A Tool for Its Time: As They Continue to Empower Teachers with Upgraded Instructional Options, Learning Management Systems Have Evolved into Something Whose Old Name Just Doesn't Cut It Anymore

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WHEN MATH TEACHER Steve Ross saw that one of his students was struggling with algebra and was too embarrassed to speak up in class, he gave the young girl a suggestion.

He asked her to make use of the discussion forum when studying at home through the school's learning management system (LMS). She did as Ross said, using the discussion tool to seek out other students who could help her understand the areas in the math curriculum that were giving her trouble.

The girl, a freshman at Forest Charter School in Nevada City, CA, about 90 minutes from Sacramento, began coming to class with new confidence and taking part in class discussions.

"It really showed me the value of having a new mode for students to communicate," Ross says. "More students can be reached and more can be supported."

Ross, like many educators, is taking full advantage of the new features that LMS vendors are regularly adding to their platforms. Although the formative years of learning management systems trace back further than the 1990s, the development of the web was a crossing point, as was the growth of the participatory environment of web 2.0. The web's second generation expanded the way teachers could operate their classrooms, giving them access to all the emerging browser-based tools, such as blogs and wikis; slide shows, videos, and photos; and programs that plan lessons, link to curriculum standards, deliver content, and monitor student performance. The new functionality has so transformed learning management systems that their manufacturers prefer the term digital learning platform, to better reflect their products" capacity to do a great deal more than manage a classroom.

"At one time it was an ancillary thing," Ross says. "Now it's affecting the process."

On Better Terms

Jon Bower, former president of It's Learning, a Bergen, Norway-based provider whose product is in use at Forest Charter School, explains that the terminology has advanced in step with the push toward a more student-centered education.

"Course management means the system is being used to manage a course," says Bower, who just left It's Learning in July. "Learning management means the system is being used to manage learning, which implies the school or the institution is in control. A digital learning platform is, in effect, neutral. It says the school can control the learning through a centralized curriculum, or the student can control the learning by using the tools in the platform to guide themselves. The old terms didn't really account for that option."

He breaks down the distinction further. "The core content of an LMS is content delivery and assignment interaction. The teacher gives an assignment, the student submits an assignment, the teacher corrects it. The core processes supported by a digital learning platform are far more oriented toward communications. The way I see it, a digital learning platform is the meeting of a series of tools and the demand from educators to move beyond simply delivering a syllabus of content to a student to the point where students gain some control over their own learning pathways."

Those tools Bower speaks of include collaborative elements such as multimedia-enabled discussion threads and online videoconferences. "All built into the system," Bower says. "No extra component needed."

A new feature released by It's Learning this spring is the parent dashboard. It allows parents to log in to the system and see an overview of their child's academic life--behavior, grades, upcoming assignments, etc. Bower calls it "an important innovation." It has also scored big points with Ross. "I don't like surprises at the end of the semester," he says.

A careful attention to terms is also observed by Agilix Labs, the Orem, UT-based maker of the BrainHoney solution. The company has settled on individualized learning system. …