Social Learning Networks and the end of the LMS

Social Learning Networks and the end of the LMS

Since the 1980s, the world has had technology that allows for the sharing of information. This is what the internet is built upon. This is what e-commerce literally capitalized on. This is what education has largely failed to do, but is making progress in.

As social media continues to evolve, a friend in Antarctica can post a video and within seconds, other friends in Spain, Canada and Brazil and see it, comment on it and share it with their own friends. This free sharing (with permission) and speed of sharing is what defines our modern world, but hasn’t yet penetrated the higher education sector, for a variety of reasons.

When we talk about sharing in education, we are largely confronted with issues surrounding security, privacy, copyright and ethics, but there are solutions amongst the hoops of beaurocracy we find ourselves jumping through. It’s amazing that in the year 2016, our online classrooms and other learning platforms are still largely walled gardens, cut off from the rest of academia in a way that Bulletin Board Systems (BBS’s) of the 1990s were. You could only exist within those spaces and when you left to go somewhere else, you were stuck in the new place too. They didn’t talk to each other.

This is an extreme interpretation, but bear with me here. Within our Learning Management System (LMS), we can post videos from youtube, we can post links and we can ask students to research. These examples are quite the norm for any technology-enabled class using an LMS for support, whether face-to-face or fully online. Yes, we can bring materials in from the outside world, and yes we can send our students into the outside world, so they can bring back information.

But can we truly connect with others in an education space, like we can on Facebook, Twitter, and so many other social platforms? I would argue, that we cannot…yet.

Freely sharing resources, collaborating with others as learners, instructors and researchers while learning, teaching and creating together is the backbone of the modern world. Sure, creation still happens in an isolated fashion, but the speed at which progress is now made is thanks to an open world, open information, and open data.

Clearly this way forward is already happening with the Open Education movement, one that seeks to open access, material use, and textbooks to embed these in new ways of teaching and learning.

One of the challenges here is not with the ideas or the visions, but integrating this into the reality of how educational institutions work across a broad spectrum of locations, budgetary constraints and beaurocratic hierarchies. Some institutions still don’t have an LMS, others have an LMS that is gutted from the inside out, with no ability to update, add new features, or keep up with modern trends in technology-enabled pedagogies.

From an IT management perspective, it makes sense that the Learning Management System should focus more on the Management and less on the Learning. Technology should work perfectly for all users right? If you ship a product that doesn’t work for 2% of your clients, patch that bug, and be careful not to upset anyone else, or you might lose someone. This is where EdTech conservatism is born, and I would argue, where the brakes are put on learning innovation, because of a desire to Manage learning. Learning is not a process that can be managed by an external or higher-up force.

This is not to say that the platforms we use for online education are buggy, don’t work on other browsers or mobile devices, just that institutions need to stop worrying about those issues so much. Supporting the tool as it exists, in its best, most stable state and building out from there, while keeping current should be the new way to Manage learning, or as is an ever growing option, not managing the technology at all, but using cloud services to do it, leaving more resources to focus on training, pedagogical initiatives and innovation.

In face to face classes, instructors a given a room, with walls, lights, chairs and a few tools to support their learning like a whiteboard, a projector (overhead or digital if they’re lucky). Beyond that, the instructor has room to work. They can use those tools however they wish, and bring in tools from the outside world to use as they see fit. Sometimes these tools work, sometimes they don’t, but the point is they try, and learn to be better teachers, and all the while their students are learning as well, seeing new possibilities and interacting in new ways. If I was told as an instructor I could never use more than what was available in my classroom, I’d probably quit and find another job at another school.

When focusing on the M, it makes sense why some institutions are stuck in the 1990s when it comes to their online learning platforms. A walled garden (close classroom) was how the internet worked 20 years ago, because there was no other option, no other paradigm to operate under.

In 2016, there are other options, through cloud hosting, frequent updates, beta sites for trialling new features, community and client engagement and APIs, the Learning Management System can finally die, making way for a Social Learning Network, one that has a focus on what has always made learning more successful and more valuable — flexibility.

This platform is connected in all the ways a social network is, resources can be shared (with permission) and colleagues and students can collaborate, not just within a class, but across a faculty, across the institution, across a nation and across the world if they want to.

  • Want to give your students a formative quiz on the pre-history of Japan? Someone in Spain has one freely available. Someone in Norway has one you can adapt to suit your needs.
  • Want to have a guest lecturer participate in a discussion from England? Just search for and add them to your class.
  • What to have your students peer tutor in a developing country? Just assign them a student in Zambia and you can support them as they go.
  • Want to collaborate with a colleague in another state or a another country by sharing data, documents and writing an article together? Just create a group and get started.

In 2016, we should have the technology to do all of these things, and we do.

This platform already exists.

It’s not so much a change in technology that will usher in this new world of teaching and learning, but a change decision-making to bring these tools to our institutions and this means focusing less on technology management, and more on the process behind teaching and learning, and all the tumbling, test-driving and wonderful experiences that come with that process.

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