Learning Management Systems: Failure and Scope for Improvement

In the light of arguments in the blogosphere and e-Learning industry that Learning Management Systems (LMS) are now ‘dead’ (Pontefract.D., 2009 and 2010; Martin Weller, 2007; Ed Cohen, 2010,et al.) and have been superseded by Personal Learning Networks (PLNs) or even Open Learning Networks (OLNs), the key focus of this post is to understand why LMS failed to meet its (early) expectations. The post first briefly defines LMS – explaining its origins, describing how it has been used, and elucidating the changing face of technology and learning theory.  It will then consider LMS’s failure to meet these changing needs, discusses the shifts to Personal Learning Networks, before finally listing some potential improvements that, if implemented, could provide a basis for repositioning LMS applications to achieve future success.

Learning Management System: Definition, Origin, and Features

Tools used for e-Learning are diverse. They include CBTs, videos, audio files, discussion forums, chat rooms, e-portfolios, etc. These tools can be used at different times for different learning objectives. These tools can be provided to users in two key ways: either they can all be integrated into one bundle and presented as a bespoke learning suite or they can be separated and presented individually (Dalsgaard, C., 2006). LMS software applications belong to the first category, integrating a range of tools and tracking usage. During the early 90s LMSs have become synonymous to e-Learning, irrespective of learning context. These systems are since then used to deliver and manage e-Learning courses, aiding the identification and assessment of individual and organisational training goals, enabling organisations to track the progress of e-Learning courses and providing a collection of data to form a holistic picture of organisational learning (Szabo & Flesher, 2002).

However, the systems used to manage education and learning vary widely according to context. In academic settings, these systems are used in conjunction with regular formal training dominated by face-to-face, instructor-led interaction. Courses are the primary focus of students; covering a longer timeframe, they include lecture based (note making) work, synchronous and asynchronous discussions within and beyond the classroom forming a system with the properties of an ecology (Don McIntosh, 2008). Conversely in the workplace, formal instruction is not generally available on site and the majority learning is self-driven. Catering to ‘just-in-time’ learning needs of workforce, organisational courses are short, highly focused and stand alone;  their objective being to enable employees to perform certain tasks at a certain times. These differing requirements are apparent in the ways the management systems are used within the two contexts. In academia, they are termed as Virtual Learning Environments (VLE), while in the workplace these platforms are known as Learning Management Systems (LMS). While there are arguments that even VLEs, which are developed under the logic of constructive pedagogies, are now dead, they are slightly better than LMSs in terms of affordances to actual learning events. However diverse their application, the later section highlights some of the features LMSs offer.

Nevertheless, during early 80s, organisations or educational institutes tracked employee or student learning either in training management systems or books. On completion of a course, a learner’s record would be manually updated in the system. By the 90s, organisations sought a single repository of course access, tracking and individual student records. Since then these systems have been adopted and adapted by educational institutions, learning and development departments, and training organisations in leaps and bounds. The Delta Initiative Report (2009) reaffirms this statement that current LMS use remains strong, for example, with more than 90 percent of academic institutions have implemented an LMS platform. This ubiquity has led to belief that having an LMS is the foremost step in adopting e-Learning.

Termed as being ‘mission critical’, LMS moved up from Rank 10 to 8 in EDUCAUSE’s recent review of top IT issues for education (2010). This showcases the strategic importance LMSs have. The following section describes some of LMSs salient features and provides a base for suggesting how these available features are not meeting with the expectations or even needs of the present day educational practices.

Features of LMSs

LMSs, as their title clearly indicates, are intended for management of learning. Here the focus is on the administration of a course rather than on the individual progress of students. However, LMSs offer a range of administrative features for corporate e-Learning, including:

  • Administration: Through LMSs, administrators can provide course registration, scheduling, notification, and tracking of learning events (e-Learning courses, classroom training, or virtual learning events)
  • Logistics: LMSs help as databases and provide file-sharing functionalities. Thus they help in distribution and access to course material.  They act as central repositories of learning objects for use in online and offline learning events
  • Though limited to a few LMSs, they even provide assessment and evaluation of learning and training.
  • They provide affordances to asynchronous interactions, like eg.:  discussion boards, blogs, wikis etc. However, these developments are very recent.
  • They have the ability to be appended to HR or ERP systems and thus help in tracking performance of individuals
  • Most of the learning objects adhere to SCORM or AICC standards for interoperability, and most of the LMSs will be able to run these SCORM-based courses or objects (White. B., and Larusson, A., J., 2009; Don McIntosh., 2011)

As the features listed above suggest, they are mostly to do with what happens before or after a learning event rather than during the event itself. While the phrase Learning Management suggests control over actual learning events and activities, LMSs are thus limited to dissemination of needed material, in a manner analogous to cash machines; they are removed from the complexity of transactions or from activity with those materials, where cash machines just are limited to delivering cash and making a note of the transaction, LMSs also limited to delivering e-Learning courses and tracking the time of access, etc. They seldom have the capabilities for the learning to happen in its walled-garden. However, the above listed, limited advantages of LMSs are outweighed by its weaknesses in areas such as product acquisition strategies, adaption and change management, rising costs, management of the system’s technical capacity, and product integration. Moreover, the analytics functionality provided for administrative purposes is limited to quantitative data and it can prove misleading if not supplemented by qualitative information on learner’s academic growth or increased competency. This disappointing performance is further accentuated when the changing nature of learning and learners are taken into account, which will be further discussed in the following sections.

Changing Nature of Learning and Learners: Disappointing LMS

Society transformed from Industrial age to Information age, however, today’s education system remains unchanged (Watson, B.W.R. & Watson, S.L., 2007).  Learners remain passive while the responsibility for their learning rests completely on trainers or teachers. This constrains the ability of teachers to individualise learning programmes in order to focus their time and effort where it is most needed; low-achieving students are left behind while high-achievers are held back (Reigeluth, 1997).  In the information age, however, students will be given greater freedom to attain expected learning outcomes. This requires personalised and sequenced education, meaning the role of teachers shifts to facilitating the student’s knowledge acquisition.

Technology clearly has a major role to play in this kind of personalisation. Technology should be able to track student’s progress, evaluate and assess their knowledge and learning, help teachers by providing insight into the academic needs of students, and integrating all of these functionalities within a single format. LMSs can, as elucidated in the above section, meet each of these requirements and provide logistical support to trainers in their efforts to provide plentiful learning opportunities to students. Despite these benefits, the cost-effectiveness of LMSs remains to be proven. Though LMS does provide some of the tools for interactivity among learners, research shows that trainers use is restricted to administrative and distributive tasks rather than as a tool for supporting interaction (Mott, J., 2010). Moreover, this emphasis on ‘management’ rather than learning is widely criticised (Siemens, G., 2004).

On the other hand, changing technology has direct impact on education. Jones and Dirkinck-Holmfeld (2009) have categorised some of the most prominent impacts of technology on education into: time-shifts (asynchronous learning), changes to place (anytime and anyplace learning), digital preservation (searchable digital versions of learning), public and private boundaries (disappearing boundaries between what is classified as personal and public), forms of literacy (use of graphics and other media), and content (user-generated content that can be edited by anybody). Moreover, the changing face of the economy necessitates new sets of skills (for example 4Cs) and puts great weight on social learning. In addition, the evolution of internet technologies and new theoretical insights into how people learn and collaborate with each other mean that LMSs with their rising investment and maintenance costs may struggle to meet the changing needs, and this is currently resulting in a reappraisal of the validity of LMS for e-Learning.

On the theoretical front, empirical research has provided newer insights into the ways people learn and resulted in social constructivist theory. This theory ‘accepts multiple perspectives and maintains that learning is a personal interpretation of the world’ (Alonso. F, López. G, Manrique. D, Viñes., J. 2005, p. 219). It thus shifted the orientation from individual learning structures to more collaborative and situated learning experiences (Mayes, T. and Freitas De Sara, 2008). But, LMS, in its current state, does not cater to the collaborative, situated learning experience.

Changing Nature of Technology: Web 2.0 and Social Networking

Since Internet, and specifically after the invention of World Wide Web, the so-called digital age has seen the light and it brought into optimum pace with the origination of Web 2.0 technologies. Web 2.0 technologies are fully user-dependent and user-centric and they thrive on the participation of these users. This provided opportunity for the users to connect and collaborate with others online. This collaboration, and the concurrent knowledge-based economic trends, demanded a workforce that is able to generate their own content, share it, comment on others’, post questions, rate others answers, collaborate on shared targets, and find subject matter experts quickly. The present successful business and workers are needed to be connected and networked.

Web 2.0, Social Networking, and as discussed above, socio-cultural learning theories all have a strong impact on the ways we communicate or learn online. In the light of these innovations, current LMSs are being redesigned to meet new requirements to foster informal learning and collaboration. In this way LMSs can move beyond the existing states, which, as discussed above, are limited to driving learning events, courses or professional development, whilst failing to integrate intra-employee collaboration and informal learning practices.

How LMS Failed

As briefly mentioned above, LMSs, with its purely administrative features, are now being re-evaluated in the light of changing technologies, society, learners and their needs. Specifically at the workplace, where sudden needs demand just-in-time learning and collaborative solutions, learning is more or less unstructured and entirely based on personal needs. In other words, it is in the hands of the learner and is something that cannot be managed. Thus the basic premise that learning can be managed can be brought into question. These systems can be very useful to disseminate compliance training, but are not helpful in fostering collaborative learning among learners.

While discussing about learning spaces, Thomas, H. (2010) mentions that the tools we use, the spaces in which we facilitate learning drive how learning occurs. It means that an LMS modelled upon a class-room and which is a mere digitisation of courses will not provide the flexibility and freedom that a 21st century learner needs. This notion of flexibility and connectedness was already present in Ivan Illich’s (1971) proclamation to deschooling society. He envisaged a ‘learning web’ that facilitates:

  • Access to learning materials
  • Interdisciplinary knowledge and skill exchange
  • Networking and peer-matching
  • Access to educators

Brown, S (2010), while mentioning New Media Consortium’s (2007) assessment on the educational challenges, says that over the past two decades educational challenges such as raising costs, shrinking budgets, growing demands for new services are ever increasing in opposition to deteriorating student enrolments. He mentions that e-Learning and VLEs came into the fore as a solution to these challenges but despite these management systems’ ubiquitousness and promise, he further explains, these challenges still remain the same. This provides us an insight that VLEs, or in other words, LMSs were not successful and failed to live up to their earlier expectations.

One another drawback in LMSs is their design. As they are designed mostly for management and not for being environments, the features are often cluttered and grouped, and eventually are difficult to wade through. It is quite a challenge for the learner to find their needed information. This is even worse when it comes to collaboration features such as chat, discussion forums, or blogs. For the generation who are well dexterous with latest collaboration technologies like Skype, Google docs, etc., LMSs come as applications of the past decade and this notion will negatively impact their participation in group activities.

Siemens, G. (2004) opines that most of the workplace learning today is more or less an addition to what is already known and thus it is sought after when and where required. This means, organisations should provide tools to employees for easy creation and dissemination of learning and knowledge. While advocating the inclusion and use of Web 2.0 tools, he says that having a ‘large, centralized, mono-culture tools limit options.’ In other words, LMSs define what learner can do rather they being useful for what learner needs.

These limitations of LMSs, as discussed in this section and the sections earlier, and increasing online activity of the learners has led the workplace training professionals to look to capitalise on the levels of engagement learners have with Web 2.0 technologies. The following section briefly illustrates how with the help of Personal Learning Networks (PLEs), learning professionals are trying to harness the power of Web 2.0 technologies for internal training and learning that is not attained fully by the LMSs.


The concept of LMS itself, as mentioned above, epitomises the notion of top-down administration of learner’s work while more recent understandings of learning prioritise active, open-ended and experimental formats. In this context of changing technologies, academics and e-learning professionals seeking to answer questions such as:

  • What opportunities exist for harnessing the habits of interaction and collaboration associated with social networking, within the context of e-Learning programmes?
  • Should the control of the tools, time, and place of learning be fully delegated to learners?
  • Should the applications and technologies available to teachers be housed at the same location as those available to students or should these be separated? (Sclater, N., 2008)

As discussed above, though some existing LMS features facilitate collaboration among students, most are used as databases of e-learning courses and PowerPoint presentations. This eventually results in dependence on the application rather than in increasing student independence. However, this may not be an immediate result of the technical shortcomings of the LMSs but may be a failure of the application to bridge effectively into the Web-based habits and expectations of learners, for example, user interface, etc.

As we have seen in the previous section, the present generation of learners, in both academic and workplace settings, are tech-savvy; they have a direct familiarity with tools that facilitate advanced collaboration, interaction and communication. Coming with this advanced knowledge, students find LMS platforms outdated and lagging behind in user interface and functionality. Moreover, LMSs are inflexible.  In order to organise and manage learning, each learning element has to maintain a level of uniformity; this risks leading to a one-size fit-all situation, and may not work well with diverse student groups. Too often, LMSs replicate existing institutional practices rather than bringing additional, creative value to education programmes.

In response to questions such as these, the concept of PLEs has recently emerged. PLEs are not single software applications but provide new ways of using diverse Internet applications. Their value is in providing a fresh philosophical and pedagogical approach to use of technology in learning. Supporters of PLEs envisage that there is a need to harness the technological power of the enormous range of tools and applications available online and are outside the immediate environment of an educational institute. Thus there is widespread agreement regarding the need to open ivory towers to a wider, more densely networked, learning ecology.

Nevertheless, PLNs definitely have advantage over the LMSs in terms of harnessing the power of Web 2.0 technologies and for bringing in much needed collaboration and personalisation among learners. PLNs’ limit-less access, affordances to ownership, collaboration, personalisation allures the all the learning professionals. However, problems in terms of security, technical inefficiency, unpredictability of third-party Web services, etc. endanger a full replacement of LMSs with PLEs.

Thus, in the light of advantages and disadvantages of both LMSs and PLNs, should take a neutral path and get the best of the both worlds. There is definitely a need for flexibility in terms of LMSs and for utilising the collaboration technologies that Web 2.0 has offered. As we forge ahead in this knowledge-based economy, providing affordance to the workforce without any technical barriers and constraints will encourage them to participate in informal, social learning opportunities and thus help grow organisations.


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