The Politics of LMS

There are lots of Learning Management Systems (LMS) around, none that are exactly suited to everyone's needs, but many that can be made to make do. Our school evaluated four systems, let's call them A, B, C and D, in 2002. At that time, they chose C, which was the best of the lot.

Turned out to be a bitch to use, though. It was specialized for business training programs, where there is a right answer and stuff to indoctrinate people about. There is a rigid selection of "content" and "learning logic" and a large repository of material for people to re-use (should they by chance find something re-usable). And you have to follow the rules. If your course is labeled "German" then all the material used must be in German. You are not allowed to upload something that is in another language, like English, for the course. You have to upload the document (written in English) and label it as being German, so you can include it in your German course. Of course, that makes sense, doesn't it?

Anyway, a company sells C, so it is "real" software.

There is also an open source LMS I will call X. Friends know what X it, it is irrelevant to what is to come. I like X. I've been using it for quite some time now, because it is flexible, has lots of didactical stuff, and lets people communicate and collaboarate. But it is Not The Official LMS of the School. Not to worry, I'm a computer scientist. I scrounge a server, set it up, and off I go.

I've got about 50 courses running around in the LMS for me and some other people who quickly saw that X is very useful and easy to learn. It is kind of a bitch to do admin support work after midnight, but I really want to use X.

There has been a fight brewing for quite some time over C vs. X. The computer center only wants one system to support. Heck, they don't want us to have any systems, it would make their lives *so* much easier if we would quit using esoteric systems and would just stick to a word processor and a spreadsheet.

The proponents of C are a couple of profs who championed C and have invested a lot of (taxpayer's) money and effort getting something to work in C. They are proud of what they did, and point to themselves as successful E-Learning adopters. I am sure that it was a lot of work - C is an absolute horror to get set up. There is no way they want to do all the work again, and since C can't export to any standard format, once you are in, you are in.

They ran a covert operation a couple of months ago, trying to get the administration to pay for three new employees and to purchase yearly licenses for C. They sprung the question on a committee and were planning on just steamrolling along. Unfortunately, I got wind of it and am a member of just this committee, so I called them on it. I asked why we weren't using X, which is better, in my opinion, and currently many people are switching to X. And it's cheaper to run.

I made some enemies that day (just for asking if we shouldn't consider all our options). A new employee was strong-armed into doing a comparison between C and X. Poor woman, she did her thesis with me, so she was suspect all along, but was working for one of the C supporters.

Today was the day she was to present her results. I showed up in the room - and it was full of people, full of the C fan club. The woman came next to last (vice president was last) and would not look at me. I had a veeeeery queasy feeling right then and there.

She did a smashing job of comparing C with X. She really worked out the features *and* the usability *and* the cost, I thought it was a nice job. Then Mr. VP asks if both parties agree with what was presented. And the Fans of C dug in. They turned every word written over twice, looking for something to bitch about. The accusatory tone and the choice of words just shocked me. Luckily, they went first so I got a chance to make some notes about what I wanted to say.

I said my piece, but I understood that it is a done deal. The decision has already been made. I am alone in this fight. Unfortunately, I have another appointment (i.e. I want to be home when WiseKid gets there, but Wise People announce family appointments just as appointments) and want to leave. No problem, the decision has already been made. Mr. VP announces that C will get funding AND a new person AND can buy updates AND can advertise as *the* LMS of the school. And I can keep playing with my toy. And in 2 years we will evaluate the results.

I am livid. I manage to control my anger - how can you compare a system that has a head start, financing (they have been throwing government money at this thing to get it to work for many years now) and a support staff to a project that is done on idealism alone? I request a student to at least help me with administration support, note that I have to leave as announced, and pack my bags.

Out of the building I storm over to my office, unfortunately meeting people along the way who want to know how I'm doing. I can't actually speak, I am so mad. I slam a door or two, and everyone scuttles away. They know better than to speak to me when I am angry. I gather up my stuff and get back to the car. On the way home I compose an email - quiet, calm, disappointed. I thought we were being scientific about this. But what happened is that a few guys have spent so much government money on C, that they are afraid to lose face if they have to switch. So they will continue to use C and to invest government money to try and teach people how to use C. And people will try C once, and say: Euuuu, this E-Learning stuff stinks. I want no part of it.

At least I am so convinced that X is such a great system, that it will still be running strong in 2 years. Despite all of this. But why do grown men, who are supposed to be scientists, get so emotional about this? Why do they attack the woman who was trying her best to present scientific findings? Why do they play games about getting their empires and floor space and funding and people who have to work for them instead of concentrating on the job we have to do - to teach young people to think for themselves? And why did we all waste an afternoon when the decision had already been made?

The strangest thing about this fight is the déjà vu all over again. I had pretty much the exact same fight many years ago at my old school. I wanted to play with a new toy called the World Wide Web. The computer center thought I was nuts and suggested I go back to the US if I had all these fancy ideas that would cause them extra work. I commandeered a server, installed gopher on it, and soon after a web server. Eventually the computer center took over the computer, because everyone wanted to be in on the WWW.

I fervently hope that X will go the same way, as most of the E-Learning stuff out there is just awful.

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