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Learning Management Systems:
The wrong place to start learning

November 22, 2004
George Siemens


Learning Management Systems (LMS) are often viewed as being the starting point (or critical component) of any elearning or blended learning program. This perspective is valid from a management and control standpoint, but antithetical to the way in which most people learn today.

LMS' like WebCT, Blackboard, and Desire2Learn offer their greatest value to the organization by providing a means to sequence content and create a manageable structure for instructors/administration staff. The "management" aspect of LMS' creates another problem: much like we used to measure "bums in seats" for program success, we now see statistics of "students enrolled in our LMS" and "number of page views by students" as an indication of success/progress. The underlying assumption is that if we just expose students to the content, learning will happen.

Godfrey Parkin states: "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". The issue is not that an LMS is not needed for learning (though that point in itself could be argued). The real issue is that LMS vendors are attempting to position their tools as the center-point for elearning - removing control from the system's end-users: instructors and learners. Unfortunately, beginning learning with an LMS is often a matter of wrong tool for wrong purposes (which results in failed elearning implementations, ineffective learning, and unnecessary expenses). Implementing an LMS as part of a holistic learning environment gives the end user flexibility and control to move in various paths (driven by learning needs, not by LMS design).

Drawbacks to Learning Management Systems

Certain learning tasks are well suited for an LMS (centralized functions like learner administration and content management). Learning itself is different - it is not a process to be managed. Learning is by nature multi-faceted and chaotic. Organizations that now lock into enterprise-level systems will be able to do an excellent job of delivering courses. They won't, however, be positioning themselves well for informal learning, performance support, or knowledge management. The concept is simple: one tool can't do it all without losing functionality. The more feature-rich an individual tool becomes, the more it loses its usefulness to the average user. Connected specialization, modularization, and decentralization are learning foundations capable of adjusting to varied information climate changes.

The following are some of the more glaring weaknesses of an LMS:

  • The tools we use define the manner in which we undertake learning tasks. Using a structured tool like an LMS drives/dictates the nature of interaction (instructors-learner, learner-learner, learner-content).
  • The interface - generally, the initial reactions to the interface is confusion for many learners. I've instructed with various platforms, and the most difficult/disorienting challenge for new learners is figuring out how the interface works and where to get the information she/he needs. This confusion is due to two flaws in the LMS: 1) LMS' try to do everything - simpler tools, with the intent of performing one task seem to be easier for end users to understand, 2) LMS' are designed as a learning management tool, not a learning environment creation tool ( interface design explores the importance of social considerations: the key criteria in interface design is obviously "what does the end user want/need to do". Current LMS interface design relies too heavily on "what do the designers/administrators want/need to do").
  • Only recently (and in limited ways) have LMS vendors started extending tools and offerings beyond simple content sequencing and discussion forums. WebCT and Blackboard have recently formed partnerships with synchronous tools to allow for easy integration across platforms. It's progress, but still within a "locked-down, do-it-our-way" platform.
  • Large, centralized, mono-culture tools limit options. Diversity in tools and choices are vital to learners and learning ecology. Over the last several years, I've encountered many instances where an instructor was not able to achieve what she/he wanted with course design due to the limitations of WebCT. In essence, the LMS determines what an instructor could do. It should be the other way around - instructor needs first, tool selection second.

When content is viewed as the most valuable contribution to learning, an LMS will suffice. When interaction and connections are viewed as the most valuable aspect of learning, then other options - like social tools - are reasonable alternative. Ultimately, careful analysis of the learning task and tools available should drive the method selected. For example, there are many fields that benefit from the structured approach of LMS'. Teaching knowledge/comprehension-based subjects are more effective if the content is highly structured. However, as thinking skills move to higher levels, the artificial constructs of content and interaction imposed by an LMS are limiting to discovery/exploratory/constructivist learning.

Principles foreign to most LMS (or functions LMS' need to acquire to respond to reality)

Many viable alternatives exist to locked-down, closed LMS'. Most effective are tools that incorporate some of the following features:

  • A tool that is modularized in nature and allows for expansion of functionality based on the learners/instructors needs...basically, a collage of tools - individually selected for their functionality.
  • Simple, social tools that start with a learner's ability for self-expression...and then allow for the formation of connections between learners and content.
  • One tool should not do it all, connected specialization is important, and it's the way the internet has been built. Open standards and a high level of connectivity are important. Synchronous Collaboration Tools for the Academic World discusses how things are unfolding with synchronous tools in education (and what should happen with LMS')
  • A tool that fosters a learning garden/ecology is one that places a user at the center and allows him/her to explore in various areas and directions of personal interest. Success is measured against the achievement of outcomes, but the pathway is driven by learner's personal goals/needs/context. The instructor provides planned exposure to content and learning intentions and then "unleashes" the learners in exploration and expression determined by their (the learners) choices, not the limitations of an LMS.
  • What types of tools allow for this? An integration of blogs, wikis, content management systems (plone), simple social tools (skype), networking tools (Orkut), collaborative spaces (groove, and acollab), and the use of emerging "connection-making" protocols like RSS and Atom.

The intent is to give the end user the control needed to respond effectively to personal learning goals (that extend beyond those identified by the course designer/instructor). Learners learn (at least according to constructivists) in chaotic ways based on personal interest, context, opportunities for application, etc. The learning ecology and tools utilized should permit learner control - both for the type of content explored and the manner in which it is explored (variety is the basis for most many theories of learning: brain-compatible, learning styles, multiple intelligence, etc.).

We have recently seen increased pressure applied to the traditional classroom model - to the point where schools are revisiting the physical design of learning environments, as well as instructional techniques. Yet we are repeating the "instructor/school controls" hierarchy online. Linear, one-way, managed knowledge flow doesn't work well in a information overload society. Networks do work: learning communities/networks/ecologies. And, even if linear, sequenced learning works now (i.e. while the learner is in school), the notion of 2-4 years of school and then into the workforce is also fairly outdated. It is far easier to stay a life-long learner when plugged into a community or learning network, rather than having previous learning confined to a content-locked LMS'.

What is needed in a Learning Environment?

Any learning environment should:

  • Have a place for learner expression (blog/portfolio)
  • Have a place for content interaction (LMS' have this)
  • Have a place to connect with other learners (discussion forum - LMS' have this)
  • Have a place to connect the thoughts of other learners in a personal, meaningful way - i.e. using RSS and then brought back into the "learner expression tool"
  • Have a place to dialogue with the instructor (email, VoIP, etc. - webct has some of this)
  • Have a place to dialogue with gurus (apprentice) - the heart of online communities is the mess of varying skills and expertise. Gurus are people currently in industry or established practitioners of the organizing theme of the community. LMS limit the interaction to learner and instructor.
  • Have a place for learning artifacts of those who've gone before - i.e. content management capabilities accessible and managed by the learner. Tools like Furl, del.icio.us are examples of personal knowledge management (PKM) tools.
  • Be modularized so additional functionality and tools can be added based on what learners want or need...a bricolage of course tools - based on open standards - allow for incorporation of new approaches as needed.

While LMS are useful for certain learning functions, advanced thinking skills and activities (i.e. the more learning mimics real life) require a move away from one-tool-does-it-all, and move towards picking tools for the required task - based on learner (not designer/organization) needs. As mentioned, one tool will never do it all in this type of model.

"Informal learning accounts for over 75% of the learning taking place in organizations today. Often, the most valuable learning takes place serendipitously, by random chance" (Informal Learning). Jay Cross states that: "At work we learn more in the break room than in the classroom. We discover how to do our jobs through informal learning -- observing others, asking the person in the next cubicle, calling the help desk, trial-and-error, and simply working with people in the know. Formal learning - classes and workshops and online events - is the source of only 10% to 20% of what we learn at work."

It appears that our real-life manner of learning is at odds with the design and implementations of most LMS'. Strongly structured tools, with limited extensibility, face short life cycles in rapidly changing environments. Modularized approaches give the instructor or learner (not the administrator or organization) the control to follow the meandering paths of rich learning. Selecting specialized tools to achieve specific tasks - and being able to add them to the learning environment quickly - are critical to rich learning ecologies.


The very notion of “managing learning” conflicts with how people are actually learning today. Outside of primary and secondary school, most of our learning falls into the “topping up what we know” category. As a result, we need tools that allow for rapid creation and breakdown. Searching Google, blogs, and wikis has a very quick learning structure creation and breakdown. An LMS has a long creation/breakdown process (and once the learning structure has been broken down (i.e. end of course), it is no longer accessible to learners). LMS' still view learners as canisters to be filled with content – this is particularly relevant in light of the heavy emphasis on object repositories for learning. Essentially, most LMS platforms are attempting to shape the future of learning to fit into the structure of their systems, even though most learning today is informal and connectionist in nature.

While learning management systems have many disadvantages, Darren Cannell notes in Quit Slammin' the LMS: we currently do not have a tool accessible to most educators that does what an LMS does. This creates a challenge in defining which path to take: work with LMS vendors to restructure their systems to reflect end-user needs, or walk away from LMS' altogether and develop an alternative based on decentralized, learner-in-control, piece-it-together tools? Until these questions are answered, learning management systems will continue to have a role in the overall structure of elearning.


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License