The Learning Management System at 100

The learning management system celebrates its hundredth anniversary this year. credits psychology professor Sidney Pressey with inventing the LMS in 1924. In recent years the LMS has grown from novelty to dominant force. estimates that 60 million American college students use an LMS. The leaders being Canvas, Blackboard, Moodle, and Brightspace. Allied Market Research estimates the global LMS market in 2020 at $12 billion. It projects the market to be $81 billion by 2030.

The college experience today is dominated by the learning management system. Is this what education is? A thing to be managed? Does an LMS improve education? Create better problem solvers? Increase our ability to grapple with complex 21st century challenges? Produce more complete human beings?

Or, do LMS gut the soul of learning in the interest of mechanizing it? Are LMS dehumanizing? Do they turn students into widgets to be inspected?


The LMS is the Taylorism of education. With a background in mechanical engineering, Frederick W. Taylor (1856-1915) set out to make work more efficient. One of his early projects was to design a shovel that would allow workers to shovel hour after hour. Taylorism, the “science” of making work so efficient that it can crush the human soul.

Like Taylorism, the LMS assumes a “one right way” approach to education. Yet we live in a century of complex problems that can’t be solved in one right way. Or by one right person. Twenty-first century problems need multidisciplinary teams thinking in novel ways.

Montessori Kids

Marissa Meyer said of Google’s reputation for innovation,

You can’t understand Google, unless you understand that Larry and Sergey were both Montessori kids.

Marissa Meyer

Maria Montessori believed in a child’s natural interests, hands-on learning, and real word skills. The LMS is Montessori’s doppelgänger.

Homo doctrina

We are “Homo sapiens,” thinking humans. We could also be “Homo doctrina,” learning humans. Learning is our nature. Our birthright. The LMS assumes that learning must be a managed, coercive process.


In 1751 Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert created the Encyclopédie. Their goal was to share the sum of human knowledge with the 4,000 families that could afford to buy a copy. Two-hundred-and-fifty years later Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger created Wikipedia. Their goal was to share the sum of human knowledge with everyone on earth who had an internet connection.

One of Wikipedia’s core tenets is “neutral point of view.” When you see partisans arguing on the Wikipedia Talk Page for “Donald Trump” or “Joe Biden,” NPOV seems wise. But NPOV is also code for “death of the author.”

a high school biology teacher in South Florida

Before Wikipedia, if you wanted to know about a tree frog, you’d find your way to a webpage on the frog. Perhaps one created by some high school biology teacher in South Florida. This webpage would tell you everything about the frog. It would also embody the humanity of the Florida biology teacher.

When Wikipedia steamrolled over knowledge on the web it took the facts about the frog and discarded the humanity of the biology teacher. Is that what we want? Disembodied facts? Is that what our souls yearn for? Trivia answers? When you’re playing darts at the pub and can’t remember what year the Titanic sank, it’s nice that Wikipedia can settle your bet with your friend. Does that make your life better?

The learning management system steamrolling over education

The LMS is the Wikipedia of education. An endless stream of disembodied facts. Do facts matter? Sometimes, yes. But facts are not what our souls yearn for. As human beings we search for truth. But truth is elusive and difficult. So we settle for something that sounds similar, but isn’t the same, “true.” True facts rarely fill the holes in our souls the way truth would.

A book like iOS for Dummies contains hundreds of pages of “true.” Yet no human “truth” at all. By contrast, Hamlet, Prince of Denmark contains no “true” at all. It’s fiction. Stuff some guy made up. Yet it contains powerful human truth. iOS for Dummies might teach you to do something clever with your phone. Hamlet might change your life. Has an LMS ever changed anyone’s life? Or only facilitated the doing of clever things?

Slack & Discord

Why do so many college students create Slack or Discord servers for their classes? Most LMS include a discussion tool. Isn’t going to another platform to duplicate what your class tool can already do a waste of student time? Or is the LMS such a deadening experience that students don’t consider it a place for learning and collaboration? Do they find in Slack and Discord the vibrant, fun, easy-to-use home that the LMS isn’t?

Supervision vs Surveillance

One of a faculty member’s responsibilities is to supervise their students. With an LMS, does supervision become surveillance? An instructor can ask a student to buy a paper book and read chapter one. What a student does or doesn’t do may be reflected on a test. But the minute-by-minute log of the student’s life remains their own business. With an LMS instructors know who has spent hours with their content and who has never looked at it. This may be reasonable instructor information. But it’s at least worth noting that it’s a level of surveillance not experienced with a paper book. If a student turns a project in at 3:17 a.m., the LMS rats on their late-night habits.


When you buy a paper textbook, you own it. You can sell it back at the end of the semester, or keep it for the rest of your life. You can give it to a friend, or burn it. You can use it to level a wobbly table. In a small, holdable volume you have a repository of thoughts and ideas. Ideas that you may never read again. Or may pull off the shelf for years to come.

When you take an LMS class you own nothing. You are granted access to content for a limited time. The next semester you are not granted access. Did you read something or view a video in an LMS class that you’d like to see again? You can’t. Did you write something in an LMS class that you’d like to refer to? You can’t.

In the old media of the paper book knowledge and ideas were free to travel anywhere and everywhere. In the new media of the LMS knowledge and ideas are siloed. Books teach. LMS control.

In a move reminiscent of LMS-like control, in 2009 Amazon remotely deleted George Orwell’s 1984 from all Kindle owners devices.

Books have editors, learning management systems don’t

College textbooks often have astronomical prices. Publishers know they have a captive audience and price gouge students. It’s great that some classes post content on their LMS and don’t need expensive books. But books have editors. Textbooks have people organizing their information for clarity. LMS classes don’t have editors. They have one professor tossing various things into LMS modules. Some faculty members are very generous with the hours it takes to post so much content. But that doesn’t make it well organized. The LMS allows a level of visual chaos rarely experienced in printed books.

In praise of wasting time

Like Taylorism, the LMS seeks to manage students. To control their time and activities. To rule the unruly. Is this what education is? Or is it a vision quest? A journey in the cave of the unknown? Are we in college to be efficient? To get from a predetermined “A” to a predetermined “B” in the shortest path possible? Or are we here to wander? To explore? To waste time? To discover that which we did not even know we were seeking?

In 1968 Robert F. Kennedy said of America’s then $800 billion gross national product, “it can tell us everything about America, except why we are proud that we are Americans.” The LMS can tell us everything about a college education, except why anyone would ever want one.

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