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.