The LMS (learning management system) market has been dominated by Blackboard for years but low-cost, free, and open source alternatives are on the rise (see OpenClass). The LMS seems to play a pivotal role in online learning and I wonder to what extent are instructional methods adapted to fit the design and features of the LMS versus adapting the LMS to fit online instructional methods. For example, some institutions do not use whiteboards or lecture-capture software because they rely strictly on discussion forums, tests, and papers whereas other institutions incorporate more live and recorded lectures into the classroom and use whiteboards. Are these decisions strictly based on what features the LMS offers or is the pedagogy/andragogy agreed upon first, before the LMS is implemented? Who decides what features should be built into the LMS?

Sometimes I wonder if online instruction is based in research or if institutions are just copying what everyone else does. One institution, Western Governors University (WGU), is the only institution in the nation that utilizes a competency-based approach in which students must prove mastery of concepts through taking tests, writing papers, and completing assignments. There is less emphasis on traditional metrics, such as seat-time or credit hours, and more attention to the idea of proving or demonstrating one’s knowledge. Additionally, WGU separates instructional duties from evaluation duties by using professional evaluators to grade assignments. The evaluators are unknown to students, which mitigates the likelihood of instructors receiving negative feedback for giving students anything less than an A, which is now the most common grade college students receive (see this article on grade inflation).

Still, other institutions offer courses with asynchronous (e.g. discussion forums, recorded lectures, etc.) and synchronous learning events (e.g. live discussions, live interactive lectures, etc.) designed to spark interaction and collaborative learning. Learning team assignments may be an integral part of the learning process whereas other courses may be based entirely on individual assignments.

Not all LMS platforms are created equal; where some do a great job of offering features that foster a collaborative, interactive learning environment, others leave users (faculty and students) wanting. It seems to me that some educators believe strongly in some methods over others, but I am curious to know how the online learning platforms remain educator-driven. Upon what research are institutions basing their instructional methods or is this online education thing just a big experiment? WGU certainly seems to be an experiment since it is the only institution in the nation that offers a competency-based approach to learning. Maybe experimentation is a good thing. Perhaps different learners need different options. Who has it right?  What works in online education?

If you are a faculty member, advisor, student, higher ed exec, technology guru or just a person who likes to give an opinion, maybe you have an opinion about these LMS alternatives (see below) as well as the features that you think are critical to facilitating the learning process. What should we see 5 or 10 years from now in learning management systems and how will online instruction methods evolve?