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Parkin Space: Adventures Beyond the LMS Part II


The LMS adventures a column a couple of weeks ago produced a torrent of email, most of it agreeing that today’s LMS has way too much say in our training decisions.

The only vaguely defensive reactions were from LMS vendors, who typically said “Yes, but what else can we do?” Short of reinventing your systems completely, you can probably do nothing. Corporate learning used to be controlled and channelled, but is increasingly informal and personal. If training is like an irrigation system, channelling knowledge to achieve preconceived ends, then raw knowledge is like rain – it will bypass an LMS that does not accommodate and focus it, and it will find its own way, carving a new learning landscape as it does.

There is a philosophical argument to the effect that learning cannot and should not be managed at all, but let’s not go there. I believe that formal and informal learning reinforce each other and that the absence of one impoverishes the other. Formal learning, almost by definition, requires “management” – it has to have some kind of strategic context, involve some kind of premeditated processes, and be organized or guided along in some way. So there is clearly a role for an LMS.

For those who thought I was being unduly unfair on the industry that gave us the e-learning supply chain, complete with its various intermediary gatekeepers and control systems, I apologise. I never intended to imply that a system for managing learning is unnecessary, merely that such systems today are inadequate. They are inadequate not because they provide too little control, but because they provide too much of the wrong kind of control, channelling the thinking of trainers away from creative innovation and toward dumb compliance with outmoded learning models. And they are way too precious about their uniqueness within the ERP family.

An LMS should manage access, record-keeping, and reporting on those things that require such administrative control. It should also enable the flawless provision of services to the customers of the learning department. An LMS should not dictate, or constrain, pedagogical architecture or learning strategy. Sadly, most do. How did this happen?

Because a simple adaptation of most ERP systems could accommodate the access and reporting aspects of learning management, LMS vendors needed to differentiate themselves from the big enterprise providers like SAP and PeopleSoft (now Oracle). So they focused on becoming ‘platforms’ for the launching of packaged content, which was outside of the brief of ERP providers. And that became their unique selling proposition and primary function.

Only the most cynical observer would suggest that the collusion between the LMS vendors and ADL in the creation – and aggressive promotion – of SCORM was deliberately geared to creating the kind of barriers to entry that result from getting an industry to adopt a proprietary standard instead of exploiting more open web systems. But that was the net effect. In standardising course interoperability around a content-centric object model, they effectively shut out the wider world of process-centric or distributed web interoperability. In so doing they denied to their customers access to some of the real learning potential of the Internet. Learning experiences facilitated by peer-2-peer systems, social networks, just-in-time mentoring, blogging or RSS? Just because your LMS cannot “manage” these does not mean they should not be experimented with and exploited.

SCORM advocates will of course deny that their reference model paints learning developers into a corner, or stunts their growth. But I challenge anyone to persuade a corporate e-learning decision-maker to try a product, solution, process, or experience that is not SCORM-conformant. If it is not LMS plug-and-playable, it is not taken seriously. And all too often you will be asked to dumb down your learning model till it fits the capabilities of the LMS, no matter how much you lose in learning effectiveness. Just say no.

The best bet for trainers is to accept that their LMS is only one tool, and a limited one at that. Use your LMS, by all means, for tasks for which it is appropriate. Exploit learning objects, in so far as they are relevant. But where your strategy and learning objectives call for an approach that takes you outside the scope of your LMS, do not pull back. Step boldly into that “unmanageable” territory. Be willing to use multiple learning processes and multiple management tools to achieve your learning objectives, even if it means compromising at first on administrative efficiency.

Letting your LMS be the primary determinant of the limits and scope of your learning endeavors is like refusing to eat anything that cannot be nuked in a microwave oven.

Bon appetit!

* To read all of Godfrey Parkin's columns, go to Parkin Space


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