Learning management systems have been the dominant technology in online higher ed since the late 1990s. These systems are, by design, as instructionally agnostic as possible. That is, they are designed so as to not impose specific instructional strategies on the educators that adopt them. This fits with the prevailing division of responsibilities and occupational roles in traditional brick and mortar universities, in which course design is primarily a solo activity. The LMS was successful precisely because it didn’t disrupt the status quo. This design also ensured that the software could be used by a diverse set of users, thereby maximizing adoption across an institution – a benefit to both the institutional client and the vendor.
Instructionally-agnostic software approach has its place. But over dependence on this approach has and will continue to seriously hamper our efforts to improve the quality and cost-effectiveness of online learning. By relying on instructionally-agnostic software, higher education limits itself to the “correspondence” model of distance education – in which we use software primarily as a cost-effective tool for distributing traditional education experiences – based on print and classroom conventions. We need to complement the agnostic model with software that purposely embodies the best instructional strategies. Instructionally intelligent software does what software does best: it augments and extends our capacity. It enables the educator to do what she can’t currently do given constraints of time, money or skill.
Consider, for example, the benefits of providing students with frequent opportunities to apply knowledge and to receive immediate feedback. Building and facilitating courses with hundreds of opportunities for practice and providing feedback, immediate or otherwise, is beyond the capacity of most institutions to support. However, educational software can be designed to offer students frequent opportunities for formative assessments and meaningful feedback within a single course. The software captures and embodies our best understanding of what constitutes an effective learning experience, and puts this knowledge to use in a cost-effective way. When done well, it significantly extends our capacity as educators.