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‘Learner as producer’: what Amazon can teach us about the activist LMS


Written by Toby Harris

In a recent post, I mentioned that the order of the training transaction is currently the wrong way around. We treat learners as passive consumers, and don’t recognise their potential as producers. It’s an idea which is underlined in an excellent recent post by Steve Wheeler, from whom I’ve borrowed the first part of my title (although I suspect that Walter Benjamin got there first). Wheeler points out that:

“The importance of the situatedness of learning at all levels cannot be overemphasised. Some of the strongest experiences and lessons we learn are rooted in authentic contexts, cultures and activities.

As the frenzy of online consumption that is Black Friday and Cyber Monday approaches, I want to explore the ‘learner as producer’ idea further by taking a look at Not all of us like the site, or the company, but what can its huge popularity teach us about building a more elastic learning experience on an LMS?

Firstly, it’s more-or-less accepted now that for mature organisations, a well-stocked LMS should be a delightful bazaar of learning. Instead of content being ‘pushed’ at them (which sounds pretty unpleasant), users should get to ‘pull’ exactly what they want and mould it into a personal learning experience. Much like an e-learning version of Amazon.  And most people love Amazon, right?

So why doesn’t a visit to your LMS feel as good as a visit to Amazon?

Obviously, even the largest LMS vendors or internal L&D teams don’t have as many graphic designers and web developers on hand as Amazon does. But discounting looks (and looks are important) there’s actually key differences which aren’t immediately obvious.

Firstly, there’s the lack of options and competition. Amazon offers me untold millions of great products. There’s dozens of sellers competing for market share in each category, guaranteeing that any taste will be satisfied. In comparison, the traditional LMS usually offers me one main library of generic content, plus a load of other bits and pieces. Really, L&D is the only ‘seller’ here. Call that a marketplace? It’s more like a cartel!

That said, a monopoly doesn’t automatically break a marketplace (at least not straightaway), or stop consumers buying. There’s something deeper which is broken, and it has more to do with what we are getting out of learners than what we are feeding in.

As people, learners are producers, above all else. Even when a human is ‘idling’ and not working in a job, he or she is still labouring in some way. Especially when we’re having fun, we’re often ‘producing’ something: whether that’s cooking a meal, writing a review or just texting a friend. (And when you think about it, even browsing the internet for several hours ‘produces’ useful data and a tiny dribble of ad revenue.)

From a different angle, then, a service like Amazon is similar to Facebook in that it is a very clever way to leverage unpaid human labour. The primary goal of its design may be to make you buy something, but that depends on the secondary goal: to make you contribute some of your own time (by producing a review, giving a rating, or just browsing). What they are leveraging is known in behavioural economics as the endowment  effect. The more time you spend on Amazon, the more of you it absorbs, and the more ‘sticky’ or elastic it becomes.

It’s easy to forget, but what really makes Amazon valuable to us is the ‘situatedness’ of products on offer: the huge amount of user-generated information available is like an irresistible social wrapping paper. And it turns out that we are the very people who create that situatedness, a service which we provide for free. Clever, isn’t it?

This distinction is where the ‘marketplace’ model of learning management systems really falls down. Assume that your LMS is a place where only L&D ‘produces’, and the learner ‘consumes’, and it will fail.  

Instead, we need to learn from Amazon and re-imagine the LMS as the ‘activist-LMS’. That means acknowledging that learning content experiences are basically non-engaging unless they are ‘situated’ and enriched by what I call ‘social-activators’.  

Just like a product on Amazon, online learning has to be a social content experience if it is to matter to learners. So how do we get there?

The technical facilitation is not so difficult. The social-constructivist pedagogy of open source platforms like Moodle and Elgg, for example, are designed with learner production in mind. Improvements you could make to any LMS might be as follows:

  • Move the internal blog over to the LMS and allow learners to upload files and course content.
  • Allow content to be commented, reviewed and rated
  • Change the way that learning content is navigated so that popular or relevant content is highlighted

But, as torturous as upgrades can be, fixing the LMS is actually the easy part. Leveraging learner production also requires a cultural change that extends far beyond the sphere of learning technologies. And the biggest barrier is within L&D itself. The privileged, ‘we-know-best’ position as controller-general of a content monopoly is no longer tenable if you want to create better behavioural interventions. We need learning campaigns that really do deliver ROI by aiming for the ripple, not just the splash… but a guide to enacting this kind of change deserves its own post.

But to get the ball rolling, how about quoting these wise words from Wheeler today:

“Teachers now need to wake up to the fact that they don’t teach subjects, they teach people.”

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