Thursday, December 27, 2012

LMS, SIS, VLE, oh my!

If I thought education had a lot of alphabet soup before, I clearly hadn't delved into the world of LMS (learner management systems), SIS (student information systems), VLE (virtual learning environments), LCMS (learner content management systems), CMS (content management systems), and social learning.

These various terms are like comparing apples to kumquats. They all kinda have to do with each other, but they all focus on different things. The history of each of these acronyms also differs quite a bit; LMS and SIS seem to have been around since the beginning of the internet, and have found happy roots in higher education. On the other hand, social learning seems to be relatively new (perhaps under 5 years).

Instead of trying to explain the intricate commonalities and differences, let me attempt to summarize the purpose of these pieces of software and web-tools in three words: EFFICIENCY. WORKFLOW. COMMUNICATION.

OK, great. That wasn't very elucidating. Let's delve deeper. Various of the aforementioned acronyms accomplish to varying degrees the following:

  1. Create a massive database of students with all pertinent information relating to them that can then be shared appropriately with the instructors, administration, students, and parents (i.e. course information, grades, health, attendance, behavior, address, etc)
  2. Create/curate/organize and distribute educational information (i.e. documents, videos, web resources) to students for their consumption inside and outside the traditional school environment.
  3. Create assessments and activities for students to complete, with which teachers can use the results to tailor their instruction.
  4. Communicate easily in synchronous/asynchronous time (i.e. forums, instant messaging, FaceBook-like commenting) between students, teachers, and parents.
In other words, the point is to completely digitize ALL of the paperwork of teaching, systemize all communication, create meaningful assessment data, and generally streamline the learning process. 

In my opinion, the theory is mind-blowing, revolutionary, and the nirvana of people like me (I love efficiency.) In practice, the implementation is a headache, the alphabet soup don't play nicely together, and more energy is expended trying to make it all work than would have been potentially saved.

The problem is that no single acronym does EVERYTHING. I am oversimplifying here, but roughly speaking, each tool focuses on these different aspects. To add to the confusion, some tools can be considered a few of these at once:

LMS does 2, sometimes 3 and 4.
SIS does 1.
VLE does 2 and 3, sometimes 4.
LCMS/CMS does 3.
Social Learning does 2, 3, and 4.

Now, I could also be overlooking some tools, because there have to be about 2 to 3 dozen different implementations of those acronyms. As I said earlier, SIS seems to be relatively mature at about 25 years old, and does what it does very well. Startups in the "Social Learning" arena are much newer, and cover many of the issues above, but you ultimately still need an SIS to keep all the data.

My plea to the designers, code junkies, and educators out there is this: MAKE ONE RING TO RULE THEM ALL! Make it cheap. Make it common sense. Don't reinvent the wheel. Make it open source and let it play nice with others (proprietary stuff is like the kid in the lunchroom who, in an effort to assert her dominance, won't share her homemade brownies, which backfires and repels any potential playmates.) If the majority of our students are using FaceBook, can't we integrate that platform with these educational tools to minimize the number of separate logins and streamline the experience further?

In any event, here are some of the better known examples of the various acronyms. I am not going to categorize them because so many of these tools have various overlapping properties.

My original goal when I set out to write a post about these tools was to compare them. I found, though, that there are too many variables (i.e. between SIS and LMS) to do any sort of real comparison. Also, some of these sites are more user-friendly than others. Some are free, others are not. And none are easy to preview in a few minutes; one must sign up, create classes, and use the systems with their students to actually get a sense of their efficacy.

What I did find, however, were that the last 4 on the list above (all LMS/social networking) function in roughly the same way. They have taken their cue from FaceBook, and use a running comment-like notification system on the main page. All have modules that allow for sharing calendars, files, and assignments. They are also free (for now) and some have apps for iPads or Android. If you are trying to figure out which would be best for you, I'd recommend asking your colleagues. Since they are so similar, the real benefit comes from a community using the same system to create less headache for all parties involved.

Lastly, I'd just like to emphasize that this is just a cursory look at these emerging tools. If you have more to add, or can set me straight in something I said, please leave comments below. Thank you!

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