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Parkin Space: E-Learning Adventures Beyond the LMS


To corporate decision-makers, the treasure map of e-learning has an island in the centre, seductively illuminated by those clever marketing folks of the learning software industry, with a big X over the Learning Management System (LMS) right in the middle. Outside of that island is blank space populated only by “here be dragons” warnings.

Given the marketing muscle behind the major LMS developers and their complete dominance of the e-learning space, it’s hardly surprising that many people see an LMS as “the solution” to their future learning needs. But an LMS, as available today, is not a universal solution for a corporation’s e-learning problems. In fact, an LMS is often the albatross around the neck of progress in technology-enhanced learning.

When your concept of learning is LMS-centric, you look for opportunities to implement “a solution” that conforms to that concept, and ignore or marginalize all else. An LMS is, of course, a relevant tool for certain applications. If you want to track learner activities, you need some kind of system. And if you want to make use of much of the available e-course content, you have no choice but to use an LMS – not because the learning requires it, but because the established architecture of the “learning supply chain” requires it.

If the only format in which music is available is on CDs, you have to have a CD player. And because everybody gets a CD player, more music is made available in that format. The industry crystallizes around its dominant technology. But the internet can challenge that. Today, I no longer collect CDs, I collect music. Music does not have to be in store-bought CD format. You can go to live performances or communicate directly with the musicians online; you can download only those tracks that interest you; you can compile and burn your own CDs, or put a thousand songs on an iPod; you can post clips on your blog to share your passion with friends.

IP issues aside, thanks to the internet, you can access and appreciate music in ways that for you, the listener, are so much better than the ways the music industry wants you to access it.

So it should be for learning.

The e-learning industry evolved in a more or less linear fashion from the classroom concept, with some influence from CBT. No imagination went into our application of web technologies, and there was little in the way of challenges to established learning paradigms. That’s perfectly normal in the adoption of new technologies – it takes a while before true innovation can take hold.

Initially, we failed to appreciate that the internet is a vehicle for connecting people with each other, and instead pursued a “learning supply chain” concept that had more in common with the 1970’s music industry than it did with 21st century e-business. We pursued systems that imposed bureaucratic control instead of learner empowerment. In a world hurtling toward distributed internetworking, e-learning was still based on a library-like central-repository concept. The first LMS from Asymetrix (now SumTotal via Click2Learn) was even called Librarian.

Our move from classroom learning to e-learning was less like a move from pony-express to e-mail, than it was from pony-express to bicycle courier.

Learning software vendors still doggedly pursue their vision of reusable learning objects that integrate via a central standards-conformant LMS. Meanwhile, trainers who really want to encourage experience-sharing and dynamic learner-created content are scrambling to understand blogging, RSS, and peer-to-peer networks.

Many LMS vendors don’t “get” learning. Can it really be that they don’t “get” the internet either? Are they so afraid of being non-intermediated that they will fight real progress every step of the way or are they about to help us evolve?

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


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