When Is an LMS NOT an LMS? (When It's Free....)

The Enterprise System Everyone Loves To Hate

If you’re in higher ed, you know what an LMS is. Not that you’re ever happy about yours.

Which is the problem. If there were an alternative, most people in higher ed would jump there in a heartbeat.

But I get ahead of myself.

An LMS is a “learning management system.” It’s an enterprise system–meaning the institution pays for it, and generally everyone has access. Examples are:
  • Blackboard,
  • Desire2Learn,
  • Moodle,
  • Sakai;
  • more recently: inStructure.
Using an LMS, an instructor can:
  • send announcements,
  • share files,
  • host online discussions,
  • create quizzes,
  • accept assignments,
  • and similar things.

The Swiss Army Knife

The LMS is a Swiss Army Knife in which every knife is not quite so sharp, usually a generation or two old.

Nothing in the LMS is best-of-breed. But like a Swiss Army Knife, you're happy it's in your pocket when you need one of the things it has.

(These folks really need to create an architecture that’s more plug-and-play. People like to choose their own tools. But that’s a separate topic.)

In short, an LMS is a publication, collaboration, interaction and survey platform with permissions. (A test is a survey.)

So What’s the Problem?

Universities often pay million$ for the$e things–and no one ever loves their LMS. They accept. They work around. They do not love.

But now there are serious alternatives.

So what? The alternatives are free. Yes–
  • free as in beer, not ideas.
  • Zero cost.
What are they? Let’s just take two.

iTunes U

Formerly, this was podcasting for education: users could subscribe to audio or video podcasts–lectures, for instance. And that was sort of it.

Now iTunesU is a hosted LMS.

Anyone, anywhere can publish audio, video, documents, iBooks (Apple’s propetary ebook format). There’s even something like discussion.

And it’s 100% free. Apple hosts it for you.

The catch? It’s for Apple’s networked mobile devices only–i.e., iOS: iPhone’s, iPads. So it’s free to publish, but it essentially costs $600 (for an iPad) to learn. Cough cough.


This is very powerful. An instructor can:
  • organize students into a group (a “Circle”),
  • give access to just that group–or the whole world,
  • share all the normal document formats (text, spreadsheets, data sets, pdf’s),
  • share videos from Youtube and photos from Picasaweb,
  • create discussions around documents, videos and photos (comments, really),
  • give surveys or quizzes,
  • accept files into a Google Docs folder.
In short, anyone for free can do most of what an LMS does. And on a platform people know and use daily.

What does an LMS have that these systems lack?
  • Restricted access.
  • Connection to the student information system:
    • only registered students can get in.
  • Automatic course creation:
    • a site exists for every course being offered and
    • enrolled students have automatic access.
Is this really important?

Yes and no.

In fact, classroom doors are generally unlocked. If you have a large class, anyone off the street can wonder in.

But LMS’s are a locked door. Only students, staff and faculty can get in.

Permissioning students into the Google-verse is mostly trivial. But it’s done by hand.

Should the Purveyors of LMS’s Be Afraid

Very afraid.

Dear LMS: your days are numbered. Apple and Google are coming up behind you.

Run. Fast.

And do not look back.

–Edward R. O'Neill


  1. I don't understand the idea author is trying to bring us... Should or shouldn't people use professional e-learning solutions?.. In my opinion, the choice is always yours - if the solution doesn't arrange you, just seek for a better one, plenty of options is what the web offers us today. If you wish to have a powerful lms and aren't limited in money - Blackboard is for you, if you have no money at all but a yearning to build a good professional lms by your proper hands Moodle is all you need. If you wish important features and a helping hand by professional team for a moderate cost - JoomlaLMS is the golden mean. Google+ will also find its adherents. I mean, if you know what you want you will find it, and will be happy with your choice. Good luck in seeking for a right solution!

  2. John. I thought I was clear, but I guess not.

    All of the solutions I describe could be called "professional e-learning solutions"--unless by that you mean something that's ONLY used for learning.

    I see no purpose in having a special class of tools ONLY for learning. Classroom's have whiteboards, video projectors, chairs: none of these things is specific to classrooms. Why have a system ONLY used for learning? It makes little sense.

    College and K-12 instructors do not simply have a choice: federal law imposes certain obligations on handling student data. So it's not as if instructors can pick and choose. They cannot. Corporate training is different--though there the corporation usually wants to track carefully what happens, so again not just any solution will do.

    Moodle and Joomla may be fine. But the price the institution does NOT pay for software WILL be paid to programmers. There is no true cost savings.

    I hope that clarifies a bit.


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