Antoine de Saint-Exupery, Mr. Potato Head, and the LMS

In his seminal essay The Cathedral and the Bazaar, Eric Raymond popularized the following quote he attributes to Antoine de Saint-Exupery:

“Perfection (in design) is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but rather when there is nothing more to take away.”

For 15 years the makers of learning management systems have been swimming upstream against this truth. They would benefit greatly by meditating on this principle, together with the more general Occam’s Razor and the more specific Zawinski’s Law.

What would an LMS look like if its creators earnestly sought this kind of perfection in design? The system, as shaved by Occam’s Razor, would be comprised of only four parts:

1. A way to speak to other institutional systems like the SIS in order to do things like create courses, populate courses with the appropriate people, and send grades back to the SIS.

2. A way to authenticate the people populated from the SIS.

3. An “LTI” implementation.

4. A data store to hold state information that “LTI” tools might want to share with one another.

(I say “LTI” in quotes because today’s LTI doesn’t fully enable this, but a future LTI could.)

No quizzing engine, no content presentation tool, no e-reader, no repository, no grade book, no discussion forum, no blog, no wiki, no analytics dashboard, no nothing. No user-facing tools or features of any kind. Empty – and interoperable.

In this “nothing left to take away” version, the LMS becomes the smooth, brown, plastic oval of Mr. Potato Head. All of the traditional “features” of the LMS are independent, swappable components that plug in via LTI – the way Mr. Potato Head’s happy eyes are swappable for his angry eyes. Or, if you prefer a more technical analogy, the LMS becomes an operating system like iOS (but hopefully WAY more open) and all previous system features become apps that you can install and uninstall as you will.

The fact that many LMS vendors are rushing to enable the creation of app stores confuses me, because they seem to be building the pyre on which their companies will burn. Once users have the option of bypassing core services offered by the LMS and using better versions written by others, they will certainly begin taking advantage of it. (For example, a discussion tool written by a group or company that only does discussion tools will always be better than the discussion tool inside the LMS which is one of 35 features and gets no love or attention.) Users will quickly realize that they have no need for the clunky versions of core tools produced by LMS vendors, and since they are not using them they will demand to stop paying for them in short order. Statements akin to “Put your discussion board in the LTI App marketplace, and if it’s better than the others we’ll pay to use it” will make their way into RFPs. There will be nothing left of the product formerly known as the LMS beyond provisioning courses, authenticating users, and coordinating apps that speak a newer version of “LTI” – because that’s all schools will pay for.

This is a vision of the future LMS I can get behind – interoperability, variety, choice, smaller pieces somewhat loosely joined – though at some point it probably makes sense to stop referring to this thin interoperability layer as a learning management system.

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  • Tim Hunt

    I am a great fan of that Antoine de Saint-Exupery quote, but I think this blog post completely misses the point in several ways.

    1. What is this perfection you think we should be trying to attain? When you teach, do you invite students into some pristine (sterile) glass and chrome box, or you bring them into your messy classroom with interesting posters on the wall? Learning is necessarily messy. It should relate to the wider world.

    2. The focus should be on the learning, not the LMS. Perhaps better to say on the learner and the teacher. When you are teaching students, and you want to make a poster (say) it helps if the large sheets of cardboard and the big marker pens (from the institutional supplier) are available in a store cupboard just off your classroom. You don’t want to stop the lesson while you drive to the stationery store to buy the perfect poster making materials. Similarly, if you have a point that could benefit form asynchronous discussion in your teaching, wouldn’t it be nice if you could add a forum to your course web site in your LMS with one click, and carry on teaching?

    • hapgood

      I think this is the point, though. The LMS should be the cupboard. It would be silly if you had to buy your markers and poster board from your cupboard (“Which cupboard has the best pencils? Which one the best tranparencies?”). The institution can still stock the cupboard with purchases. But we get best of breed tools instead of average dreck.

      • Tim Hunt

        I suppose it depends on your ambition.You might think that an empty cupboard is sufficient. My job is to build the VLE that the Open University, UK uses for all its teaching.

        I want to provide our teachers with a cupboard already stocked with best-of-breed tools for most common needs, and with the option to add other tools through LTS. Moodle + custom add-ons we do quite a good job of that (I think). We can make it better, and that is why I still have a job.

        There is also the issue that best-of-breed is in the eye of the beholder. There is a trade-off between each teacher choosing what they consider the perfect tool for what they are teaching and the students having to get familiar with many different tools. And all teachers using the same (institutional) tool, which is consitent for students, but may not be the best. (There is no obvious ‘right’ answer to this trade-off.)

  • Gustavo Garcia Lutz

    Totally agree

  • hapgood

    You and me both.

    One thing I learned as an instructional designer was that different disciplines and classes really do néed different things. Some hard sciences need complex automated questions that fork. Some humanities need complex discussion forums, with upvoting. The project based courses need a CMS (sometimes) or a wiki (other times). DIstance courses with 20+ students need “Collaborate/Illuminate” style conferencing, whereas small distance seminars need hangouts. Larger auditorium classes need a chat client backchannel or peer instruction software; smaller classes need an engaging student response system that’s not as industrial.

    It’s no wonder our LMS products are a mess.

    I don’t know that LTI marketplaces will be the pyre of the LMS, though. Maintaining all this custom code has to be a pain. And if you could kill the feature-based RFP, Canvas would whump Bb in 9 seconds flat. plus, if the marketplaces give Canvas/Bb a cut, no matter how small, then that’s pure profit.