About a decade ago, I was introduced to the weird world of Learning Management Systems (LMSes). I needed a way for students to submit assignments instructors. The students were in an enrichment program for six weeks each summer, but during the regular school year, they needed a receive and submit work periodically. A colleague at the college was kind enough to tour us through an early version of WebCT, an LMS which some departments used for distance education. This colleague, who was also admin of the system, was nice enough to make us some accounts so we could try it out.
The app itself was an ugly mess of Perl scripts. User experience wasn’t even an afterthought. I liked it so little that I rolled my own solution with PHP/MySQL. All I really needed was a online method for posting assignment descriptions, submitting assignments to instructors, and maintaining an online grade book. I can’t remember the details of my implementation, but it served its purpose and people were happy with it.
WebCT got bought out by Blackboard. It is now a ugly mess of Java, rather than Perl. I use it to teach an online class, and I like it little better now than I did ten years ago. A person could learn a lot about good design by studying the obvious gaffs and shortcomings of Blackboard, or at least the version of Blackboard that is really just a rebranded version of WebCT.
Luckily, these days, there are plenty of ways to shuttle files around. Lectures needn’t live in the walled garden of an online course shell. Google Docs, iWork.com, Acrobat.com, and plenty of other services can be used for read-only document sharing. I already use YouTube for videos rather than muck with uploading them to the LMS. So publishing content is the easy part.
There are really only a few things that Blackboard does well enough, though even these could be improved upon. It integrates with student information systems, which means student access to the appropriate shells is managed centrally and, to some extent, automatically. It also provides a framework for creating an administering web-based assessments (read: quizzes, exams) and recording the performance on them to a course grade book. The tools Blackboard provides for creating quizzes are terrible, and they’re saved in some proprietary format, even though quizzes, being structured data, would be simplistic to implement in XML.
The other thing it handles, though not particularly well, is a method for time-stamping assignments students turn in and denying them the ability to turn in past a cutoff date (and flagging those that are late but not past the cutoff date). It handles this functionality very badly, but it’s better than trying to do it via email. There’s surely a better solution, but it would likely involve me having to set up accounts for the students (or having them create their own), which would be too much overhead, since they already have accounts on the LMS.
So, except for those bits of functionality, I think I’m done with LMS. Even though I’ve spent a lot of time crafting XHTML/CSS lectures that Blackboard won’t manage to screw up, I’m going to create new content in iWork Pages and publish it to iWork.com. Then I can just have a one-page outline in the LMS that links out to the content.
I picture an LMS of the future that is made up of loosely coupled components: one for document distribution, one for assessment, one for file shuttling. It probably already exists, though maybe not in the most robust form. It needn’t be a huge, jack-of-all-trades-but-master-of-none solution, which is what we have at present.