Having worked for almost two decades in higher education, I’ve been involved in the implementation of many different IT systems. Invariably there are a multitude of different factors at play when choosing a new system; the needs and profile of the end user, the budget available, the time frame for completion, the in-house expertise and so on. When it comes to systems directly related to teaching and learning, such as the Learning Management System (LMS) there is another, almost sacrosanct factor at play: the pedagogy or educational approach used. “It’s not about the technology, it’s the pedagogy that matters, the technology just enables us” is a commonly heard phrase. Similarly I once had someone tell me “Comparing two different LMS’s is like comparing Mercedes to BMW, they are different, but basically do the same thing – it’s all down to preference”.
Both these quotes highlight an important truth that is often overlooked or even denied: the technology will always shape your practice. A system as complex and all encompassing as an LMS is not simply taking you from A to B, it defines how you work, it creates opportunities and also imposes limits. When planning an investment like this, it is a mistake to think you are just buying a product (like you might buy a car or a printer), instead you are buying the processes and practices the software developers baked into the system and accepting that they will change the way you do your work.
Opinionated software isn’t a bad thing if you’ve done your homework. Investing in a complex software system should be thought of much like recruiting a high level professional to your company. You want a certain amount of configurability (the new employee should be adaptable), but you also don’t want a blank sheet of paper. You’ve invested in expertise and experience and you expect to apply this to make your practice better. Good software systems have been developed and honed over many years by a group of expert practitioners. When you buy the software you buy into this expertise, a system expects you to do things in a particular way because it believes that is the best way to do it. A system that didn’t impose any opinions on you (as if that could exist) would be a poor system in the same way a high level employee who was unable or unwilling to share any knowledge or experience would be a poor hiring decision.
When interviewing for a new employee, you’re assessing the candidates for competency and compatibility. Are they good at the skills you need them to have and will they be a good fit for your company culture? You should consider exactly the same thing when selecting an LMS or any major IT system.
1. Does it have the features you need it to have?
2. Are the features implemented in a way that suits you.
3. Does it offer powerful features without sacrificing usability?
4. Will it make you more efficient and effective in achieving your mission?
1. Is it well aligned with your pedagogical principles or does it make different assumptions to you? If different, reflect on why? Is there something the differences could teach you?
2. What kind of system is it at its core? Does it feel like it’s primarily a content delivery platform or an interactive learning environment? What do you want it to be?
3. Who does it feel like it’s built for? Administrators? Educators? Learners?
4. Does it give you scope for growth and development in the direction you are heading or is it on a different path?
5. How nicely will it play with the other existing systems? Never opt for a computer system where you need to insert a human to play arbiter between it and the other systems, data integration is a must these days and this is where you don’t want it to be too opinionated, flexibility is essential
Failing to pay due attention to these two areas risks poor investment and a lag in innovation. It’s all too common to see fantastically powerful systems in place but only 5% of its capability being put to use. Often this is because of a fundamental mismatch in compatibility or an unwillingness to change and allow the system to inform and improve your practice.
When these decisions are done carefully, thoughtfully and with a willingness to learn, the technology becomes a valuable partner instead of an asset. The technology partners hum away in the background doing the things humans do poorly (remembering lots of data, instant 24/7 availability, quick and accurate calculations, summarising and visualising data in useful ways, managing and tracking workflows, providing you with the information that you need when you need it etc.) leaving the human partners to do what machines do poorly (communicating with other humans, empathy, understanding and dealing with nuance, seeing connections between data, interpreting trends etc). A good employee is one who is competent, compatible and stays a long time. A good learning management system (or any complex IT system) is exactly the same.
It’s not about the technology, but since the technology is not neutral make sure it’s one you’re ready to enter into a long term relationship with!