A Spartan LMS

Spartans flickr photo by Masked Builder shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

I am currently in an in-between phase of figuring out what is wrong with the traditional way we use Learning Management Systems and how to move along. Although I do like to refer to them as Learning Constrainment Systems. What would you put in a basic, spartan learning management system? You know, the things that are actually pedagogically helpful, but so you still end up with no bloat. The current LMS that I work with, which I do not desire to reveal at this time, has a huge whack of tools, most of which don’t get much use. What can an LMS do better than just a Domain of One’s Own system? What can we get rid of to finish with something more SPLOTy that would actually be really helpful? Is the ideal a combo package of the two? I’d like to know what people think.

I’m thinking, if anything, include in the LMS:

  • A class roster. Basically a tool to show which students are in which courses with which instructors.
  • A grade book with good feedback functionality
  • Assignment dropbox (where students submit links to the assignments actually housed in their own domains that they wish to submit for feedback). Possibly it could also be used for submitting sensitive type work that really shouldn’t be out on the Web.
  • A ‘journal’ type discussion thing for sensitive discussions that only certain people should be involved in like instructors or tutors with the students. Certain subjects like Counselling would find this more useful maybe.
  • A quiz tool (just a ‘grandfathered’ tool to get the masses to come there and then slowly make it fade away)

I’m thinking the things that should not be housed inside the LMS, but outside in the World Wild Web include:

  • Syllabus and week by week instructions for what is going on.
  • Assignment instructions. Ideally a place that allows students and others to also submit assignment ideas. Students are then able to choose the ones they want to do.
  • A central list of URLs to classmate’s domains
  • Any content delivery including instructional videos of talks with lecturers and guest speakers and slide decks, set up instructions, readings
  • Any live video chats or collaborative annotation exercises
  • Collaborative notes produced by students
  • Obviously all posts and pages students create for their domains (in a central flow as well as on individual domains)
  • A general discussion board.
  • A social media layer like Twitter for students to informally share and discuss things they are working on and connect throughout the course

Housing these tools outside the LMS invites openness, collaboration, riffing, remixing and generally (hopefully) bootstrapping everyone to a higher level of performance and creativity.

So, we’re left with 5 tools in the Spartan LMS (one of which has an expiry date) instead of the 42 in my current LMS. That means there are 37 tools I don’t really desire 2 use. 

So, do we need any of these LMS tools at all or should we leave the LMS to head off into the sunset? Throw out the bathwater, the baby and then smash the tub while we’re at it? I’d be interested to hear about anyone who uses both by choice (or if they have to). Comment below to let me know!

Sunset flickr photo by Jason O’Halloran shared under a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license

Terry Greene


31 thoughts on “A Spartan LMS”

  1. So to do the twitter thing: “This.”

    This post is great, I love how you’re viewing the LMS as something that needs to be fragmented because of reasons of ownership, pushing boundaries, and the fact that CMS (which I’ll call Domain of One’s own in this case) based technologies can replace so much of the BS in LMSs without the cruft.

    To the point of throwing the baby out with the bathwater (and past arguments of walled gardens vs completely open spaces) I’d like to propose this analogy. Envision the baby in the baby tub. Instead of throwing them out, when the baby grows and matures and there isn’t the same fear of drowning, we submerge the smaller baby tub into a larger bathtub. We do both at the same time for a time to get the baby acclimated to the new environment and the new freedoms of this larger space. We don’t immediately remove the baby tub or throw away the water from this tub, but we submerge it in a larger pool.

    This larger body of water slowly, naturally, becomes one with the body of water in the smaller baby tub. Once the child is comfortable with the larger tub, they eventually exit of their own free will and eventually, we don’t need the baby tub.

    In this worldview, I see the LMSs of the past 20 years to be that baby tub. A relic of the training wheels of online education. A forum system that needed to exist because well, our learners and instructors had no knowledge of the world. But as we’ve gotten our feet wet in the larger ecosystem of the web, we’ve lost the need for these training wheels. We’ve outgrown them.

    So, how best to react when administrations and IT silos for 2 decades have handcuffed our institutions with purchasing decisions which are great for “good enough” but not for Great? Well, we need to take this baby pool submerged into the larger body of the web approach. This is where systems like ELMSLN come in (my baby). We know that you need an LMS (for now) and we structure ourselves in such a way that we assume that we’re going to be integrating with lots of things. We do this, while simultaneously besting the last 20 years piece by piece (which trust me, ain’t hard to do w/ most of the vendors out there).

    So the question isn’t do we walk entirely, it’s what’s the course we can chart to make a clean break (some day)? I view elms:ln as part of a journey with the higher educational industrial complex. If it wants to survive the coming singularity, IoT revolution, app-ification of knowledge and eventual commoditization of “learning”, then it needs to lay down the vision of how to get off our single solutions before the baby outgrows the baby tub and has no need for tubs at all but instead gets up, plugs into Google “How do I do my job today?” and goes off to work; never having experienced tubs at all.

    I’m not on your blog to pitch a product, I’m here to pitch the same world view you are espousing here (which is awesome). How can we best chart a course to an lms-less world (https://btopro.wordpress.com/2011/06/08/envisioning-a-lms-less-university/)? We’d love to have navigators like you join us in this vision to save (via improvement) the educational establishment we’ve all known and love.

    1. When a reply to your blog post takes what you suggest and ponder about and pushes it 1.5 million times further, it feels great and humbling at the same time! I think it’s true that we kind of needed the LMS to get our feet wet in digital learning but now it’s shown us a lot of what not to do. We’re splashing around in our own little tubs right beside an awesome lake with boats and canoes and those floating trampolines and docks and friends to play with. We should all put on life jackets if needed, raise the level of the lake until our tubs are in it and then hit up that floating trampoline together (I’ve always wanted to try one of those). At this point I am destroying our analogy. Regardless, I look forward to all of us playing together in a larger play place. Thank you for your excellent comment.

      1. Going to have to keep dual commenting here for people that may find one or the other of us (oh well). I completely agree, which is why I couldn’t stop thinking about your post at the airport since the baby/bathwater analogy seems to come up a lot but the way you framed actions struck me differently.

        To build on what you added, I actually think the trampoline, summer camp (both of which I’ve never done either) is perfect! Our fellow faculty and friends are stuck in their bathtubs / kiddie pools and look out at those of us that have escaped to trampolines and say “Wow that’s awesome for you… but I can’t swim.” And instead of LD&T shops saying “well, we can get you there” too often they are focused on “I mean… trampolines are dangerous, have you signed the liability waiver?”

        The summer camp liability waiver is FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt) based arguments like “But but but PII” or “but but but learner experience” or “but but but grading” or “but but accessibility”. And while these are valid concerns and things to take into account safety should not be an immediate shut down to discussions of progress (or else we’d never have gotten to the moon for fear that in trying we might be successful).

        I agree that we’re onto something here w/ this analogy, let’s kick some stuff up in the larger ecosystem of thought on this subject. I’d love to talk philosophy of course design on one of our ELMS Makers webinar / screencasts with Paul Hibbitts (UBC) and Michael Collins (Penn State) as it relates to technology selection. I think all 3 of you have interesting ways of approaching the mental model (hell, you didn’t think learning stopped at the LMS so already your in the right state of mind).

        I don’t know when we’re doing the next one (trying to do 1 monthly) but would love to rig up an hour of show and tell of the 3 approaches and how we’re envisioning this in elms land (which Mike is an influencer of).

        1. keep me posted and I’ll be there! We can counter the ‘but buts’! (haha i do think learning ‘stops’ at the LMS. that’s the problem!)

  2. I will leave a much shorter reply than Brian. I am already well into building an “LMS of My Own” – it nearly has all of the attributes that you seek. It has a gradebook, badges, assignments, structured content in modules. It is wonderfully reusable and remixable. It is multi-tenant as it can be used by a single course at one institution or by any number of courses at any number of institutions. It leans toward always open rather than closed, it leans to permanent persistence rather than “use for 15 weeks and discard”. It does not have a quiz or discussion as core capability – but it does understand, grades, rosters and content. And it seamlessly integrates into mainstream LMSs using IMS standards to provide a wonderful transition from the past to the future. It is far more delightful to use than any mainstream LOR or MOOC platform. The “Spartan LMS” is called http://www.tsugi.org and http://www.pr4e.com is an example of a course deployed using this new “LMS of My Own”.

    1. This is cool to know that there are people far ahead of me down this path. I hope this post can simply inform some people who don’t know that there are simpler, more open options. I’m glad I pondered out loud. Great work!

  3. Thanks to all for this discussion: I eagerly await an LMS that is a minimalist platform. My own blog about the #elemess is “confessions of an LMS minimalist” (and thanks to George Station for that hashtag):

    All I need is a gradebook and a quiz tool that I use not for quizzes but as the interface by which students record their own grades in the gradebook (details at the blog).

    One of my biggest gripes is that instead of courses that persist with students who change, the LMS is about courses that expire semester after semester, so I love the idea that Dr. Chuck is doing something different in that regard!

    Meanwhile, we are in the midst of rolling out a new LMS at my school. It is the first time in 10 years that we have the opportunity for conversations about teaching that involve all the instructional faculty, but so far those conversations are not really happening; instead, there’s an emphasis on “using the tools” rather than talking about teaching. We get weekly emails about using features like the Speedgrader etc., but I’d like to see some emails that provoke reflections and discussions about our grading practices. So far, though, that has not happened.

    I do have to say kudos to Canvas (yes, that’s our new LMS) for their openness to a wide range of digital strategies, and I have had fun hacking this new LMS; I’ve been down many an LMS road: WebCT, Blackboard, D2L. The big difference, though, is that Canvas (unlike those others) does allow open courses. That means it’s worth my time to hack away and then share the results, hoping to use my open Canvas spaces as a way to introduce faculty to the magic of blogs, RSS, javascript, dynamic content of all kinds.

    Ironically, the Canvas director at my school has so far declined to share any of my hacks as part of our Canvas rollout, but the people at Canvas have been really supportive, and I’m excited about the opportunity to share my ideas with the Canvas Community. In 10 years of D2L, I never had any response like that. So, while I remain an LMS minimalist, I am happy with the openness of Canvas courses; that’s something new, and I am enjoying it. Being able to create fully open courses with real URLs on the real Internet is a feature I approve of… until we get everybody to build their own web spaces.

    1. Ooh I love your post! Thanks for sharing. Totally agree it’s hard to get the conversations rolling about more than how to use the tools. We have a weekly pd blog called the a teaching Hub fleminglds.wordpress.com where we try to share engaging teaching ideas and other things. We try to get conversations going but it is difficult. Canvas sounds like a bunch of steps in the right direction as opposed to more traditional LMSs

      1. This is great, Terry: now I have this blog AND your Fleming blog in my feed reader. Connections: that’s how things happen. Yes to RSS!!! πŸ™‚

        Canvas is weird: the open part is great, but there are also many things about it that are just maddening, way more limited and controlling than other LMSes. I credit Lisa Lane with the great #CanvasAngst hashtag, and she’s been documenting the frustrations of migrating from Moodle to Canvas at her blog:

        For me, though, going from totally closed D2L to Canvas, I have not lost anything, and I have gained a lot. Because of the open option, we don’t have to wait for top-down, admin-initiated things to happen in the Canvas platform: we can do things from the ground up, connecting and sharing in the open to see what happens.

        Now I just wish OPEN were the mantra of the Canvas rollout at my school. Open courses, open syllabuses. With D2L I didn’t even have anything I could lobby for. Now at least I can lobby for open! πŸ™‚

        1. Awesome. at least with Canvas you can get some tippy toes into the open water and get an idea of more exciting options. D2L is like the hot tub up on the balcony in the gated community overlooking the water. And you can’t control the temperature or make bubbles.

  4. Such a great piece! Feature bloat is generally a symptom that’s originated from bad economics of how purchasing decisions were made: annual dev/upgrade cycle, paid installment/upgrade vs subscription based, and the distance of purchaser from the actual end user. How are we ever going to hit the sweet spot of maximal usability with minimal complexity?

    Wondering if others here have used Google Classroom? I see it matches most of the items on your first list, other than the quizzing function, which could possibly be filled with Google Forms. It’s minimal enough, in typical Google fashion, but maybe not as open as your typical open source LMS and it probably will have a harder time matching your second list through LTI, unless the tool is willing to integrate through custom API integration, and it requires a school Google for Edu subscription.

    However, I do miss the time when we used Ning 1.0 for as the discussion environment. It did lack the many “instructional” affordances of LMS notably grading and tracking, but it also offered many social elements like photo sharing and a customizable interface with widgets.

    Shout out to @btopro for sharing this post on Twitter, and for extending the bathtub analogy. I agree we all need to learn how to swim out from the bathtub and teach learners too. There are many hurdles for taking the less-traveled path though, we need to design an open, distributed, extendable network of systems that somehow is also easy enough to adapt and not increase the cognitive overhead on the part of teachers and learners. The end user cares most is not philosophical differences of open vs closed or integrated vs distributed, but whether the technology can do the jobs that were needed.

    I believe there is definitely a different path from the current dominating paradigm followed by Moodle, Blackboard, and to a large degree Canvas. A tool that like Slack gives me many inspirations of how an NGDLE might look like: it’s friendly and easy to use, yet extendable with its many integrations where many third party tools could fit its stream-based UI. That’s content flowing into the system, if we can also create a standard data flow out from the system, it would make my perfect LMS for learning analytics and extensions beyond the original design.

    1. Ning!!! Yes to that! Ning is exactly the kind of model I wish the LMSes were following where you have both blogs and discussion boards that are integrated in a dynamic personal profile that shows people’s contributions throughout the system, while also encouraging person to person communication on those profile comment walls, in addition to conversations in the blogs and discussion board spaces. Jared Stein of Canvas is doing an Ask-Me-Anything on Wednesday, that is exactly the question I am asking πŸ™‚
      Ask Me Anything: Jared Stein, VP Product Strategy for Higher Ed
      (my question re: LMS-as-community is there)

      I used Ning for I guess six or seven years as my class platform (I have never used an LMS for anything more than just Gradebook), and I really liked it. The students did too. When Ning announced the end of the mini-Ning and started going through some tumultuous changes, I switched to having my students blog in their own blog spaces (they choose the platform; as long as there is full feed RSS for posts and a separate feed for comments, that’s okay by me)… I know the students really like having their own blogs, but I have always wondered why none of the LMSes seemed to learn from the Ning platform. I thought it was outstanding.

      I spent most of my professional development time at Nings back in the day; I started using Ning heavily around 2006 I guess (thanks in large part to Steve Hargadon’s efforts evangalizing for Ning)… and I still have many fond Ning memories. πŸ™‚

      1. Thank you so much Laura! It’s such a great treat to find Ning comrades in the wild, I bet there are thousands of us out there who used Ning for teaching/learning around that time 5-7 years ago. In fact, for a long time after the Ning 2.0 push, instructors from my department (Learning Technologies of UMN) were still trying to reuse their Ning 1.0 by kicking old students out and inviting new students in every semester.

        Moodle used to tout itself as the “social constructivist” LMS, ironically, it’s exactly the opposite. It’s a teacher-dominated one-way broadcasting tool for us to “manage” students. What we saw from Ning was exactly a glimpse of how “social” learning could be. It’s learners and teachers making connections, sharing others parts of their lives using photos, audio, video and RSS feeds, not just forced engagement “x number of posts and replies per week per capita” (although there were still some of that). As you pointed out, it’s the co-construction of a community. Comparing Ning with Canvas is like comparing a warmly decorated coffee shop with comfy couches and light music to a modernly furnished classroom with a whiteboard, projectors, and podium complete with the assignment dropbox. The stuff people share in coffee shops are just different. You might not believe it’s a superset, and think the two simply intersects, for many of us, we’d rather choose the coffee shop and forfeit many of the conveniences of a classroom.

        There are currently two categories of LMSes as I see it: Moodle variant and Facebook variant. One is about posts/quiz, assignments and grading, the other is about one stream. I’d love to see more varieties out there. For example, a Slack variant that’s about real time multi-streams, a project-management variant that’s about scheduling and collaboration, an Ning/Pinterest variant that displays everything in a social way.

        The world will be quite boring if there are only two types of rooms, isn’t it?

        In a way, this is inevitable, we will have content-specific learning environments that are really good at facilitate learning in some subjects, like programming R with datasets, stats theories, interactive modules and help built-in, those will be capital and production intensive. But we also need general purpose environments that connect everything together, that help learners’ connecting (learning) as well as express educators’ creativity. We often emphasize pedagogy instead of tools, rightfully so, because we believe in the degree of freedom afforded by even the most primitive instructional tools. But then again, a tool is not just a tool, more often than not, medium is the message. So it’s a pretty high-stake battle that we are fighting. I’m hoping collectively, educators and learners will start looking in the other direction, and find a brighter path forward.

        Sorry about these rambling on metaphysics of LMS, this apparently is a touchy topic for me. ?

        1. Shao, I am so in agreement with you: not just as someone who very much wants a coffeehouse with a continous buzz of stories and art and music (a Ning/Pinterest hybrid would definitely suit my needs!), but also as someone who thinks everybody should have the kind of digital workspace that really will suit their needs. What would work for me would not work for, say, a petroleum engineering capstone course at my school… and we shouldn’t expect that it would.

          I always like to be using real tools for real purposes in school: since I teach creative writing, it makes sense I would want to use spaces like Nings and blogs, but for a work-oriented petroleum engineering class, it would make sense to use Slack and tools more in the project management family, etc. etc.

          The thing that bugs me about the LMS is that it doesn’t really suit anybody at all, because it is not a real tool for a real purpose. It’s just a tool for… school.

          So, I’ll confess that I am not really optimistic about things getting better in the future. I have to assume that if in the year 2017, after twenty years of intensive LMS development, we have ended up with the current range of (non)choices, then that is because of our own failure to truly want something better for ourselves and for our students.

          Meanwhile, I feel very lucky that I have the freedom to work with real tools and real spaces on the Internet, leaving the LMS behind for the actual learning and creating and sharing that my students are doing. Just this week, my students’ projects started going up (they can use their blog for that, or a simple website building tool like the new Google Sites or Wix or Weebly or Tumblr, etc.), and we will be creating and sharing literally hundreds of stories in the next few months of the semester. Life is good… on the real Internet. πŸ™‚

          1. That’s great to hear! Using the popular click bait cyberpunk title: LMS is dead, long live Learning on the web! Great teachers can always find ways to remix tools and engage learners. But we could definitely use a tool that can glue all these small tools together.

            I do believe there are still disruptive plays in this industry. New experiment will keep popping up, asymmetric forces will play against the big players and their inertia.

            On the note of tools, I’m involved with the making of this little educational video tool called flipgrid.com. It’s a great way to add a sprinkle of “social layer” on top of your existing toolset/learning environment. Please give it a try and let me know what you think. ?

          1. That sounds like most fun. Here is how I unpack that: content ownership, distributed but interoperatable, and best of all social and adventurous and fun!

  5. Shao, I will explore Flipgrid: it looks fun.

    The tool that came to my rescue when I lost Ning, was Inoreader. Have you tried that? It is a feed reader, but also a content syndication engine. Kind of like a combination of the old Google Reader plus Yahoo Pipes… on steroids. I love it!

    I subscribe to all my students blogs and comments there, plus I can use it to aggregate Twitter, Google+, and Facebook content also.

    Rules, filters, plus all the magic of RSS. πŸ™‚

    It’s how I generate this “omnifeed” which shows my activity across the different social platforms (Twitter, Google+, my blogs):

    That’s the kind of thing I wish profile pages at LMSes would do. It’s not rocket science. They just need to want to do it.

    1. I’ve been using Feedly after Google Reader, but Inoreader looks more powerful. I’ll definitely give it a try. Sometimes I wonder if we RSS readers are a dwindling species. It was the perfect technology – open and decentralized and interoperable etc. The generation after me probably won’t realize what they’ve missed with their fire hose of Twitter and Snapchats. Will profile pages of LMS integrate this great technology that is RSS feed? Probably not, because of its lack of buzz or coolness maybe. But it seems to be a great start point to create a connectivist learning environment.

      1. Oh, Inoreader is amazing. I am their biggest fan, so let me know if you have questions. And I agree about RSS. Inoreader still believes in RSS and, even better, they take RSS-unfriendly feeds like Twitter, Google+, and Facebook and turn that content into RSS for you. No kidding! It’s so cool.

        And I am now on a crusade to bring Inoreader to Canvas! I don’t really use Canvas as a teaching space, but for people who do, Inoreader can bring the blogosphere in: RSS rendered as HTML for a single blog feed, for a blog network, for live search results of a blog network, etc.

        I just wrote up some notes today with a new blog project which has Feedback Cats (Growth Mindset) sneaking into Canvas via RSS/Inoreader:

        Same trick works anywhere that iframe is accepted. πŸ™‚

  6. I appreciate the baby/bathwater/tub immersion analogies as well as the brief mention of training wheels.

    I like the analogy of the LMS as training wheels, or maybe as providing training wheels, because when you really consider what training wheels do for a kid learning to ride a bike, you realize that they are doing the opposite of what we want them to do.

    The key skill that a new bike rider needs is balance, and training wheels remove the opportunity for kids to learn to balance. While training wheels can be adjusted so that they are higher off the ground, they still create a reliance on the wheels and kids end up leaning their body the wrong way when their centre of gravity exits the base of support.

    The solution to this isn’t to build better training wheels with more whizbang gizmos. The solution is to remove the training wheels altogether and *also* remove the pedals and cranks (see http://www.stridersports.ca/).

    By removing ‘features’, we make it easier for kids to learn to ride a bike. Without pedals, a bike is super easy to balance with just a riders’ feet. By removing the fear of falling over, kids are freed up to learn to balance on two wheels because they can feel that the bike isn’t going to fall over when they turn.

    Once the kid has learned to balance while moving on two wheels (or rather, that the bike stays up all by itself when it’s moving), then it is trivial to learn how to work the pedals to make the bike move forward.

    Likewise, I would argue that LMSes are hindrances to connected learning because they try to do too much for the users, both faculty and students.

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