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The Shifting Instructional Technology Landscape

What the future holds for learning management systems and related technology
University Business, Jul 2011

The look of instructional technology is changing rapidly, as are the roles and strategies of the IT professional. Higher education technology’s legacy was characterized by six key areas: a strong sense of faculty ownership; hidden costs of free systems and networks; content and delivery mechanisms that were not well-differentiated; unstructured innovation; systems that would neither scale nor integrate; and service levels that were little more than “We’ll give it our best”--all with security being a mere afterthought.

Things are only marginally better in our present state. Decisions have been made to purchase expensive institution-wide learning management applications and systems (LMS) when not all were on board. Academic units often continued innovative uses of technology, creating homegrown applications. The results were fragmented ownership, shadow systems, and risk-laden practices. Further, this approach separated content from delivery.

At Drexel University (Pa.), we partially responded to the push-back for individual choice through a “sandbox” approach, providing both innovation and choice, albeit in a nonproduction environment. Applications that gain real traction move into production, such as Adobe Connect and DragonDrop, Drexel’s home-grown encoding system.

Technology use peaked, with regard to LMS usefulness, for the traditional campus in 2007. It has remained stagnant at best. Recent data displayed in The Chronicle of Higher Education (May 13, 2011) illustrated that students feeling either very positive or positive about content/learning management systems usage dropped from 77 percent in 2007 to 51 percent by 2010, while those feeling ambivalent about these systems jumped from 19 percent to 43 percent. Here’s the good news: myriad multidimensional tools and applications have emerged across that timeframe that educators can utilize--and often students can themselves recommend?and put into play in their courses. They do not need IT, nor do they need vast resources. In fact, those who use them seldom even ask for permission.

It is clear that faculty choice is back, and in a significant way.

Moving to the cloud has further opened the teaching and learning application door--front and back. LMSs as we know them may well become an anachronism very soon. They could all be replaced by mash-ups wherein educators and learners assemble their own systems for teaching and learning out of existing or emerging applications. Most if not all will exist in the cloud. Many already do. We’re seeing developments in this area with email, asynchronous discussions, multimedia, file sharing, collaboration, surveys, quizzes, and virtual meeting rooms. Stay tuned: There’s more to come.

Free apps and content repositories abound, e.g., YouTube, iTunes, numerous blogs and wikis, Google Apps, SurveyMonkey, and Kodak Gallery. Institutional content can reside there as well as in online journal apps, lecture archives, and digital repositories. The textbook model is in a total state of flux with McGraw Hill Connect and Nookstudy from Barnes & Noble getting a jump on the rest. Pearson’s development string already includes MyLabs, eTextbooks (CourseSmart), CourseConnect, and DLRs. The issue of managing digital rights (DRM) will have to be sorted out, but, it is clear that faculty choice is back, and in a significant way.

Open source programming and cloud technology both play major roles in the future of teaching and learning. At Drexel, we already see many LMS administrative functions moving to traditional ERP systems with content components moving to the cloud. We’re witnessing many institutions abandoning proprietary LMSs and going the multiapplication open source route. Agility, perceived economics, politics, and IT leadership are all factors in this movement, as is the ever-present notion of academic choice gone digital.

Selection and purchase is increasingly in the hands of the student, i.e., the consumer, with faculty compelled to provide a range of course content options and delivery mechanisms as a result. The service level agreements (SLAs), if they exist at all, have reverted to a more workable consumer grade level with assessment and performance metrics moving over to the ERP side (perhaps where they should have been all along!). And, the CIO’s role continues to travel along the spectrum from being the authority to becoming the strategist charged with managing the chaos.

Our own LMS usage data reveals that, since 2005, the highest percentage of professors actively using it in their courses (in any given quarter) was 47 percent; the lowest was less than 25 percent. In the most active term, three-quarters of all students were enrolled in at least one section where professors activated the LMS. Summer quarters at Drexel are less active than the other three, and LMS usage engaged between 50 percent and 56 percent of enrolled students. Overall, many students experience the LMS, but how broadly?

Looking at a snapshot of fall quarter 2010, and specifically examining usage of the 28 LMS features and PowerLinks (bolt-on apps developed by third-party vendors for most major LMSs) that we can track:

  • None of the 28 available features were used in more than 80 percent of the LMS-active sections.
  • Nine features were used in 60 percent to 80 percent of the LMS-active sections; on the other end, 11 features were used in 20 percent or less.

For many educators, the broad-based use of LMS features is not tremendously meaningful?so these figures, though objective and accurate, must be viewed with factors such as the educators’ academic goals and their ability to use an LMS in mind. Still, this substantiates we must be open to future trends of movement away from the institution-provided LMS as an asset to instead providing guidelines on choices of access to a suite of tools (some open-source) that might meet specific academic needs just fine. The point: More selective, less prescriptive.

In 2009, Michael Feldstein blogged that Google Wave would fill the bill for many who sought alternatives to an expensive, high-maintenance LMS. But just one year later, Google pulled the plug on Wave, with an executive vice president reporting on a blog, “Wave has not seen the user adoption we would have liked.”

The CIO is becoming the strategist charged with managing the chaos.

For more than a few, this meant back to the drawing board. So recently, we crafted an exercise to determine what apps could substitute for various LMS features--if we did the proverbial paradigm shift and re-thought our LMS strategy. We listed all of the LMS tools and set about trying to find free or low-cost Web 2.0, open source, etc. apps with potential to provide each tool’s capabilities.

This exercise, done in grid form, took less than an afternoon. We attempted to find an array of offerings, as opposed to seeing how many of these could have been covered by various Google apps, for instance. Such a grid could easily be reshuffled almost monthly if not weekly.

Recently, in The Chronicle (May 13, 2011), Ryan Cordell, an English professor, did something similar albeit on a smaller scale relative to resources for teaching with technology. He categorized 18 resources in four areas: using primary resources, helping students organize their work, practicing real scholarship, and working collaboratively. App examples from Cordell’s categories included HathiTrust, Evernote, Omeka, and Zoho Writer. His goal was to enable student engagement without letting the technology get in the way.

LMS utility as an ERP-type system will continue to diminish, except in the narrow distance education learning space where the learning experience does not involve face-to-face and place. At traditional universities, a commercial system will have difficulty maintaining, let alone increasing traction, because of the proliferation of apps and other choices available to the academic side. LMS vendors must de-emphasize system and re-emphasize the toolbox approach, all while reducing the cost of LMS licensing and maintenance. A shift in strategies is necessary for vendors to maintain market share.

Our best illustration of traction versus stagnation: the ePortfolio application Drexel uses (neither the LMS nor any legacy system is involved). In Fall 2009, every incoming freshman was required to use an electronic portfolio to showcase and reflect upon academic and professional work. The effort initially focused on a three-term writing program required of incoming freshmen and many transfers. This fall, the cloud-based application will be used for a third academic year; we expect to see 11,000 active end users.

Its adoption and use has been nothing short of astounding with proliferation extending to graduate nursing and doctoral programs, as well as discussions about its utility in the executive education space. Due diligence work and collaborative effort between IT and academic units surveyed a wide variety of ePortfolio apps resulting in the final selection, which apparently was the correct one for us.

President Obama, along with the freshly-collaborating U.S. Department of Education and the Labor Department, are turning up the heat. Open education resources (OERs)--including materials such as videos, text, and assessments and how they must become available to everyone in the world for free--are the topic.

Stay tuned. If content becomes free, extremely low-cost applications with which to deliver that content cannot be far behind, a significant challenge that all in higher education will have to face.

Mike Scheuermann is associate vice president for instructional technology and John A. Bielec is vice president for information resources and technology/CIO at Drexel University in Philadelphia.