This lesson will provide a basic overview of the major Learning Management Systems (LMSs) and other college-wide technology systems that interact with LMSs.  Designed for a course I teach entitled The Guide to Everything eLearning for the Higher Education Administrator, it is an overview of the major pieces that non-practitioners (so non-edtechies) should know about eLearning, even if they don’t know it.

Our course-level objective is: 

3) Articulate the technology systems that integrate into a college-wide online learning infrastructure.

Our module-level objectives are:

3a) Distinguish between major Learning Management Systems.
3b) Describe how LMSs integrate with other college-wide technology systems.
3c) Restate definitions of common eLearning terms.

What is an LMS?  An LMS is a software application for the administration, documentation, tracking, reporting and delivery of e-learning education courses or training programs (paraphrased loosely from wikipedia.)

You’re probably familiar with some of the major Learning Management Systems – or LMSs – including Blackboard, Desire2Learn, Moodle, Sakai and Canvas.  Recently there have been more changes in the LMS marketplace, with newer platforms like the openly sourced Open edX, as well as other LMSs that are coming up from the K-12 marketplace like Schoology.  Before we go to look at each of those platforms (and some similar ones) independently, let’s review some of the major terms and get a bit of a global look at the systems that support online learning.

The Big Picture

There are many pieces that make up an eLearning infrastructure.  Several of the main components are:

How all these systems talk to each other is important.  How many of them don’t talk to each other well right now limits the type of engagement that we can implement in eLearning and the kind of data we can pull.  In many ways, the effectiveness of eLearning relies on the systems and architecture that enables it.  Technology limitations become learning and teaching limitations.

Check out this video from IMS Global that explains the importance of interoperability:

As consumers, we all have clear expectations for technology that we use on a daily basis – we expect it to be simple and work well.  Many times, we don’t even know that what we’re experiencing is actually a combination of several technologies.  The below passage from A New Architecture for Learning by Rob Abel, Malcolm Brown and John J. Seuss illustrates this:

Nearly everyone is now familiar with the app experience: you can find an app for a specific purpose, download it for free or at low cost, and start using it in a matter of seconds. Nearly everyone has experienced a website that looks like a single application coming from a single source but is really a mash-up of services from multiple sources (e.g., a Google map included in a web page, or Dropbox leveraged as a web-based file repository).

The new IT architecture also requires that tools be able to “work together” to provide better information (analytics) to both faculty and students on their progress and to administrators on their usage. This may mean that data provided by apps is easily made available to an analysis service or even that one tool provides information directly to another tool. For instance, a classroom clicker application might import assessment items created in an LMS and transfer the results data back to the LMS, to a classroom capture system, or to both. An e-textbook application might accept links inserted by the instructor and send data on quiz performance to the LMS and send usage information to the bookstore.

The current status of eLearning architecture at colleges and universities is messy, difficult, and not nearly as effective as it could be.

So how do all these systems interact right now?

Current eLearning Infrastructure Examples

There are many different ways for looking at how different systems interact.  I found a few diagrams that are somewhat indicative of the various components of these systems, though how they are implemented at different institutions look completely unique depending upon platforms, authentication, etc.

LMS graphic
Basic concepts (conceptually) of LMS components interacting with users and systems.
british columbia application infrastructure architecture diagram
An example from a real architecture diagram circa 2008: Lamberson, M., K. Fleming. (2008). Aligning Institutional Culture and Practice: The University of British Columbia’s (emerging) e-Learning Framework. Nime International Symposium 2008.
Architecture for elearning paul stacey bc campus 2010
Major components of BC’s educational technology landscape.
Open edX architecture diagram.

What is important to note here is that you are (as a non ed-techie) expected to know what each of these means in detail.  It is important that you’re able to discuss – at a basic level – the systems that are in play in making up what the essential student experience is with the college or university every day.  This is what is “below the water line” – all the connections talking back and forth that creates what the student actually experiences when they are online.  And the environments keep getting more and more complex.

What you experience as a student in any LMS is likely far beyond the LMS itself.  You’re using a variety of content types, perhaps interactions outside of the four “walls” of the LMS on other embedded platforms, and data is going back and forth all the time – all of which can enable effective learning, or effectively stand in its way.

The LMS is a critical component (perhaps THE critical component) of the current eLearning environments and ecosystems at most colleges and universities.  Let’s look at some common LMSs, their background, and what they’re up to.

What now?  Let’s look at All About LMSs (page 2.)