Can using a tool like Google+ lead to the death of the LMS?

This summer I have enjoyed using Google+ in place of Blackboard‘s Discussion tool in two courses that I am teaching.  Students were able to interact with each other, chat with participants in another course, and even learn with real-world education experts like +Holly Rae Bemis-Schurtz and +Larry Ferlazzo. An LMS (e.g. Blackboard) “protects” students by letting them only interact with those who are taking the same course.

I relied on Google+ to communicate with students so much that I failed to notice when links to my Blackboard courses were accidentally deleted one morning due to a system error. I only found out when a student reported that she could not submit homework because the course was gone from her Blackboard listing. Would my students have even missed Blackboard had it not been for the fact that they needed to post links to their work in the gradebook?  (Don’t worry, the IT folks were able to bring back my courses so my students were able to finish uploading their assignments.)

For years, +Steve Wheeler+Graham Attwell, and others have discussed the death of the LMS, or as they call it in Europe, the Virtual Learning Environment (VLE). They see the LMS as top-down structure that stifles student and faculty creativity, and when the course is over everything is gone, including the community. In its place, they advocate for a Personal Learning Environment (PLE), where students control the digital learning tools they use. In a PLE, students control their own content and can continue to learn with their professor and peers even after the course is over.

Up until now I would have argued that many professors and students are not ready for PLEs. Instructors would struggle to keep up with the tools advanced students choose to use.  Novice students would struggle to find ways to collaboratively construct knowledge with their technically advanced peers. However with Google+, I saw all students share articles, videos, docs, and their blog posts… pretty much anything they wanted from whatever tool they used to create it. Students gave each other feedback, and drew others into conversations, all without any coaching or training from me.

There is still plenty of room for improvement, such as an easy way to reference a previous post and a good home for static content. And oh yes, and we can not forget to include a secure place to access grades. As a professor, I think I could give up a lot of autonomy to students if we just agreed to collaborate using Google+. Heck, I might not need Blackboard at all. What do you think?



  1. Hi David, I applaud you for raising this big, important question. I’ve pondered this for awhile myself and it’s the a major impetus for my book which publishes this week, Best Practices for Teaching with Emerging Technologies (Routledge).

    In 2007, I stopped using discussion forums in my CMS (also Blackboard). I made this move because I was simply unable to meet my pedagogical goals with the text-dominated toolkit provided in Blackboard (I teach art history courses). I replaced the use of discussion forums with a blend of participatory activities that are designed in VoiceThread (discussions, formative assessments, and more, all anchored in rich visual media) and Ning (which I use for blogging within a private social network and a great visual backdrop of images and videos).

    I think about Blackboard as the “train station” to which my students come every Tuesday — they review the itinerary for the week and then go out to our activities on VoiceThread and Ning. I also use Skype for optional synchronous messaging/voice for students who prefer it and I will be weaving in Google+ as an additional option this semester too.

    Teaching with web-based tools isn’t exactly simple, however, and one does experience new student challenges (anxieties over new technologies, access to tools like webcams and mics, access for students with disabilities, transparency about privacy settings, etc.) that need to be negotiated mindfully.

    I look forward to seeing what other instructors, instructional designers, and administrators have to say about this topic.

    Michelle Pacansky-Brock

    1. Thanks Michelle,

      I let Amazon know that I am waiting for the Kindle version of your book to be released before I “Add to Cart.” 🙂 If it comes soon I may be interested in using it as a text for a course I am teaching this fall where I ask students to share their highlights and notes in a social reading of a text.

      I like your “train station” metaphor. We surveyed our faculty about their uses of Blackboard and found that most only use it for three things: Content, Gradebook, and Announcements. While this may be a training issue, our guess is that these are the primary needs faculty have for an LMS. Their “trains” are going elsewhere for discussions and collaborative activities.

  2. I like the idea of students creating their own personal computing space (ELI, 2012) and I agree that the student experience online is different within the walls of an LMS like Blackboard compared to the relative freedom of a place like G+. I also agree that we must be mindful of anxiety among both teachers as well as students.

    I think social media sites like MySpace and Facebook, and apps like Instagram, have been an effective boot camp for young people in so much as they have been developing the skills needed to curate publicly accessible content (‘I will share this BoingBoing article with my friends’) and personally created content (‘I will create and share this photo album with my family’) with specific audiences in mind.

    Learners today, in many but not all populations, have the ability to leverage digital media creation and media sharing tools to push and pull content relevant to their interests from a central hub (themselves). With computers in their pockets, they can access, create, store and share information. What is missing is the guidance to make it work in education. Teachers who support BYOD and the personal computing space students have created for themselves can help students make the connection between the skills they have developed and their academic work. Teach them how to curate content relevant to their studies. Help them channel their creative impulses toward developing scholarly work through digital media. Provide opportunities for them to showcase their work and earn credit for it. Think long term by allowing students to retain rights and access to their school work long after the LMS course has closed.

  3. Leaving BlackBoard – or anything:

    “The problem is all inside your head”, she said to me
    The answer is easy if you take it logically
    I’d like to help you in your struggle to be free
    There must be fifty ways to leave your lover

    She said it’s really not my habit to intrude
    Furthermore, I hope my meaning won’t be lost or misconstrued
    But I’ll repeat myself, at the risk of being crude
    There must be fifty ways to leave your lover
    Fifty ways to leave your lover

    You just slip out the back, Jack
    Make a new plan, Stan
    You don’t need to be coy, Roy
    Just get yourself free
    Hop on the bus, Gus
    You don’t need to discuss much
    Just drop off the key, Lee
    And get yourself free….

    (Paul Simon 1975)

  4. Hi David: I would not have come here had I not just heard your 3-minute presentation at NWACC IT RT. I think you make a lot of good points – about the community disappearing when the class ends, for example. I wonder: Is it an institution’s responsibility to create that “safe” place for students, so the LMS is an expression of that sense of responsibility? If so, how to get beyond it? Thanks. – Peter Seaman

    1. Hi Peter,

      I enjoyed your thoughtful input at the #NWACCO Roundtable. It is clear that you care about how e-learning can be improved for both instructors and students.

      “Is it an institution’s responsibility to create that “safe” place for students, so the LMS is an expression of that sense of responsibility? If so, how to get beyond it?”

      Students need a safe place to ask questions about projects and to receive feedback on their work, both formative and summative. Other than that, I think most of what an LMS does can be outsourced to real-world tools such as WordPress and Google+. One of my goals is to help my students establish positive digital reputations as learners who are curious about their world. An internet search of student names should return links that include reflections about their learning. Another goal is to help students connect with others who can challenge their ideas and give them constructive feedback. The author of the text or a former student may interact with a student’s post, providing insight that I may not have. These conversations need to be open and able to continue after the course ends.

      I currently use Google+ with my LMS and I have students who continue to participate after the course ends. These students are not only commenting on my posts but they are sharing resources with me, and becoming part of my personal learning network.

      What do you think about the role of the LMS and “outsourcing” parts of it to real-world applicatons?



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