The LMS is dead! What next?

A few days ago, I noticed this great post from Jane Hart (@C4LPT) on my twitter feed,

I have long felt that the LMS is a solution for yesterday’s challenges and I’m pretty sure more and more L&D professionals would say it’s time to move on and support learning wherever it takes place rather than expecting learners to come to one central location for all of their learning needs. Apart from anything else, if we are serious about informal and social learning, or about learning transfer (see Thallheimer’s Learning Transfer Evaluation Model), we really can’t expect one, central platform to do the job. When I commented on Jane’s post, I was understandably asked, “so what’s the proposal to organize and manage the elearning/video/training content instead?”.

From my viewpoint, the key is to think ecosystems not platforms. We should be encouraging learners to develop a self-managing mindset. Most importantly we need to realise that most learning doesn’t happen on the platforms we provide but “out in the wild”. I could’ve detailed why the LMS is no longer necessary, but this post on Modern Workplace Learning has that covered.

For me the LMS has had its day – it’s like training wheels on a bicycle: you use them to learn the basics and then discard them when you can cycle without them. In online learning terms, at a time when learners perhaps lacked the overall competence or capability to navigate around the web, the LMS was important to give people a safe/ constant environment to access material. Whether that is still relevant is up for debate.

Think Ecosystem, not Platform

What do I mean by ecosystem? This description from Dani Johnson and Priyanka Mehotra is  a pretty good working definition of a learning ecosystem:

“A learning tech ecosystem is more than the sum of total of the learning technologies. It encompasses technology that is bought specifically for learning, business technology that is adopted for employee development, and enabled technology that employees use in their personal lives for learning.” (Redthread Research October 2019)

The team I manage has been designing learning resources and services for years using the ecosystem model as the “infrastructure” for our work. We are a public body which regulates a large, geographically dispersed workforce and promotes their education and training. Our audience includes 2,500 employers and 205,000 paid staff (as well as 450,000+ informal carers, volunteers etc.). So, as an umbrella organisation, we are trying to provide solutions for a highly diverse workforce (in terms of job role/work focus, location, educational background, age gender etc.). Therefore, one centralised platform just doesn’t make sense. In our context, the ecosystem essential to our work. Johnson and Mehotra provide a very useful summary of the spectrum of approaches from centralised platforms to pure ecosystem approaches:

For my work, the focus is at the “Pure Ecosystem” end of the spectrum: We use public distribution channels as much as possible (eg Apple App store; GooglePlay; Apple Books; Spotify; Apple Podcasts; Vimeo etc.) as well as providing a curated portal to our range of learning resources and services. All provided free of charge on an open access basis to anyone who’s interested.

Given the diversity of the audience we’re trying to serve, the ecosystem approach is the only approach which makes sense. But, more important than the mechanics of the system,

“having a strong philosophy or strategy at the heart of the ecosystem increases its scope and its potential for success.” (Redthread Research October 2019)

When I tell people I manage a Digital Learning Team, they automatically assume that my focus is on technology and are surprised when I tell them it’s not. My focus and design process always begins with the nature of the learning and the learners. The vision (or philosophy) that guides our work is about adopting approaches to learning that will support the development of self-directing, self-managing learners.

For me, developing an effective digital workforce development strategy requires both vision of the goal you are trying to achieve and identifying the tools and infrastructure to realise that vision: having a goal to increase the digital capability of a diverse workforce and then forcing them to do this via one centralised platform seems contradictory – The tools need to reflect the task (and more importantly the intent).

This leads me to the hidden downside of monolithic, centralised platforms for learning – by insisting that learners use one platform, we condition users who lack confidence or capability to become dependent on the platform we provide and we run the risk that they never develop the confidence or skills to move beyond it.

The ecosystem approach on the other hand encourages learners to ‘forage’ and explore. As well a providing support to learners to develop capability directly, we enable the development of digital capability through tacit learning (see –https://warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/ier/glacier/learning/knowledge/tacit/ and https://www.hrzone.com/hr-glossary/what-is-tacit-knowledge) and we avoid learners forming a dependency on one system. Undoubtedly, for some learners this will be challenging but, the skills they develop will benefit them beyond the learning ‘event’ itself and help them down the road to achieving the vision we have: i.e. over time, they become self-directing and self-managing as learners.

The concept of Personal Learning Networks (i.e. the connections we make with people, services and resources which we use for our individual learning and development) has been accepted in the learning technology field for over a decade. Yet, despite the general acceptance of this concept for the individual, the learning technology community has clung on to the LMS rather than look to mirror the PLN at an organisational or pan-organisational level via the design of learning ecosystems. Growing a learning ecosystem isn’t an easy option. You need to continue to refine and evolve your approach over time to reflect changes in your environment (not a core requirement of the centralised platform approach) and this takes time, money and effort – an you need to take your audience with you. But, we need to learn from nature,

“Natural ecosystems are designed to change and evolve … Learning tech ecosystems should be no different.” (Redthread Research October 2019 p.33)

My view is that it’s time to take the training wheels off and commit to the longer term, and admittedly less comfortable, solution offered by learning ecosystems and enable our learners to develop beyond (well-intentioned) spoon feeding approaches to providing learning.

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