Ray Henderson may be most recognizable from his previous position as the President and Chief Technical Officer of the Academic Division of Blackboard, the learning management system giant. He stepped down after four years in 2013, much to the disappointment of many watchers of the LMS market.
For example, at the time, Joshua Kim, Director of Digital Learning Initiatives at the Dartmouth Center for the Advancement of Learning, wrote in Inside Higher Ed, “It is very difficult for executives of educational technology or educational publishing businesses to transcend their management roles and be recognized as both true partners with higher education and as thought leaders in our discipline. Ray managed to do both.”
Prior to his time at Blackboard, Ray led product development at ANGEL Learning, an LMS startup that was acquired by Blackboard in 2009, and was President of Pearson’s Digital Media Group, where he worked on subscription-based course supports like CourseCompass and MyMathLab.
Since leaving Blackboard, Ray has been the Managing Partner of Lessons Learned Ventures, an investment and advisory firm that specializes in education technology. In that role he has been sharing insights that influence numerous education leaders and companies, including Acrobatiq where he is an investor and advisor. He says he is especially focused on companies that amplify open education resources (OER), standards development, measurement, assessment, and analytics.
Ray’s insights into and forecasts about the LMS market in particular have impressed us, so we asked him for this in-depth interview (condensed and edited for clarity) in which he speaks about how evolving technology enables educators to focus less on building courses and more on communicating ideas. This paradigm shift, he says, is creating a more collaborative environment for educators and an adaptive learning experience for students.
What transformations do you see coming for the LMS?
The learning management system has been called with some affection the minivan of education technologies. It’s not that exciting, but we feel fairly safe putting our kids into it, and we are reasonably confident that it’s a convenient vehicle for content.
That said, the paradigm will change. This is a technology used by a distributed group of authors. Professionals in textbook publishing author content, but there are many professional educators who modify the content. It’s a melting pot. The overall paradigm continues to be courses offered at a specific time. At the end of a term, there tend to be punchlists to retire their courses and then copy the material into a fresh shell for the next term. They recycle batches of materials that work together as a course.
We will see the these platforms mature to be more curricular focused than course focused. The pressures of competency-based learning, or other outcomes-based schemes, will push the course management paradigm into the background and pull curricular management forward so that one is authoring more around a set of ideas, which should bring a lot of downstream benefits in terms of analytics.
It sounds like you’re linking competency-based education to a broad movement to being curricular focused.
Two things are going on: what educators think about as they design programs and the requirements for software platforms they need to deliver them.
It’s interesting the number of, quote, “competency-based” learning management platforms. Four or five have entered the market in the last three years. By and large, that standalone technology has failed to gain traction against traditional LMSs. At the same time, new learning programs being designed by institutions are more competency-based and more outcomes-based than ever.
The difficulty has been that requirements for what they need to deliver so overlap with a traditional LMS that the benefits never outweigh the cost of dropping an existing LMS. Educators are beginning to see in learning management system companies things that satisfy competency-based instruction needs. It will be the rare LMS in 2017 that does not claim to support competency-based education.
Related reading: Changing What Matters: The Slow Growth and Influential Impact of Competency-Based Programs in Higher Education
What will this curricular approach look like for an instructor?
[They will have] a learning object repository, a shared place where groups of people have authored content together. [It will include] metadata about what competency particular content modules address, tests for those competencies, metadata about instructional delivery, the amount of time the student is exposed to this, and information about how the student navigates this material. This will ultimately become a more adaptive experience, so some information about conditional branching.
Increasingly authoring content and design of the instructional experience will be separate from the features of the LMS that display it. Today, you’re authoring a specific course each time, designing your course navigation and adding attributes to every piece of content. You’re not really thinking about sharing it first. That’s about to undergo a change in learning management. Content is to be authored in a shared space with the concept of reuse.
Also, reliance on the individual instructor as author and the textbook publisher that’s plugged in is declining from peak value, though they remain influences. The new thing will be OER, developed by a consortia or discipline-specific groups. It’s so clear that subject matter experts outside of professional publishing and individual instructors are self-organizing and beginning to talk about competencies needed in education. It seems a logical next step that those groups would become providers of content.
Does that change teaching practices themselves?
In the early 2000s, the general reliability of these things — far from perfect reliability — helped press for a blended form of instruction. Particularly in the introductory courses, where LMS use is so high, there’s been a greater reliance on students doing activities online, independently from the classroom, and using time in the classroom in more efficient ways.
Where we see more group activity in authoring content, we are getting more deeply thoughtful activity around constructing assessments that measure learning progress, and we are seeing interest grow significantly in adaptive learning. I say “adaptive” in the sense that there’s an understanding of the direction that a student must progress, that some concepts are antecedents for others, and that metadata will help drive the student toward content that informs and challenges them until they demonstrate more knowledge.
Either the platforms will include adaptive technologies or new technologies that allow authoring for that adaptive experience will grow. You’ll see specialized plugins that combine analytics and visualization tools to help faculty design the relationship between content, metadata, and assessment — and to visualize progress.
The thing that is so promising is that it is also more structural. It requires constructing a complete whole that’s going to improve as more students pass through the content and as actual data about which activities and conditions prove to be more successful in helping students demonstrate competency.
What would you advise university presidents about how to think differently about educational technology tools and LMS?
The reality is that a lot of them really are thinking differently. Up until three to five years ago, there was so much focus on educational technology as just a toolset. It was about reducing administrative burden and [choosing] which were easy to use. Now that debate seems to be shifted. The next paradigm in how learning technology platforms are chosen will be more about learning effectiveness.
There’s been pressure to, quote, “show economies of scale.” It’s so alluring to think technology is going to do that. Well, the LMS has already demonstrated administrative benefit with its adoption in the paperless classrooms. The next category of scale is going to be about improving learning delivery and adaptation.
Those will require a greater degree of group authorship, a greater degree of tuning metadata, looking at results and analytics, being able to compare cohorts. We’ll see selecting for the design of curriculum, the design of competencies. That treats course development not as an individual activity happening in professors’ offices, but something that’s more mediated by instructional designers who understand the systematic element.
There’s not some tome sitting there, waiting to be read. We’re in the early days as an industry exploring these things. The key thing is the mediation by more use of instructional design, more experimentation in how their content is created, and more support for them.
Related reading: Making Sense of and Leveraging Learning Analytics — Higher Education’s Emerging Institutional Asset
What is the role of the LMS in analytics?
Analytics has been used often to mean simply reporting — who has logged in, basic behavior information. It hasn’t provided much in the way of real insight.
But that’s another area where we’re right on the cusp of change. Again, we’re going to see it grow up from within the LMS, but we’re also seeing young companies deliver super high-quality products. We’re finally getting to where technology can compare the current students to prior cohorts, rather than simply counting logins.
Where content is linked to concept and assessment, we can begin to compare the sequence of their acquisition of conceptual understanding. We can begin seeing patterns within a course and, more importantly, across courses. How does this compare to the national story line or the international story line about the use of that content?
Do you think there’s a tension between the possibilities of having lots of data and the difficulty of managing it and deriving insight from it.
Administration often says, “I’m drowning in data but I’m lacking insights.” I do think the world is going to improve for the university president in the standards arena for analytics. The problem is that a lot of data has been stuck in silos and hasn’t been related in meaningful ways because of the lack of a lingua franca between systems. There’s now a standard called Caliper that’s been developed by the IMS Global — it’s about sharing data about learning but, even broader, about students and their progress throughout their university careers.
Learning management platforms have such a large footprint in the delivery of learning, there has been some over-reliance on them as sources of analytics. The reality is that, while learning management platforms should develop learning analytics, there is something broader, which is really about the whole state of the student and their progress toward a university outcome and more of a career outcome — as opposed to a course outcome.
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