LMSs, or learning management systems, are also known as CMSs (course management systems) or VLEs (virtual learning environments). They sit on the borderline between web 1.0 and web 2.0: on the one hand, they can be used for information transmission (for example through the dissemination of lecture notes and PowerPoint slides) and behaviourism (through quizzes and mini-tests); on the other hand, they can be used for communication and interaction (through in-built discussion boards, blogs or wikis) and sharing and discussion of creative work (through uploaded attachments). In recent years, LMSs have generally come to incorporate more web 2.0-style functionality (hence the inclusion of discussion boards, blogs and wikis), and there have been attempts to increase the level of personalisation of learning with the introduction of PLE and e-portfolio functionality. Today’s considerable interest in the incorporation of learning analytics into LMSs may herald a move in a web 3.0 direction, with predictions that more automated personal learning support will be available to students on a needs basis, with lecturers or teachers being alerted early where human interventions are required. The major LMS services have app versions for mobile devices, allowing some links with mobile learning.
LMSs are effectively password-protected ‘walled gardens’ separated from the wider internet. Their security and stability, along with their organisational functions (such as group announcements, calendaring, and gradebooks), are often appreciated by educational administrators, but teachers and students have long complained about their relative inflexibility compared to mainstream web 2.0 services and their disconnection from the networking typical of the wider web, notwithstanding their shift in a web 2.0 direction over recent years. Some educators argue that as ‘one stop shops’ which attempt to meet all informational and communicational needs, LMSs will never be able to compete with the wide range of specialised web 2.0 tools. Moreover, whatever the current and future potential of LMSs, it must be recognised that in reality many educators treat them simply web 1.0-style ‘information dumps’ to distribute teaching materials.
In short, there is considerable debate about the future of LMSs. Some observers have predicted that institutional LMSs will eventually disappear, or at least decline in significance relative to more personalised spaces such as PLEs and e-portfolios. Others have predicted that future education is likely to be characterised by some combination of LMSs and PLEs; this might involve a transformed concept of LMSs, moving them away from their current status as borderline web 1.0/web 2.0 platforms, and reconceptualising and remodelling them as web 2.0/web 3.0 platforms. In the latter case, future LMSs might be more akin to general learning spaces or hubs where institutions, teachers and students can assemble specialised and personalised collections of educational apps designed by expert developers. For now, the long-term survival of LMSs, and in particular their format, remains an open question. For some informative commentary on potential future directions of development, see 7 Things You Should Know about NGDLE (Next Generation Digital Learning Environments) (ELI, 2015) or an issue of the EDUCAUSE Review covering NGDLE (ELI, 2017). It is expected that the development of standards such as xAPI and Caliper will allow far more kinds of learning, including mobile learning experiences, to be incorporated into, and recorded in, the learning environments of the future.
Setting up LMSs is a little more complex than setting up most web 2.0 services: you either need a computer which can function as a server, or you need an LMS hosting service. Most educators do not set up their own LMSs, but rather make use of institutional LMSs. These include proprietary software such as Blackboard (which acquired the formerly popular WebCT in 2006), D2L (Desire2Learn)/Brightspace, or the newer SEQTA and Stile. The free, open source alternatives to commercial LMSs include Moodle (see the image at the top of this page), Sakai (see the image below) and Drupal, for which paid hosting services are also available. Increasing numbers of institutions are now using Edmodo or Schoology, which derive many of their features from social networking services.
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