„What should an LMS look like in the age of Social Media, Cloud Computing, Machine Learning, Cyber Warfare, Life-Long Learners, Competency-Oriented Learning, and increasing diversity of students?”
The question is intentionally buzzword-loaded, yet it properly reflects the fact that university-education will be subject to radical paradigm shifts over the next decade.
This shift will have been accelerated by the Corona-crisis, which already brought about irreversible changes. Not only did the crisis bring about a new openness to and dependence on the application of online learning technologies, but also a new appreciation for the value of face-to-face instruction and the interplay between the physical and virtual realm. The demise and creation of whole industry segments highlighted the already anticipated necessity for life-long learning and retooling in adaptation to an ever more rapidly changing employment landscape. Many institutions of higher education are reconsidering their role and sources of income in this new era, as purely residential versions of education are called into question.
The next generation of learning management system will need to adapt to this changing landscape of higher education, which leads to some postulates for its design.
The era of the Course Management System is over
When Course Management Systems (CMSs) first appeared on the landscape two decades ago, there were no Social Media, ubiquitous Internet, smart phones, cloud services, or online collaboration tools of significance. At the time, it was possible to create a monolithic web application that combined rudimentary communications, content management, assignment management, gradebook, and quizzing functionality. Most instructors were happy to upload syllabi and PDF-documents, as well as to email the whole class.
Today, user experiences and expectations differ vastly between what is possible inside Course Management Systems and most anywhere else in a user’s digital life. Tools that are hardwired into a single system that is supposed to do everything can hardly compete with what readily available specialized tools and services can offer in terms of usability, features, and polish.
Teachers and learners alike want to freely design teaching and learning processes, interactions and spaces. The expectation is a wide array of functionality, however, integrated in an overarching ecosystem that glues it together and allows to manage identities.
Open Educational Resources need to be reinvented
Creating new content for online courses is overwhelming, so in a culture where sharing is well- established through the publication of scientific results, the idea of Open Educational Resources (OERs) has been around almost as long as Course Management Systems have. Unfortunately, OERs never quite lived up to the hype. On the other hand, it is hard to overstate the importance of OERs for the future of learning, but instead of hoping for some new, overarching repository or tighter integration with existing systems, OERs would need to exist in an open ecosystem, with users having the ability to freely move around and connect.
The "fear" of data security and privacy can be paralyzing
Almost anytime that data analytics, artificial intelligence, machine learning, and data-driven decision making are mentioned, it is followed by a disclaimer that – of course – privacy and data security regulations need to be respected. This, in turn, seems insurmountable. Also, the need for “erasing data” is frequently mentioned as if that were realistically possible in redundant, multiple backed-up systems with interlinked data sources, especially if that same data would be needed again once a user reenters degree or certification programs at the same or another institution.
It seems that currently most online platforms are successful because they make the user consent to all kinds of data usage; while that practice might be acceptable for voluntary activities, it is unacceptable for public institutions of higher education. It also seems that at any given time, laws about data usage are years behind what is actually happening in online platforms, which could mean that a data usage that is acceptable today may not be acceptable anymore tomorrow. Any next generation ecosystem needs to provide a way for the users to control and own their data.
Content and functionality belong together
For content to become more reusable and remixable, it needs to turn into a service that combines content and functionality. These could be homework resources, exam services, discussion boards, simulations, etc. Users connect to the services much like today, however, they do so using Decentralized Identities (DIDs). The services may issue Verifiable Credentials (VCs), which are stored with the user.
Users and their identities and data belong together
Users are self-sovereign, providing their own Decentralized Identities, and presenting and collecting their own Verifiable Credentials. The user is the connecting element between services and their home institutions, there is no behind-the-scenes exchange of data or identifiers. Users can bring their own data with them, which can exist in “data pods”. Users can benefit from their accumulated interaction data throughout their life-long educational experiences – most notably through the use of artificial intelligence.
Artificial Intelligence is here to stay
Even though today, the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in education is limited and not always well-advised, the future potential in this technology of this technology is virtually undisputed.
There is an apparent conflict between users’ control over their data and the need for AI to be data-driven; an important architectural concept may be that on the one hand, users have their own “private” AI-agent for personalized decisions, but on the other hand, data is gathered from all users in depersonalized form – the private AI-agent is operating on the depersonalized data from other users.