Education Opinion

The MOOC as Three Kinds of Learning Management System

By Justin Reich — May 30, 2013 4 min read
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Today, the MOOC provider Coursera announced a major new initiative.

Coursera describes itself as a “education company that partners with the top universities and organizations in the world to offer courses online for anyone to take, for free.”

They recently announced a partnership with 10 state and regional university systems, where tuition-paying students enrolled in those systems will be able to take courses using the Coursera platform. (The New York Times has re-typed their press release here.)

There are many productive conversations to be had here. Audrey Watters recent analysis of the faltering of digital millenialism is worth reading in relation to this announcement. I’ve received about 15 tweets today recommending Martin Weller’s compelling response “You can stop worrying about MOOCs now,” where Weller argues that “Commerical MOOC providers were never really interested in becoming free providers of education - they wanted to become courseware providers to the education market.”

I’ll avoid the first part of that statement, but I’m interested in the second part. If Coursera is selling courseware to universities, what exactly are they selling?

Taxonomy of LMS

In my reading, Coursera is selling three different kinds of learning management systems in the same package. In a chapter in his recent book, Digital Teaching Platforms, John Richards of CS4ED.com argued that there were three different types of learning management systems. He used slightly different terms, but here’s how I would classify them. First, there are learning management systems as platforms for course development. This is how we typically think of LMS’s now, like Blackboard, Canvas, or Moodle. Second, there are self-contained online courses, that students can take from start to finish without teacher interaction. The PLATO system is an example that dates back to the 1960s, and one of the most interesting contemporary examples is the Open Learning Initiative Probability and Statistics course from Carnegie Melon (spearheaded by Candice Thille, who is now headed to Stanford. Always happy to have a voice for openly licensed resources head to the Silicon Valley).

Richards argues that a third category has recently emerged, the digital teaching platform. This is a learning management system that is pre-populated with content and learning objects, but designed to be used by students in a classroom with a teacher. Richards cites one of his clients, Time to Know, as the developer of the first full-fledged digital teaching platform for use in middle school settings.

Coursera Platform as Three Types of LMS

Reading the announcement, Coursera seems to be proposing that their platform can serve as all three of these kinds of LMS.

First, universities might just have students take a Coursera course, treating it as a self-contained learning experience with some kind of proctored exam at the end, but no further involvement from university faculty in the student experience. That’s Coursera as self-contained online course.

Second, universities and faculty might populate the Coursera platform with their own courses. In this case, Coursera is just acting a straight LMS, and simply facing a battle of features and marketing against Desire2Learn, Canvas, Blackboard, Moodle, Drupal ELMS, and whoever else built a new LMS this week.

Third, universities might treat a Coursera course as what Richards calls a digital teaching platform-- essentially an LMS pre-populated with content. This is somewhat analogous to the “MOOC as talking textbook” argument, with a few bonus features like a discussion forum, automated assessments, etc. In these circumstances, a professor would take a pre-fab Coursera course, maybe swap out some resources, use the videos in flipped fashion to free up some time for in-class activities, and so forth. In this case, the universities are simply buying video resources and assessments, at prices not dissimilar from a textbook or online practice problem tools, so faculty devote in-class time to Socratic dialogue, peer instruction, etc. Or they can just lecture some more.

What’s New?

So with some of that mapping done, it’s handy to ask one of the most useful questions in edtech analysis: “what’s new?

Creating a LMS platform for teachers to populate with content? Not new. Next.

I’d be interested in the degree to which my fellow edtech pundits think that the idea of the Digital Teaching Platform is new. My sense is that historically, most course platform LMS have not had much built-in content or curricula. I don’t know of many historical examples of pre-populated LMS, but there are all kinds of things I don’t know. Still, by that definition, a digital teaching platform is new in the way that a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup was a brand new food.

Providing learning resources for teachers to use in their class? Not new.

Self-paced or self-contained courses, like correspondence courses? Not new, though many of these kinds of state university systems don’t grant credit for these forms of learning.

Universities buying whole classes from for-profit companies to pass through to their students? That seems pretty new.

A start-up company trying to do a really good job of producing three different kinds of learning management systems in the same platform? That seems new to me. It also seems hard to do well.

For regular updates, follow me on Twitter at @bjfr and for my publications, C.V., and online portfolio, visit EdTechResearcher.

The opinions expressed in EdTech Researcher are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.