Unbundling the Learning Management System

The Learning Management System (LMS) was developed to allow faculty to create online courses without having to learn HTML. It provided even the least technologically sophisticated faculty member with an opportunity to teach online by centralizing all course functions in one “mothership.”

However, Google proved that you didn’t need a single system to perform all possible functions as long as you had a constellation of different systems—each performing a different function—that worked well together. Sign up for a single Google account and you have access to email, YouTube, Drive, and literally a hundred other apps to perform whatever functions you would like. Not interested in posting videos on YouTube, but would rather do so on Drive? No problem, just use your Drive account and ignore YouTube. It’s a bit like baking with precisely the ingredients you want to use, not what you are given.

This model has led commentators to ask whether the LMS mothership has outlived its usefulness. As Matthew Rascoff puts it:

“Educators are held back by increasingly obsolete technology infrastructure. Apps and the mobile web, which dominate outside school, are at the periphery at most colleges. Each upgrade to learning management systems brings more management, not more learning. What I’ve observed at UNC is that the most innovative instructors use the learning management systems provided by the college the least” (2016).

I have also seen that the most innovative faculty at any school are the ones using apps that perform the functions they want in their teaching. Faculty are following the real world move away from all-encompassing systems as people grab the apps that best support the tasks they want to accomplish. Now the need is for a simple system that will integrate the apps chosen by the instructor.

 Google Classroom

Not surprisingly, Google has created an app specifically designed for education to replace the traditional LMS. Google Classroom is a free system available to any non-profit educational organization that performs nearly all of the functions of an LMS by integrating Google’s world of apps into an environment with education-specific privacy and security functions. It has become the go-to online learning platform in the K–12 world, with well over twenty million US schoolchildren using it. This is partly because school districts are on a tight budget. They cannot simply raise tuition to collect more money and need to look for free ways to expand their instructional technology options. However, Google Classroom also provides the flexibility and power that teachers want.  

Classroom allows teachers to put students into online classes and choose the functions that they want, from hosting content such as readings and videos to assignment submission, grading, and communication. Everything is branded with the institution’s name. For instance, students and faculty are given free Gmail accounts that the institution assigns using its own domain name, such as “utm.edu.”

A number of higher education institutions are signing up for Google Classroom, and it is worth trying to convince your institution to sign up. However, even if you cannot, you can still use Google apps as an a la carte method of supporting the functions that you want to use in your classes. Just have your students sign up for a Google account—they probably already have one—and create a class contact group in your Gmail account with those addresses. You can now use that contact group to set up any processes that you want to employ in your teaching.

For instance, one problem in higher education is that teachers tend to see only the student’s product, not the process that went into creating it. However, problems in product are usually a result of problems in process, and so by monitoring how students work, faculty can nip problems in the bud. One way to do that is to have students create their written work on Google Doc documents that they share with their instructors, who can monitor their development and step in to redirect students who are going in the wrong direction.

Teachers can also go one step further to scaffold student work by creating assignment templates on their Docs accounts that they share with their students via a class contact list that they created. Now all of the students can use that template to build their assignments. The template might include topic headings, as well as other directions and warnings about common pitfalls to avoid.   

Docs is also a great place to host group work by assigning a number of students to create a single document. Not only does this allow the instructor to monitor student contributions, which appear in different colors, but it eliminates the problems with version control when documents are sent around by email attachment.

Another good option is to host quizzes on Google Forms. Traditionally, students go through hours of material such as readings and videos first and are assessed on it later when they have forgotten much of it. However, Forms allows instructors to integrate content with assessment in a way that vastly improves retention. I break up my videos into short segments and then post them on a Form, following each segment with a question. The assessment helps produce learning as well as assess it, and the free Flubaroo Chrome extension allows for auto-graded questions.

Learn more about the various ways to use Google Forms in the February 2016 Online Classroom newsletter and take a look at this tutorial on how to use Forms and Flubaroo in teaching: http://bit.ly/2mxvmAM.

Other options

Brigham Young has developed an in-house system that essentially performs the function of Google Classroom by allowing faculty to choose the apps that they would like to use in their teaching and integrating them in one class (Rascoff, 2016). For instance, a faculty member who wants students to produce and comment on VoiceThreads can choose that app for his or her class, and the system sets up the accounts and sharing for the students. Brigham Young is planning to share the technology with other schools in the coming year.

The University of North Carolina System recently launched its own learning apps store that allows faculty to choose the particular apps that best suit their needs. It provides not only function-specific but even discipline-specific apps, which instructors have found to perform better than an LMS that tries to be a jack-of-all-trades. For instance, the Edthena app allows instructors to record education students delivering a sample lesson and provide feedback on their performance.

Although this movement away from the LMS to an “appified” world is providing faculty with more flexibility and control over their teaching, faculty might also want to extend this flexibility to their students. An instructor who wants to have students blog as part of class might allow students to choose the platform that they wish to use. Those who only wish to post comments might want a very simple text platform such as Wordfaire (http://www.wordfaire.com). Those who are more visually oriented my chose an image- and video-based platform such as Tumblr (https://www.tumblr.com). Those who are more design oriented might want a platform that allows for a wide range of designs such as WordPress (https://www.tumblr.com). This choice would better match the world today.


Rascoff, M. “Unbundling Higher-Ed Tech: ‘The Place We Will Go’ in 2017.” EdSurgeNews. Dec 28, 2016. https://www.edsurge.com/news/2016-12-28-unbundling-higher-ed-tech-the-place-we-will-go-in-2017.   


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