The LMS products currently used in much of higher education were built to serve a broad market and as many use cases as possible. For this reason, ‘traditional’ LMS products do not always allow writing instructors to teach writing in a way that is consistent with the best pedagogical practices of their field (Hutchison, 2019). This limitation coupled with the emergence of instructional design models that more social, experiential, adaptive, and gamified have led some instructors to question the relevance of traditional LMS products as the center of their institution’s learning technology infrastructure. In response, some have resorted to alternative LMS products, some have lowered their own standards while sticking with their institution’s LMS, and others, as illustrated through Paamsongre Courseware, have gone to the extent of building their own LMS for writing instruction.
Although labor intensive and time consuming, instructor-built LMS is a world of possibilities. It enables instructors to evade the limitations of traditional LMS products, which mostly stem from their manufacturers retaining sole control of their features, functionalities, releases, and upgrades. By putting all platform design decisions in their hands, instructors are better able to translate many of the best practices of their field onto their LMS, as exemplified by our discussion of how Paamsongre Courseware reflects the CCCC (2013) Position Statement of Principles and Example Effective Practices for Online Writing Instruction. As Paamsongre Courseware was developed, onsite composition theories, pedagogies, and strategies were not only migrated to the online setting but also transformed to develop new pedagogical strategies and practices by exploiting digital affordances. Besides, its platform design, multimodal content, and cost make it accessible to learners with physical disabilities, learning disabilities, multilingual backgrounds, as well as learners from various socio-economic backgrounds. Since it was built using the kinds of applications and plug-ins students are regular users of, they generally enter their OWCs from a more familiar place with a shallow technology learning curve to reach their course objectives. Additionally, instructor-built LMS shifts the power of analytics to instructors enabling them to make data-driven decisions regarding their own teaching and the LMS user interface. Most importantly, it prepares them for striving in an ever-evolving education landscape by helping them hone the skills for transforming their teaching into viable e-learning models and for stepping into their modern role as content developers and designers, facilitators, motivators, and confidantes.
Although instructor-built LMS products enable instructors to overcome many of the limitations of traditional LMS products with respect to OWI, its implementation in higher education institutions is not without challenge. Some have warned against the confusion that could result from students having to adjust to multiple, disparate platforms every term if instructors were allowed to build their own LMS. However, they have also omitted to mention that the internet itself is composed of 1.17 billion websites, each with its own structure, organization, and aesthetic, and that our students navigate these sites comfortably. If instructors’ LMS products follow a certain logic of organization and are built to address their courses’ technological demands, adjusting to different platforms should not be a problem for students, especially if they are given an orientation session about the platform use prior to starting coursework. Instructors developing and designing the LMS content calls attention to uncharted areas regarding their effort and intellectual property rights. As stated in CCCC OWI Principle 8, “online writing teachers should receive fair and equitable compensation for their work” (CCCC, 2013). And, as illustrated by my experience with Paamsongre Courseware, the fair and equitable compensation of online writing instructors truly begins with educating members of the institution about the kind of effort and work required to develop an effective OWC. This awareness initiative should extend beyond individual institutions so that national or international guidelines are established regarding the fair and equitable compensation of OWI teachers.
Looking into the future, traditional LMS products, despite their limitations, will remain in use in much of higher education as long as administrators’ goals for standardization, surveillance, and data collection for accreditation and business intelligence align with students’ desires for simplicity and ease and instructors’ preference for technologies that require minimal input. However, instructor-build LMS will gradually become a viable option for many instructors as more applications and plug-ins become available and more affordable, and as instructors remain devoted to translating the best pedagogical practices of their field digitally. The implementation of instructor-built LMS does not have to be a one-eighty shift. Maybe it is high time to separate the SIS and LMS functions in traditional LMS products so that they can continue to fulfill the SIS function of enrollment, assessment, and transcript generation and instructor-built LMS can serve for developing rich, stimulating online learning environments. This separation of features is easily doable given that many traditional LMS products are designed like a shell into which instructors can plug in their own LMS while keeping secure features such as gradebook in the institutions’ LMS. With this separation of functions and the integration of the two systems, administrators will still be able to use the institution’s LMS for data collection for accreditation, surveillance, and business intelligence, and instructors will be prompted to have a more proactive rather than a reactive stance towards technology, generate great courses using the full potential and latest developments in technology, become innovators in the growing e-learning industry. With this separation of functions, traditional LMS products will move away from the core of institutions’ learning technology infrastructure and become just another special-purpose learning technology. LMS products, like any piece of software, are never neutral tools. They always embody a specific philosophy and ideology. They somewhat dictate a process for how something must be done. With technology increasingly becoming an integral part of teaching, the road to improving teaching effectiveness will necessarily pass through improving the technology itself. And, instructor-built LMS enables instructors to do just that.