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March 20, 2009

Have LMSs Jumped The Shark?

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Written by: B.J. Schone
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I constantly hear people (across many organizations) complain about their learning management system (LMS). They complain that their LMS has a terrible interface that is nearly unusable. Upgrades are difficult and cumbersome. Their employees’ data is locked in to a proprietary system. Users hate the system. It’s ugly. (Did I miss anything?) I think LMSs may have jumped the shark.

If LMSs are going to survive, they’ll need to change drastically. We’ve recently seen LMSs shift to include more functionality, such as wikis, blogs, social networking, etc. I think they’re heading in the wrong direction. I don’t really understand why LMS vendors are now thinking they need to build in every possible 2.0 tool. If I want a great blogging platform, I’m going to download WordPress (it’s free and has a huge support community). If I want a great wiki platform, I’m going to download MediaWiki or DokuWiki (also free and they have huge support communities). And when it comes to social networking, as a co-worker put it, “Do they really think I’m going to create a ‘friends’ list in the LMS? Seriously?”

Maybe LMS vendors are taking advantage of the people/organizations who don’t have the technical resources to install these free open-source systems on their own. I think it’s a big problem; by using these tools within the LMS, people are now locking even more data into a closed system. One of the few LMS add-ons that I think may have merit would be a talent management module, mainly because it could integrate well with the data in an LMS. That seems like a good fit to me.

Instead of adding all this new functionality, LMS vendors should concentrate on better connecting and integrating with open standards and technologies. User data should be 100% portable. RSS feeds should be available both ways: people should be able to subscribe to a feed to monitor when new resources are added in the LMS, and the LMS should be able to import and act on data fed to it. The systems and the data should be mashable. The LMS will need to become one of the building blocks within the enterprise, rather than remain as a standalone system that doesn’t play well with others.

I don’t mean to sound pessimistic; I’ve made a good living in the world of learning and technology working with LMSs. I think I’m most frustrated because other areas of software and technology seem to have progressed at a much more rapid pace in terms of usability and flexibility. I believe there is a future for the LMS, but only for the vendors who are able to see the changes on the horizon and adapt before it’s too late.

Author: B.J. Schone

B.J. is the Founding Editor of eLearning Weekly and has contributed more than 150 articles. He works in elearning at Qualcomm, focusing on mobile learning.

About the Author

B.J. Schone
B.J. is the Founding Editor of eLearning Weekly and has contributed more than 150 articles. He works in elearning at Qualcomm, focusing on mobile learning.


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  1. Schone,

    This makes very interesting reading… I would have aired the same views as you especially in terms of how most open source LMS’s look. It’s actually true that most of them are ugly and uninteresting to work with. However, they are powerful tools to relay learning content.

    Am not sure how most of the proprietary LMS’s look but I guess they could be a lot better since someone actually pays- and pays wel for them. So the idea of rapid progression in this area is perhaps locked up in proprietary systems.

  2. You might want to take a look at Mzinga’s Social Learning Suite, Saba Social, and Cornerstone Connect. Ask them for a demo. They’re not all entirely closed and they take advantage of an infrastructure that’s already in place. Can you imagine training 100k employees on an ongoing basis with how to use 10+ free tools that they have to install and use on top of the applications that they already use to do the job they’re hired to do? Not all LMSs are closed, non-mashable (if that’s a word). LMSs are evolving.

  3. I agree with your stance Schone. LMS’s should focus on making it easier for admins and students to complete their tasks and export their data, not on incorporating every new Web 2.0 tool that comes out. I can see advantages in integrating wikis and blogs for posting and searching of relevant, helpful content, but I can’t see much advantage to incorporating anything like Facebook or some other social networking, friend-based site. I think the more social features that are added, the more distracted a learner will become, causing them to focus less on learning and more on being social (would you rather take a test or check in on your friends?). And we all know how much shorter everyone’s attention spans are becoming these days. Do employees really need another distraction/way to chat with friends/colleagues? Another reason these technologies may not be the best answer; so much meaning is lost in text translation, versus a phone conversation or a face-to-face meeting when you can hear inflection and immediate reactions.

    At Avilar, we are committed to delivering a powerful and robust LMS that handles a blended mix of eLearning and live, instructor-led training (ILT) and also allows you to export your student data for other use in a range of file formats. We believe in delivering solutions, not headaches.

  4. dwilkinsnh

    Hey BJ,

    Not surprisingly I have a different take. While I totally hear your criticisms of the LMS space (and agree with a lot of it), I think you are off-base on the web 2.0 integration stuff. Here are some counter arguments:

    * Within an organization or extended enterprise, do I really want to use 10 different tools with 10 different registrations, 10 different models of moderation, 10 different reporting models, and no consolidated analytics across any of it?
    * Do I really want to put myself in the hands of my IT department to mashup these technologies into something meaningful, or worse try to meet my needs through Sharepoint?
    * Is there really that much of a disconnect between formal and social content that warrants different systems?
    *At a minimum, shouldn’t we have Amazon-like social features in the LMS?
    *As an aspiration, shouldn’t we have a comprehensive platform for collaborative learning, formal learning, and capturing new insights on a common platform so we can better manage SSO, data import and export, and reporting?

    While I think that there is a lot we as LMS vendors could do differently and better, there is a lot we do right. In terms of impact and ownership, social learning is much more meaningful and valuable than performance management and it’s much more tied to learning professionals. The alternative is that this social learning stuff gets owned by IT and marketing with solutions like Sharepoint leading the way. Personally, I’d rather take my chances with an LMS vendor and a vision of content integration than an IT dept and Sharepoint or an IT department and 10 different freemium technologies.

    And yes, I know I have a biased view. But I’ve also seen the insides of hundreds of Fortune 1000 companies over the years, and in all but a few cases, we cared a heck of lot more about our customers’ needs than their internal IT departments ever did.


  5. Reynard

    Thanks for the blog post. We at Haiku LMS (www.haikuls.com) have been focusing on better interface, but the more open and mashable concept is definitely a good direction to follow too.

  6. @Daniel – Good point about open-source LMSs. Thanks. Open-source LMSs aren’t always pretty, but the data will usually be portable.

    @Janet – Thanks for your comment. I’m embarrassed that I forgot about Mzinga. They’re doing some really great things, and I consistently neglect to lump them into the LMS category (which, I believe is a compliment). I will check out the other systems you mentioned. I know you have a great pulse on what’s out there, so I am interested to learn more. I’m glad to hear some LMSs are evolving.

    When it comes to training 100k people on how to use free tools, I acknowledge there will be some issues there. A coordinated implementation with IT, along with the right marketing, communication plan, and training is essential. With some up-front planning it can be done. It’s tricky, but it can be done.

  7. @Dave,

    Thanks for your comments. Mzinga is doing some great work in the social learning space. I should have given you guys some credit before criticizing *all* LMSs.

    Both you and Janet make good points: It can be tricky to set up and maintain several of these free, open-source systems. I understand that this approach requires more administration, setup, and security configuration (ex. single sign-on). However, I believe IT departments are becoming more and more familiar with these open-source systems, and I believe this integration work will become easier and easier for them with time. Or, you may be able to do some of this on your own if you have tech talent in your training department. (We did. We set up our first instance of WordPress in less than 30 minutes.)

    Let me also clarify that I’m much more willing to consider using an LMS containing web 2.0 functionality if the data can be easily exported and/or exposed to other web sites/web services.

    And to respond to your other comments…

    – I agree with your stance on SharePoint. SharePoint is not an acceptable platform for social learning. It’s a content/document management system at heart. I was not impressed with older versions of SharePoint. I haven’t used it in a while, but I hear peers talk about it often…and let’s just say the feedback isn’t good.

    – Is there such a big disconnect between formal and social content that warrants separate systems? That’s debatable. I think it depends on the organization and its flow of information more than anything else. This could probably be its own deep conversation…

    – Yes, at a minimum, the LMS should have some Amazon-like social features. Without a doubt. This functionality is very beneficial to learners.

    – Should we have a common platform for everything? I’m not so sure. If our organization needs a high-end, flexible blogging tool, I’m probably going to choose WordPress (or Joomla, or Drupal) for their enormous communities, plugins, tutorials, and other abundant resources. While I’m sure Mzinga and other LMSs have solid blogging functionality, they can’t compare to tools and resources like that. But, then again, not all organizations will need the ‘Ferrari’ so to speak. They may just need basic functionality, and the ‘Toyota’ may work well for them. I hope that doesn’t come across as snotty. I own a Toyota. 🙂

    Mzinga is definitely on the right track. You’re working outside of the typical LMS comfort-zone, and you’re breaking new ground. Please keep it up. I don’t think we’re too far apart in our philosophies. We may just differ a bit when it comes to implementation.


  8. Maybe we’re expecting too much from the LMS engine.
    Take for example Oracle’s products – They function and also offer content playing from webservers.

    There needs to be more put into integration, e.g:

    * Tools for Webservices links to HR systems
    * Not technical integration but an integrated curriculum through tutors/instructors who can ‘plant’ key online references to the actual e-Learning content. This requires great templates.
    * Greater thought around meta-data &
    * Indexes to related content references

    I do believe that an integrated social bookmarking function & very flexible/customisation learning paths from a learner perspective would greatly assist in the learner experience whilst ‘plugged in’ to the LMS.

  9. @drsavi

    One more thing, having used iLearning, OLM, SumTotal, Blackboard and others, I found only MOODLE the most flexible in terms of newish (RSS 2.0, enabled awesome audio and video enclosures) functions such as Podcasting.

  10. Hi BJ,

    A timely post. These are all great points. Especially the idea of trying to make all the social media tools and embed them with an LMS. I’m not wholly objective about this, I agree it’s better to be loosely coupled with third party tools/ social media then try to stuff everything in the “LMS/Talent Management” box. We’ve managed with our LMS/ LCMS (we’re an LMS vendor) to turn ANY blog, wiki and even website into a trackable learning experience. (Wraps SCORM around it). In this way you can track usage, add an assessment and include a deki wiki or wordpress blog into a course. As the blog, wiki, website changes/updates so to is your course.

    Janet particularly has a good point about Mzinga, and they are on the right track also.


  11. […] there to be one all-singing-all-dancing solution.  Tony Karrer, riffing off of BJ Schone’s post which emphasizes making things work and play well together, looks to LMS vendors partnering more, […]

  12. Nick

    In order to make the core data portable, LMS vendors (commercial and OS) would need to create a set of agreed standards for the structuring and representation of their data. I couldn’t see this happening for a while.

    I do share some of the concerns of Schone in the context that more and more tools are being added and utilised but I think a broader issue is if learning practitioners are using the tools in a pedagogically and instructionally sound way. Are adding so many Web 2.0 tools to a learning environment supporting, enriching and meeting learner needs or are they there because there is a trend as a result of the term e-learning 2.0? (coined by Stephen Downes?) One would hope so but that’s not always the case, yes, I’m looking at you KU!

    I disagree with comments about web 2.0 systems being disparate and needing separate logins. Here at Kingston University, our web 2.0, LMS and other systems are all integrated and single sign on. There not just integrated technically but visually too so the user experience is somewhat consistent. The problem we have is to do with how they are being used (or misused may be more appropriate).

    Schone, I have to strongly disagree with your criticism of SharePoint! In my last job I was hired to develop an e-learning strategy and oversee the implementation of an e-Learning Platform for a global charity. We evaluated a number of systems and as they were a purely Microsoft house, I recommended using SharePoint which they were already using in a DM and team context. They were adamant that they wanted to use Moodle so we went with that but halfway through the process they got cold feet and wanted to go back to the SharePoint idea. So we got some very talented ShraePoint and .NET expertise and literally transformed it to meet our users needs (and the organisational culture) for e-Learning. I learnt a hell of a lot about SharePoint on that project and how extensible and flexible it is (in the right sets of hands).

  13. Hi Nick,

    Thanks for your comments. Yes, you are in a great position if you are able to integrate your organization’s single sign-on authentication system with your web 2.0 tools. That’s great. It’s a bit trickier for orgs that can’t do that…

    Regarding SharePoint, I’m glad you had a good experience. Ultimately, it comes down to the skills of your developers/IT department and your organization’s specific needs. I was speaking from personal experience from a while back, but I’d be willing to take another look should the opportunity ever arise.

  14. […] would anyone socialize on an LMS when there is SharePoint, WordPress and other platforms? (See: http://elearningweekly.wordpress.com/2009/03/20/have-lmss-jumped-the-shark/  for more context)  Xerceo: We see Feathercap and other best of breed solutions used together to […]

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