not support the latter. Algorithms are automated processes, just not mechanical. Diversity of learners as much as a diversity of ideas do not flourish in standardized learning environments, exams and tests. The latter kill creativity and imagination. In many, albeit not all cases, LMS simply duplicate analogue classrooms. ‘Competency-based’ curricula have become a nicer, less stringent version of required standardized skills.

To end with a quote by Ken Robinson: ‘Human communities depend upon a diversity of talent, not a singular conception of ability. And at the heart of the challenge is to reconstitute our sense of ability and intelligence.

Picture of featured image by Unsplash. Credit: You X Ventures, Canada

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