[Question from a colleague] It appears that OpenClass has the same mission as Canvas –  OpenClass: “disrupt technology for education”, Canvas:  “disrupting the Learning Management System (LMS) market.” Does this new partnership introduce any concerns about Canvas’ future. Blackboard has to change if it’s going to survive. Canvas too? The thought crosses my mind – will we make this disruptive change (i.e. switching to Canvas) only to make another one in two years? Should that speculative thinking be a factor for consideration?

My parents are stockbrokers, where the phrase “market correction” is used to describe what’s happening to the LMS market right now. Schools are realizing that we have been paying too much for a big, integrated system with many features we don’t use, and we’re exploring smaller, cheaper systems. Canvas is attempting to offer all of the services that Blackboard does for less money by using free and open source components. Other disruptive tools (like OpenClass, CourseDirector, and LoudCloud) appear to be flirting with offering fewer total features and encouraging educators to plug multiple free Web 2.0 tools together to provide whatever functionality they want to add to their courses. In this way, the LMS is becoming more modular—less “one size fits all” and more “make it what you want”.

For example, faculty can use Vimeo.com for their video streaming needs instead of buying a streaming video server. They can use Google Apps to post and collaborate on documents, and even to maintain a gradebook! Instead of dedicated clickers, you can get a free web application that uses the cell phones and tablets that students are already bringing to class. Truly, every function of a traditional LMS can be disrupted with freely available Web 2.0 tools. As a matter of fact, this is the norm amongst K-12 teachers—most of the teacher blogs I follow are all about harnessing the power of free tools, not enterprise ones.

This approach has many benefits—the teacher who strings together Web 2.0 tools can match the tool to the educational objective without worrying about the price tag. Most Web 2.0 tools are cross-platform, so students can use them on their home computers and mobile devices.

This approach comes with some challenges and hurdles as well. Teachers need to be highly skilled with technology (moreso than the average LMS-dweller) in order to master the different interfaces and feature sets of various Web 2.0 tools well enough to see how they work together. The DIY U and EduPunk movements are all about cobbling together free educational tools to meet the needs of modern students and faculty. This is great, and it requires us all to be cobblers as well as teachers/learners. When we talk of disrupting the LMS, we are talking about making teachers into the connective glue that holds their edtech tools together—a job that was previously handled by the LMS. Some faculty will be freed by that, and others will really reject that role.

From an institutional perspective, cobbling together disparate tools makes it very difficult to get data back to a centralized repository where it can be preserved, shared, analyzed for evidence of learning, etc. Web 2.0 sites have varying terms of service regarding the intellectual property of their users, and may not provide tools to get data back out of their systems. If every faculty member uses a different free gradebook program, then students have to look in several places just to get an idea of their progress. School administrators would have even more problems trying to get a sense of student learning by looking at various systems. As we move closer and closer to measuring learning outcomes across the whole institution, we need to have everyone in the same system so we can get good aggregate reporting on how users are performing.

Another drawback to cobbling together free tools is the challenge of getting everyone together on the same network. More tools means more separate logins, more forgotten passwords, and people just not being able to find each other.  This was something I had to manage as a classroom cobbler, and was amazed when I came to SMU to see my one set of login credentials passed securely (via LDAP) between all the various tools I use. This makes it seamless for faculty and students to stay in contact online, taking that stress off of faculty.

That’s why I agree with the ideas of David Wiley and Jon Mott that the best system is one that provides a secure meeting space where faculty and students can easily find each other and share information from any Web 2.0 tool. Wiley and Mott were early consultants on the creation of Canvas, and it has become the best existing example of the kind of “Post LMS” they had envisioned. An ideal system is one where students and faculty can work in whichever 3rd party free tool they choose, but that all work is easily captured and preserved by a central LMS so they can have secure conversations about grades. Canvas does this.

Mott’s Open Learning Network

 

I think that the dis-aggregation of the LMS is going to happen whether we like it or not, and that Canvas provides the “training wheels” that we would need at this juncture to help faculty transition from the LMS to a constellation of 3rd party apps. It also provides the secure aggregated “core” that the institution needs so we can make sense of the various learning activities that are going on under our roof. Hopefully, this will mean that in 3-5 years, our average faculty will have had more experience integrating 3rd party tools into their teaching repertoire and might feel more comfortable “cobbling” together tools the way the EduPunks do.

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