Platform vs. Strategy in E-Learning

I just heard an e-learning expert demonizing the platform discussion (e.g. “Which Learning Management System is best?”) while at the same time suggesting to evaluate Microsoft e-learning products.

Then I found this other quote someone called Björn from a discussion thread on Peter Baumgartners weblog:

… every system claimed to the-one. I find that boring more than ever… but the money still goes into projects which develop an more or less sophisticated e-learning-system as we could see during the discussion on thrusday afternoon. Germany, Austria and Switzerland still give money for the media-side of learning. And there is hardly any money for the “soft-side” of learning.

After anticipating the difference between non-tutored E-Learning (CBT) and tutored E-Learning (LMS) he seems to negate his own argument:

I think there are two things to do: 1. Develop tools – but not another learning-system or another cms. Develop tools that open new ways of learning and teaching, tools that enrich the distance education […]. 2. Slowly change the way you teach.

The problem with this argument is twofold:

Firstly most decision makers don’t have a clear understanding of the difference between “Develop tools” and “not another LMS”. Most of them may know one LMS (if at all) and they would regard this system as being a “tool”. Secondly this “tool” appears to change the way someone teaches slowly, because while most may begin by digitizing their course materials 1:1 into the learning management system, they may learn from the application of that material in that context what might be particular strategies that need to be selected and changed to meet the expected “improvement”. So to start with inadequate material and learn from experience is better than to develop a theoretical E-Learning scenario from scratch.

So after reminding myself about some of the evaluation and decision making processes I witnessing I have to say that the platform discussion is a very good way to confront people with exactly the questions about what need to be changed in didactics and learning methods, because most people think that a change in their teaching methods is required only by the introduction by learning management systems. In other words: their teaching method was beforehand a result of the subject and their own learning experience – and now to some degree is supposed to be depend on the delivery format.

The platform discussion seems to be misleading, because it is often conducted with technically uninformed decision makers that need to decide on long term investments without being able to understand the full implications of any platform decision. So there is a tendency to cut short this discussion and rather just decide on a strategic framework and then leave the decision of the platform to the technicians or the IT department (or some enthusiasts among the faculty).

A platform discussion is part of the strategic decision making process. And the past years have crystalized some technical requirements for platforms to be systems for consecutive investments and growth of the economic effect of those investments:

  • Interoperability (strong import and export mechanisms; this also keeps up the pressure on the platform vendor to innovate)
  • Open standards support (a prerequisite of the above)
  • Customizability (a general way to integrate in a heterogenous environment as well as across institutions in regard to authentification, usage and access policies, storage and database systems at the backend as well as corporate design)
  • Cross-platform (so not depending on one OS or one client)
  • Modularity (any new system needs just to offer what is needed and not already there)
  • Scalability (necessary to be able cope with rising demand; but also: extensibile on demand)
  • Support (by external partners at reasonable cost while the platform should be capable to define a service market; but also means a wide and supportive community for issues)
  • Managability (minimal administrative overhead in relation to effect)
  • Variability (applicable for different didactic scenarios and assessment strategies)
  • Mandantors feature (allow generation of offsprings with acquisition from global contexts & objects and without setting up a complete new server)
  • Reusability of know-how (also means: learning curve for first time users and developers)
  • Repurposeability of editorial work (related to import/export mechanism and know-how alike)

There are a lot of implications to this list. But generally the shift of perspective is that “platform” should not be regarded as a collection of applications but rather as a framework of conventions manifestated in protocols, formats, services and methods on top of a plan about how to seed and grow knowledge about this framework and its facilitation among employees and faculty.

Bit I think what this list shows is that the platform discussion is indeed a strategic discussion. To say that the platform discussion is boring and we need to have a discussion about educative scenarios does only suggest that the aspect of “variability” was not discussed deep enough in the past. It also might be regarded as a symptom of the fact that players in institutions don’t like to re-invent every “technique” they already found to be effective. The “old” platform discussion also allowed IT departments to control the process and limit the strategic discussion on personal taste. And finally decision makers were sometimes unable or unwilling to really get into the details of each of the points – or – were lost in the details of these aspects.

So without a good understanding of the strategic relevance of a platform for many players in the discourse about educative scenarios cannot be a symbiose between technology and user needs.

There has been a large trend to outsource skills from institutions into companies. Many of these institutions now have learned to in-source competence and knowledge again as they face the effect of the continuous experience loss: they simply underestimated the severity of the drain of flexibility due to inaccessible experience. In regard to E-Learning I am convinced that there will be the need for a constant revision of the didactical strategies and the enabling technologies involved. Beside of research capacities the “didactical strategies” are the core of what universities actually offer as market value. If universities try to outsource too much of the technology business they actually try to circumvent the need to control the technology involved with their core service as well. This will only postpone the recognition of this interdependence.

So the platform discussion is not of marginal relevance for the strategic decision making. But I can’t remember a case where this discussion was going beyond the question of this or that application and this or that tool. And in this sense “platform discussions” I witnessed actually have never been real platform discussions. The subtext of those discussion has always been if there should be an anti-cyclic investment into open source (insourcing) or a cyclic investment into commercial vendors and their services (outsourcing).

So really the question of investments into open source is not only a question of available support for a system. If that would be true, then I would have a hard time to explain how this open source phenomenon came to existence at all.






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