On the simplest level, a learning management system is any organizational pattern that assists teaching and learning. A grade book can also serve this function; so can a journal or a 3-ring-binder. The LMS (or CMS, for course management system) exists as a method for delivering content to students in a given class. What the classroom is to the traditional course, the LMS is to the online or hybrid course. The point of an LMS is to create learning opportunities for students outside the traditional classroom and on a different schedule. It enables synchronous (at the same time) and asynchronous (not at the same time) interaction between members of a class. It overcomes obstacles that traditional college campuses have: proximity to student populations, limited classroom space, and limited scheduling capabilities. In short, the LMS and the online class solve logistical problems for institutions and for students.

However, instructors and students often complain about the LMS. Whether Blackboard, WebCT, D2L, or Sakai, instructors will deride its inflexibility and its frequent outages; students will lament its drab interface or its confusing structure (“where did I submit that assignment again?”). There is a more theoretical, pedagogical critique of the LMS in general. Consider this, from David Wiley’s and John Mott’s article “Open for Learning: The CMS and the Open Learning Network,” (2009): “The course management system (CMS) reinforces the status quo and hinders substantial teaching and learning . . . by imposing artificial time limits on learner access to course content and other learners, privileging the role of the instructor at the expense of the learner, and limiting the power of the network effect in the learning process.” Wiley and Mott take aim at the CMS/LMS here from the perspective of critical educators. Their argument is that the traditional LMS represents the power of instructors and administrators, who use it to “increase the administrative efficiency of their jobs” rather than to enrich student learning.

We can love or hate the LMS, but either way we should use it for the benefit of the entire class and not just our own. Yes, the LMS can catch, collate, and display data in a variety of useful ways, but what data is it collecting and for what purpose? Consider several of Wiley and Mott’s findings:

  • Usage of the LMS and its close coupling with the university’s student information databases build a fence around the students in the classroom, dividing them both from the web users outside the course and from each other (many courses do not easily permit student-to-student contact).
  • The course calendar and assignments generated inside the LMS also suffer a boundary. Student interaction with the course material increases steadily throughout the semester, and drops to zero afterward. Courses are commonly reset at the adminstrative level, and course materials that students accessed throughout the semester via the LMS close once the course is finished.
  • From school to school, the LMS usually varies, thus students who transfer from one school to another must frequently learn to navigate new systems, when the culture on the web at large orbits a collection of familiar tools that remain consistent (Wiley/Mott cite YouTube, Flickr, and Google Docs as examples).
  • Communities built within a course and facilitated by the LMS dissolve at the close of the semester. Rather than encouraging collaboration and the perpetual dialog of an educational community, the gate that closes on the LMS at the end of the semester prevents the community from continuing to expand.

Thus, as our exploration of the online and hybrid classroom continues, we should consider how our use of Desire2Learn (D2L) or any LMS can speak to or respond to these potential drawbacks. How can we encourage interaction between students that is unhindered by the LMS? How can we avoid the sometimes tacit assumption of the LMS that the knowledge valued in the course is exclusive to the course? How can we use the LMS to boost learning activities onto the open web, which better represents the culture in which students will find themselves after graduation? How can the LMS become a diving board into projects and authentic learning experiences rather than a Byzantine collection of folders to which they must submit identical responses.

Wiley and Mott write that “the CMS was designed primarily to support and enhance traditional teaching.” The dynamic and hybrid learning that can happen in online environments cannot happen under the banner of “traditional teaching.” The LMS should facilitate exploration rather than contain it.