From Learning Management Systems to Learning Cultivation Systems

By: Sebastián Rubio Merino

(Cover Photo: Photo by Jess Bailey on Unsplash)

Learning Management Systems (LMS) have radically transformed the infrastructure and operations of thousands of higher education institutions. Furthermore, they have allowed students and teachers to digitize their day-to-day processes and interactions, making their day-to-day experience more comfortable and agile. However, how much have these systems contributed to improving actual learning? How is the production of knowledge shaped by a platform that defines that process as something that needs to be ‘managed? What happens to the relationship between students and teachers when indicators such as “engagement” or “participation”, which are measured quantitatively, determine their performance?

In this article, I want to offer an exploratory view of some of the difficulties that lie behind LMS (particularly Canvas), and especially to propose an invitation to imagine alternative interfaces focused on cultivating learning instead of repairing or improving current systems.

What is a Learning Management System (LMS)?

According to Ryann Ellis (2009), LMS’s “are computer software that perform management, monitoring and reporting related to teaching and learning activities”. Some of these activities involve class registration, document and content centralization, test design, communication between students and teachers (or between students and students), grade reporting, and access to classroom performance statistics.

Thanks to COVID-19, today’s LMS market has established itself as a sector of enormous global growth. According to Fortune Business Insights (2020), the learning management system market is projected to grow from $13.38 billion in 2021 to $44.49 billion in 2028 at a compound annual growth rate of 18.7% in forecast period.

The Canvas LMS

Within this market, Canvas (owned by IPO Instructure) has positioned itself as one of the most popular LMS’s in the world: today its software is used by 30 million people and thousands of universities, including The New School.

Among its features, Canvas offers the possibility of integrating multiple applications and external software in a single space, working through a mobile app, collaborative tools such as messaging, audio notes, video, chat group, speed grading, targeted feedback with annotations, and more. Additionally, as its webpage descriptions suggest, Canvas allows institutions to alleviate burdens on the tech help desk, increase the speed of technology adoption, enhance student engagement, and to provide other managerial and pedagogical efficiencies.

An effective system for the First World University

As is evident in the functionalities described above, and especially in the language of productivity, efficiency and management that drive the design and implementation of LMS such as Canvas, these services are focused on what la paperson (Wayne Yang) would qualify as the First World University: “the academic–industrial complex: “research-ones” preeminently, but also commercial universities and any other corporate academic enterprise that, regardless of their formal and thematic diversity” (la paperson, 2017).

A clear example of this industrial logic is precisely the “learning analytics” system that the different LMS’s have managed to consolidate. Among the functionalities offered by these systems, teachers, as well as the administrative team, have the possibility of accessing automated reports on the performance and participation of students, both collectively and individually. Through these reports, teachers can measure engagement levels and contrast a student’s behavior with the classroom average; just as the institution can evaluate and compare the performance of different courses and professors.

In all these cases, learning is ultimately measured through performance indicators that are little or not at all indicative of the quality of knowledge imparted or acquired, and that are almost always invisible to students. Furthermore, the system transforms the teacher into a manager and the student into a user whose activities must be managed.

Let’s imagine Learning Cultivation Systems

The problem with the LMS does not lie in its technology or its algorithms per se, but rather in the paradigm that “learning” is an activity that can and should be managed by institutions, and that therefore it should respond to objectives of operational efficiency.

For this reason, instead of repairing the Learning Management Systems, perhaps a more transcendental change requires imagining alternative interfaces to the LMS, which operate outside the corporate logic that characterizes what Chad Wellmon would call The University (or Clark Kerr The Multiversity) , and instead, operate in favor of The Academy:

The University, in Wellmon’s words, has become an “all-purpose institution (…) that manages disparate interests and oftentimes competing purposes” serving “…ends other than or in addition to those related to knowledge.” In contrast, The Academy is the core essence of the education system: “those activities, practices, goals, and norms related to the creation, cultivation, and transmission of knowledge (…) oriented toward epistemic goods, goods bound to safeguarding and renewing knowledge” (Wellmon, 2017).

If we judge Canvas, Moodle, Blackboard or any other LMS from The University‘s evaluation criteria, they are actually technological products that adequately fulfill their purpose, that have generated operational improvements, and that have improved “usability” or “engagement” for their clients (The Universities), as well as the experience for many students and teachers (the end-users).

We might better ask ourselves, what innovations might be unleashed if we were to design educational software that is focused on “creating, cultivating and transmitting” knowledge and human development? What would its interface look like? Who would be involved in decisions about its design? What would be the most relevant indicators to measure, make visible and analyze in a platform with this orientation? It might be time for The Academy to imagine its own Learning Cultivation Systems.

The Academy ought to embrace its role as a technology, as a technology that filters, legitimates, and mediates knowledge.

Chad Wellmon

1. Audrey Waters, Beyond the LMS., 2014. 

2. Chad Wellmon, After the University, Long Live the Academy., 2017. 

3. Fortune Business Insights. Learning Management System Market Size, Share and Covid-19 Impact Analysis. 2020. 

4. Jeffrey Moro. Against Cop Shit., 2020. 

5. La paperson, A Third University is Possible. University of Minnesota Press, 2017.  

6. R.K. Ellis. Learning Management Systems. Alexandria, VA: American Society for Training & Development, 2009.

(Cover Photo: Photo by Jess Bailey on Unsplash)