The future of learning management

People familiar with my blog will know that I’m not a member of the anti-LMS brigade.

On the contrary, I think a Learning Management System is a valuable piece of educational technology – particularly in large organisations. It is indispensible for managing registrations, deploying e-learning, marking grades, recording completion statuses, centralising performance agreements and documenting performance appraisals.

In other words – and the name gives it away – an LMS is useful for managing learning.

Yet while LMSs are widely used in the corporate sector, I suspect they are not being used to their full potential. You see, when most people think of an LMS, they think of formal learning. I don’t.

I think of informal learning. I think of the vast majority of knowledge that is acquired outside of the classroom. I think of the plethora of skills that are developed away from the cubicle. I think of reading a newspaper and chatting around the water cooler, and the myriad of other ways that people learn stuff. Relevant stuff. Stuff that actually makes a difference to their performance.

And I wonder how we can acknowledge all of that learning. We can hardly stick the newspaper or the water cooler into the LMS, although many will try in vain.

No – the way we can acknowledge informal learning is via assessment. Assessment represents the sum of learning in relation to a domain, regardless of where, when or how that learning was done.

The assessment need not be a multiple-choice quiz (although I am not necessarily against such a device), nor need it be online. The LMS only needs to manage it. And by that I mean record the learner’s score, assign a pass or fail status, and impart a competency at a particular proficiency.

In this way, the purpose of learning shifts from activity to outcome.

Aliens lined up in the style of the video game Space Invaders.

Having said that, the LMS suffers a big problem: portability.

I’m not referring to the content. We have SCORM to ensure our courses are compatible with different systems. Although, if you think migrating SCORM-compliant content from one LMS to another is problem free, I have an opera house to sell you. It has pointy white sails and a great view of the harbour.

No – I’m referring to the learner’s training records. That’s the whole point of the LMS, but they’re locked in there. Sure, if the organisation transfers from one LMS to another, it can migrate the data while spending a tonne of money and shedding blood, sweat and tears in the process.

But worse, if the learner leaves the organisation to join another, they also leave their training records behind. Haha… we don’t care if you complied with the same regulations at your last organisation. Or that you were working with the same types of products. Or that you were using the same computer system. We’re going to make you do your training all over again. Sucker.

It’s hardly learner-centered, and it sure as hell ain’t a smart way of doing business.

Enter Tin Can

According to my understanding, Tin Can is designed to overcome the problem of training record portability. I imagine everyone having a big tin can in the cloud, connected to the interwebs. When I complete a course at Organisation A, my record is recorded in my tin can. When I leave Organisation A for a better job at Organisation B, no worries because I’ve still got my tin can. It’s mine, sitting in the sky, keeping all my training records accessible.

This idea has taken the education world by storm, and some LMSs such as UpsideLMS have already integrated the API into their proprietary architecture.

Furthermore, I can update my tin can manually. For example, if I read a newspaper article or have an enlightening conversation with someone around the water cooler, I can log into my account and record it.

This sounds admirable prima facie, but for me it raises a couple of concerns. Firstly, the system is reliant on the learner’s honour – ! – but more concerningly, its philosophy reverts back to activity over outcome. Recording reams and reams of minor learning interactions all seems a bit pointless to me.

So where to from here?

Enter Plurality

Plurality is a brilliant short film watched by the participants in Week 2 of The University of Edinburgh’s E-learning and Digital Cultures course.

The film paints a dystopian vision of the future whereby everyone’s personal details are stored in an online grid, which is controlled of course by the government. When you swipe your finger over a scanner, the computer reads your DNA and identifies you. This is convenient for automatically deducting the cost of a sandwich from your bank account, or unlocking your car, but not so convenient when you are on the run from the cops and they can track you through everything you touch.

Despite the Big Brother message pushed by the film, it prompted me to recognise an emerging opportunity for Tin Can if it were to re-align its focus on assessment and exploit the Internet of Things.

Suppose for example you are sitting in a jumbo jet waiting to take off to London or New York. If the cockpit had a scanner that required the pilot to swipe his finger, the computer could check his tin can to confirm he has acquired the relevant competencies at the required proficiencies before activating the engine.

Or suppose you are meeting a financial advisor. With a portable scanner, you could check that she has been keeping up with the continuing education points required by the relevant accreditation agency.

Competencies and assessment tend to cop a beating in the academic sphere, but in the real world you want to be reasonably confident that your pilot can fly a plane and your financial advisor knows what she’s talking about.

If the film’s portrayal of DNA is too far-fetched, it need not be the mechanism. For example, the pilot could key in his personal credentials, or you could key in the financial advisor’s agency code.

But maybe it’s not so far-fetched after all. The Consortium for the Barcode of Life – based at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History, no less – is currently researching DNA barcoding.

And still, maybe Plurality is looking at it the wrong way around. We can already store digital information in synthetic DNA. Perhaps in the not-too-distant future our training records will be coded into our natural DNA and injected back into our bodies. Then instead of the scanner referring to your tin can in the cloud, it mines your data right there in your genes.

And you thought science fiction was scary!

16 thoughts on “The future of learning management

  1. hi Ryan, interesting food for thought!
    what I immediately thought though, was… but what would stop records being falsified, and how do we know that what’s ‘measured’ is an intelligent and fair appraisal of what someone knows and can do?

    the more evaluation is automated, the worse those eternal problems are more likely to be made – what you need is not machines, but people with experience and managerial competence overseeing operations on the job… what’s the worth of a manager who doesn’t know their staff and can’t judge from what they see and hear on the job whether staff are adequately informed and able?

    tin can seems like a great idea to facilitate job mobility and individual ownership of records… but surely the more high stakes a job is (such as surgery or piloting) or the more complex (such as educating), the less appropriate it is to rely on machines to verify processes, and more necessary become intensive and personal mentoring and peer review

    seems to me what cops a beating in academia, quite rightly, is assessment and quantification of competencies that are dodgy, invalid and open to abuse – and that are foisted on education but were designed for other contexts (for the measurement of things more inherently quantifiable than the sort of learning that characterises an academic discipline)


  2. Quite right, Emily. Tin Can is a learning management technology. It does not control the *quality* of the assessment.

    If Tin Can is used only for personal record-keeping purposes, then falsification is a fool’s game. However if it is used for more than that, such as for compliance or accreditation, then I agree that falsification would be a major concern.

    This is why I think the real power of the Tin Can concept rests with assessment. If the assessor were to update the learner’s record rather than the learner him/herself, then the tin can becomes more meaningful and hence more useful.

    I also agree that personal mentoring and peer review are important. I don’t for a moment suggest that we dispense with those and rely solely on machines to verify competence; I suppose my point is that the technology would become a valuable part of the process.

  3. thanks Ryan – highlighted some useful things here. I will shortly be exploring learndash WordPress LMS which works with tin can. i’ll take a look at upsideLMS too

  4. Hi Steve-
    Looking forward to you playing around a bit more with LearnDash…big things on the horizon, especially in regards to TinCan API!

    As always, let me know if you have any questions.

    All the best!

  5. FYI the 1.0 version of Tin Can due out this Spring will contain a mechanism for strongly signing a statement to prevent falsification in high stakes environments. In other words, if you see a statement that says “Mike graduated from Harvard”, we will be able to verify that it was in fact Harvard asserting that statement and not Mike.

  6. Great Ryan!
    One more time your words do not leave us indifferent.
    I’m agree with the future scenary that you show. It scare me a bit. ;-)

    We are actually checking Tin Can Api, researching it and looking for best uses and solutions.

    We are sure this is the way. And like the slogan, we think that “learning is happen everywhere”, so it has to be valued. ;-)

  7. @Mike – That’s excellent news, Mike. I think it will make a big difference.

  8. I enjoyed your ideas here, Ryan. I agree that we should track what’s been learned. And then we can use that information in lots of ways. Recruiting. Continued education. And best of all (I think), is that we’ll be able to recommend next-step learning opportunities on mastery-to-date. I recently designed software for US public charter schools that will use assessments to individualize their curricula recommendations. We’ll track all kinds of things with these assessments — not just mastery but preferences and interests, etc. And then we’ll carry out continued research to learn more about which factors are most predictive of success, so we can improve the software’s recommendation functionality.

  9. Thanks sounds fantastic, Kathleen.

    You may be interested in TinCan Curious by Sam Burrough. He is starting to look at Tin Can as “Google Analytics for learning”. I find this a fascinating idea that will keep me thinking.

  10. Ryan, I agree that learning technologies have a poor reputation in some quarters. This is mostly, I believe, due to a legacy of poor implementation and poor usage, and, as you point out, a lack of understanding of the extent to which learning technology can be used. Is Tin Can the solution? It may be part of it but I think a greater part is that learning and development technologists need to be imaginative in their use of systems they have. Although when that imagination results in something as chilling as the dystopian future you spell out – it could be quite scary!

  11. Dug up this (older) thread from

    The US Government has been working on something similar to this for nearly a decade. You can see some of the details on

    Essentially, every agency is mandated to have an LMS to track course completion. Most of them also track competencies, KSAs, etc. but those aren’t mandated. The completion and optional data are all required to be fed to GoLearn from the host agency on a regular basis.

    The primary objective is to have a registry at the government level for reporting/tracking, and for Congressional data calls. But the side effect is that every Federal employee has a portable data record, so if they move from one agency to another, their course completions, certifications, KSAs, etc. follow.

    I was a consultant working on this project about 5 years ago.

  12. That sounds like an excellent idea, Daniel.

    In Australia, different government agencies still use different LMSs, while in some of the larger corporations different *divisions* use different LMSs. What a joke!

  13. Oh, agencies definitely used different LMSs, and even different divisions, just as you see in Australia.

    Each agency was required to build a single two-way data bridge to the data warehouse, and a data dictionary was created to define what the feed had to look like. So, it was more efficient if the agency were to use a single LMS for all of their divisions, otherwise they would have to build their own data warehouse to compile the data from multiple LMSs to feed to GoLearn.

    And, sadly, some did exactly that.

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