“Campus Technology: How do you see open source learning management systems evolving over the next few years?
Stephen Downes: I’m seeing two major trends — the first is that these systems are becoming more and more integrated with others, especially university student information systems. I see more of that in the future – centralized authentication and so forth, and an increase in things that we’re already integrated with, such as OpenID. There will be more and more of that.
The second major trend is a proliferation of specialized modules. Look at Moodle. There are modules for RSS aggregation, for integration with LAMS [Learning Activity Management System], for integration with Second Life, and a host of other things. The net effect of those two trends is that the learning management system is becoming less a standalone product, and more a product that is integrated with a wider ecosystem of services and applications.
CT: Do you see that integration as a good thing?
SD: It’s a good thing, but it also presents challenges. Now that you have a way for a piece of data to move from Facebook to a learning management system to a student information system, there are real issues when it comes to security and privacy. There are certain expectations of learning management systems, and security is one of them. Privacy is another – the idea that these systems are not going to be open to the entire world. Managing the connections with [other types of software] while maintaining those expectations is going to be a significant challenge.
If we approach learning management systems as collaborative tools, what best practices you can suggest for facilitating learning among students using an LMS?
[There are many, but] one that springs to mind is this: Don’t put too many people in the same space. Say that we’re running a massive online course with 1,200 people [enrolled]. The only way to manage a course like this is to [divide up] the students so we don’t have 1,200 people trying to comment in the same space. Instead, we encourage them to use their own blogs for that.
The tendency [with collaborative tools] is to try to bring everybody into a single environment in order to foster collaboration, but my preference is to foster the collaborative activity itself outside the environment, and to use the environment only for reporting and communication.
There are some really superb collaborative tools out there – Google Docs for example. If you’ve got 100 people in your class and you want them to collaborate – well, move them into groups of [perhaps] eight or so. Have them collaborate and then come back to the main area…. You don’t need to do everything in the collaborative environment itself, and in fact, there are many reasons why you shouldn’t do everything [there].
People think of collaboration as lining everybody up under the same banner. But collaborations work not when there is unanimity but rather when there is diversity. Having people perform different roles that draw on their different strengths, and having each person bring what is unique to themselves to the table, then valuing that contribution and finding ways to synthesize those individual contributions – that produces a stronger, more rewarding collaboration.”