What should be the vehicle for our online programmes? Do we want a Learning Management System (LMS), or a Learning Record Store (LRS), or both, or neither? Ten years ago, this would have been a simple question to answer. Today there are several layers to it.
Unpacking the LMS
Let’s unpack learning management systems and try to align the needs of the organisation with the needs of the learner.
The organisation’s needs are real:
- access control, and
They have to create a walled garden in which their materials are secure, and they need to record the learner’s presence and actions. In certain cases, they need to be able to levy a charge for this access.
The learner’s needs are real, too:
- access, and
- recognition of effort.
They are required to learn certain things, the materials they find in the LMS presumably help them to do that. And, they need the results of their activity, and the results of any quizzes or submitted assignments to be recorded.
Moodle, as the most common example of an LMS, meets these needs by providing a user account, enrolment in a course or courses, and a grade book. If the school or organisation doesn’t want to go so far as assigning grades to submitted work, then they can simply track progress and completion if it occurs.
What we’ve just described is the digital version of the old industrial model. It’s got wheels, and it’s got momentum.
Course design patterns
There are some definite design patterns to the courses you see inside learning management systems.
The LMS itself might be seen as a kind of zoological park. The area is ring-fenced, and people have to pay to get in. Once inside, they can go to the enclosures that interest them most and interact with the animals and habitats. This metaphor invites a question about who are the animals and who are the people, and that’s where the metaphor starts to break down.
Courses as habitats, however, is a powerful metaphor and one you may wish to explore in more depth. As an inquiry-based teacher, you may cast yourself in the role of a zoologist: observing behaviours, collecting data, forming and testing your hypotheses.
In the Library pattern, the course designer creates a curated collection of readings and videos that they think the learner should or may want to ingest. Ben Betts, CEO at HT2 Labs calls this “self-directed”. The LMS is just like a filing system now, but with the difference that the course facilitator can see who has read or viewed what.
An extension of the Library pattern is the Book Club. Now, the course designer adds a forum and invites students to discuss what they have seen or read, either with the author or with a recognised expert in the field. Betts calls this “expert guidance”.
Then there’s the Caves Tour pattern. A facilitator is assigned to a cohort, much in the way a guide is assigned to a group of tourists. The facilitator walks the cohort through the collection of materials and activities pointing out things of interest, answering questions, and sharing wonderment.
Then, again, there’s the Campus Map pattern. “You are here”, the map says. Then it provides pathways to all kinds of other places you can go from “here” to learn this or that. Another way of looking at the Campus Map pattern is as a curated collection of internal and external resources.
Course designers who have not considered these and other patterns, who themselves have little experience as students using online programmes, may create very messy hybrids of these models. A great number of online courses seem to lack any coherent structure at all as they try to be all things to all people.
Often, course designers create an online resource where there is no interaction with a facilitator. They may think that there is money to be made or saved from e-learning; that e-learning can remove the cost of the teacher, instructor, or facilitator. Perhaps they dream of a kind of dollar mine that will churn away unmanned and untended providing a rich vein of income. In two decades of e-learning that has not been my experience.
You have to work at e-learning, ever watchful over your cohort, encouraging, cajoling, and generally massaging them along to completion and a successful outcome. You need to be constantly updating and improving your courses to keep them relevant and current.
Designing courses for success
For a very short course covering just one topic, the Book Club is a good model. For a course that goes into more depth, I think the Caves Tour pattern generally works best. Still, I think the tour wants to be kept short. Up to about four weeks seems to work well; much longer and students start to drop off. With highly motivated groups — say, masters students — they will possibly endure eight weeks. User data we have collected indicates that anything more is simply too long. Of course, I’m making generalisations here; there will be cases that refute my assertion.
Do not expect a good classroom teacher or instructor to necessarily be a naturally good online facilitator. School teachers like to play to a live audience on the stage their classroom presents; they can find the LMS a hard space to command. Trainers within commercial industries like to work nine-to-five, but a good online facilitator will pop into the forums for ten minutes at nine o’clock at night.
The LMS provides a rabbit-proof fence and, like Zealandia, an eco-sanctuary can exist within its boundary. You can charge people to get in if you want, you can control their movements once they are inside, and you can monitor their progress. If that’s what you want to do there is no better tool. But, do not expect everyone to want to come.
Unpacking the LRS
There is another way, so let us now unpack the alternative, the Learning Record Store.
The Learning Record Store is one component of a system that might be called a next-generation learning solution. It is a database of fine-grained actions and experiences by the learner and it is always accompanied by or partnered with an analytics engine of some sort.
The LRS gathers, analyses, and presents evidence of student activity and experience. It is all about evidence-based learning. Not the self-serving manicured evidence of the type that a student collates in an e-portfolio. Rather, the hard evidence observed by the systems with which a student interacts. This is a particularly good fit with the needs of modern employers.
In the future, fine-grained data will exist that tracks the learning journey from primary school, through secondary and tertiary, into employment and promotion. Almost anything can be wired to return a record to the record store. The LRS can listen for messages from an LMS, a blog, social media, an event registration system, a just-about-anything system, or with the software interface of a mechanical device. If you think the 70-20-10 model holds some measure of truth, then you will immediately grasp the potential of the LRS when combined with analytics and visual reporting.
The system uses a protocol and language called xAPI to send a simple sentence back to the store.
So, lines in the store might read:
John completed Automation in fish factories 101
John read article Greenlip mussel industry
John watched video Pristine waters
John published blogpost Richmond Bay nutrient levels
And, xAPI works with the Internet of Things:
John Smith registered for symposium Aquaculture 2020
John Smith operated a Simms auto-grader at Aquaculture 2020
xAPI’s syntax is both simple and powerful:
subject — verb — object — context
The context element enables a richer picture of the development path:
John completed Automation in fish factories 101 in 8 days with an overall grade of 93%.
John published blogpost Richmond Bay nutrient levels which was upvoted 57 times.
LRS and Machine Learning
If you want to geek out for a moment, consider the power of machine learning applied to the large datasets that an LRS will accrue. These are datasets pertaining to the individual, to study groups, to cohorts, and to wider student populations. An LRS could be owned and operated by an individual teacher as a personal instrument for analysing their own performance and that of their students, by an organisation, by a nation, or by a world organsiation. Unsupervised learning algorithms can uncover hidden patterns of behaviour in populations of learners that provide actionable insights for marketing, sales, programme designers, course designers, and teachers. For example, in the school sector, the predictive abilities of machine learning could inform curriculum development and guide education policy makers.
So, do we want an LMS, or an LRS, or both, or neither?
The answer is probably both.
If a school was starting from scratch, I’d say:
- set up Moodle
- build courses using a definable pattern on which the various departments are agreed, and
- consider the LMS’s role as an activity provider to an LRS from the very start.
Moodle supports xAPI. You don’t have to implement that straight away — walk before you try to run — but don’t omit it from the design. Moodle 3.4 has some much better built-in analytics and reporting tools than ever it did in the past; that may be a good starting place.
CORE Education’s interest in xAPI combined with analytics and visual reporting lies in the area of professional development. Where xAPI transforms the old SCORM standard from which it was spawned is in its ability to not only track learning, but to link that to job performance. That creates a closed loop that is the quest of every learning designer. Not a closure created by an assertion or a presentation, but by factual evidence.
xAPI disrupts, but not to such an extent that it challenges the very existence of the LMS. The LMS continues to serve a useful purpose, connected to the learning network in its role as a curated activity provider.
Suggested further reading
- moodle.org Although it’s like drinking from a fire hydrant, here’s everything you need to establish a new Moodle site or improve your existing one.
- What is the Experience API? This article and the associated diagram is from Rustici Software, the people who were commisioned by ADL to develop the xAPI protocol. So you can be sure that their explanation is correct.
- HT2Labs This is the company that has developed the most popular and open source Learning Record Store called Learning Locker. CEO Dr Ben Betts is an important voice in the LRS/xAPI/Social Learning domain and the site has a lot of valuable and free information explaining the what, why, and how.
- HT2Labs Resources Short courses, recorded webinars, and free guides from this award-winning company.
- Feature image: CORE Education
- Zoo image: by fotogoocom on Wikimedia Commons under CC 3.0 unported (modified)
- Bookclub image: screenshot (modified) from MOOC (CORE Education acknowledges with gratitude HT2Labs)
- Cave image: by Daniel Schwen on Wikimedia Commons under CC 4.0 share and share alike (modified)
- Engineers LRS composite image: includes Welding photo by Bradley Wentzel on Unsplash; Gas Blending Analyser from Wikimedia (in Public Domain); Airbase open day from Air Defense (in public domain). All images have been modified.