Rumblings of the Drupal LMS

I’ve been seeing a lot of chatter recently about Drupal as part of the university landscape.  One system that has yet to be created but there seems to be rumblings of is the Drupal LMS.  Conversations with various colleges and universities about the potential of using Drupal as the next LMS seem to be popping up more and more as well.  There are lots of closed source LMS out there, which I’m obviously in love with but a Drupal based LMS is a massive undertaking and currently, one does not exist (that’s an open distribution at least).

I was accused of starting to build an LMS a couple years ago when we started talking about ELMS (pronounced elms like the tree not E {pause} LMS).  I say accused because many open source LMSers will tell you to use Moodle and that anything else is a replication of effort.  As a side note just to make sure its in writing: ELMS is not an LMS, if anything it’s closer to a LCMS — Learning Content management system but as there is no fine grain user tracking or grade book component it’s not a learning management system.  I’m writing this to give exposure to a larger movement that seems to be afoot to make drupal a LMS.

Now as I’ve found in the past, you don’t bad-mouth Moodle, especially not while sitting in a MoodleMoot presentation ;).  Trust me, I’m sure you’d get a lot of platform fan-boyism from me about Drupal if criticized too, everyone loves their own kids :p.  But here are the reasons I usually steer people to Drupal away from Moodle.

  • Moodle is just an LMS
  • Drupal can be anything
So applying these logical conditions to the following problems, which makes the most economic sense long term (not tomorrow)?
  • We want to build a website for our college (Drupal)
  • We want to build an intranet for our department (Drupal)
  • We want to build a community site for our students (Drupal)
  • We want to build a mailing list for our alumni (Drupal)
  • We want to build an asset management system (Drupal)
  • We want to build a content management system (Drupal)
  • We want to build a LMS (Moodle?)
  • We want to build a blogging platform (Drup…ok no seriously just use WordPress)

So let me get this straight.  You’re telling me that Drupal can be used for all these different systems?  And that we will hire Drupal people and train people in Drupal for all these different purposes and can share employee knowledge / skills across the different units of our university… except for the LMS?  That’s a special exception because of the size and scale and it just can’t be done.  We need specialized programming knowledge in order for that to be achieved.

Really? I think what we need is access to specialized end-user knowledge.  Based on some discussions and presentations floating around the web I think you’ll start to see some movement towards a Drupal LMS.

Some postings I’m referencing as my “evidence” that there is movement here:

Ultimately I think various Drupal LMS platforms will start to emerge or at least good recipes for people to follow in building their own.  A few reasons as to why since I don’t need to go over them endlessly:

  • Drupal’s community is huge
  • Wide variety of Drupal themes
  • Tons of Drupal usage in higher education
  • Drupal is NOT educationally focused, so solutions are tailored to solve big architectural problems of the web (= lots of devs) and then viewed through the lens of an educator, modules can be selected and developed
  • Quiz, Gradebook, Content Outline Designer modules already exist and I’m sure others will start to pop up

Envisioning a LMS-less university

I’ve seen a lot of rumblings about the next gen LMS.  Both from a “look at this new product” side of things as well as decisions that are happening locally.  I love that in all these “new products” I still see the same thing: a single point, one overblown technical solution.

It’s a typical institutional reaction to large problems — buy into a large system and hope the problem goes away.  Organizational change is always harder to talk about from a political perspective then the notion of purchasing a system that mimiks your structure.

Here’s my bullet point slide of thoughts on the issue of what they’re all missing:

  • The internet is not setup as a one-stop-shop for everything and no one is diverse enough to get it all right
  • Great new services pop up every few months
  • The future is grassroots and collaborative (heard of twitter?)
  • Organizational structures needs to flatten in response to technological empowerment
  • Still in 2011, customization to these people is “you can change the color and add your logo” (wow thanks!)
  • There are no central hubs and we have many authorities
This is not to say the components of an LMS aren’t out there in this ecosystem, they’re just distributed.  Again, the breaking of any of these components doesn’t cripple global functionality.  This is Structured Anarchy as an LMS implementation philosophy and takes a few pages from Connectivist thinking
If i’m a student and I want to get to my grades, I shouldn’t have to think about what link to go to.  This is a major argument for having a one-stop-shop LMS.  The idea is to have a common skin on top of the website to get to the different LMS components.
Why is this such a different way of thinking?  Well, if we view the entirely university’s network of webpages as all being part of the academic experience, we can make the university’s web presense the LMS.  Treating the entire collection of university sites as being part of the educational package we provide can be a bit daunting.  After all, we’re talking about some high-level uniformity across sites.
The way of accomplishing this without making a lot of people angry is a common branding bar.  This can be implemented at a code level and pulled from a central repository to be cached locally to the site using it but it MUST be standard.  This is similar to logging into Google and getting the same options at the top of any Google website (or at least most of them conform to this).
So, I’m Student X browsing the college of music’s website because I’m looking at courses there.  I shouldn’t have to figure out where the website for scheduling is.  I should be able to click a widget at the top of the site (ANY SITE) and go to scheduling.
A few months later i’m on the college of music’s website again (by chance) and remember that I took a music class last year.  I’m thinking about taking another one and want to look up how I did in that course.  I click my widget, scroll to my courses, and select a previous semester which has my course in it.  Once at that course home I can jump to the gradebook and see what my grades were like in that course.
If I’m not a member of the university, I see nothing.  Just a widget indicating that this site is part of the University network and short-cuts to click to there.
“But that will never happen, it’s not politically feasible” — The longer we dwell on this statement the further behind we get technically.  Internet technology has very little in the ways of barriers to seeking information (increasingly at least).  The longer we wait the more irrelevant we become to the next-gen learner who doesn’t just live in the social-web, they learn much of what they need to know from it.