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Video killed the radio star: So will LXP kill LMS?

Does the advent of LXP mean the LMS can finally be pronounced D.O.A.?

In their very comprehensive investigation into the reasons behind the development of the learning experience platform (Powering the Modern Learner Experience), authors Ben Betts and John Helmer make clear that dissatisfaction with the traditional form of the learning management system (LMS) played a major part. In fact analyst, Josh Bersin, who can be given credit for having identified LXP as a new product category, believes it owes its very existence to the fact that the LMS at the time represented an outdated paradigm

Which of course begs the question: will the LMS now disappear?

We all know the story of ‘A Star is Born’. In this 1937 movie, which recently had its third remake, the hopeful ingenue shimmies sequin-clad into the spotlight to eclipse the clapped-out has-been who shone brightly in his day but whose sell-by date has long since passed. It’s a tale as old as time. So is this a moment for the LMS (Bradley Cooper) to fade into sad obscurity while the LXP (Lady Gaga) steps centre-stage?

Well, this might be a reasonable assumption. Only the history of communications media tells us that things don’t quite happen that way. The real truth is, video didn’t kill the radio star.

A brief history of technofear

Since the dawn of history, each new technology arrival has created an expectation that the old way of doing things was now doomed to extinction. The invention of writing, according to Plato, caused Socrates to warn that it would ‘implant forgetfulness’ in the souls of men. That they would lose the habit of memorization that was such an important part of the culture that we now refer to as pre-literary, or oral culture. 

Fast-forward to fifteenth-century Europe and writing, in its turn, was under threat – from the runaway success of Gutenberg’s movable type printing technology. German Benedictine abbot Johannes Trithemius (1462 – 1516) saw printing on paper as ephemeral compared to the inscribing of words on parchment by monks and feared knowledge would be lost to posterity if it ceased to be handwritten. Not just individual memory, but the memory of a whole culture, was once again seen as under threat.

And so it continued. Radio, when it arrived, was supposed to kill reading. Film was widely thought to sound the death knell for Theatre. Television was predicted to annihilate not only radio, but reading (again), conversation, theatre and the pattern of family living. It was assumed in its early days that the internet would kill newspapers, books, radio, television, writing, thinking, breathing, etc. etc. Most recently it has been maintained that streaming video (Netflix, et al) will do down movie theatres.

Every new medium, on arrival, is depicted as the putative assassin of its progenitors. And time and again this has proved not to be the case. 

Think about this.

  • We still have movie theatres
  • We still have newspapers—though granted, most of them are read online
  • We still have radio, and spoken word is currently stronger than ever thanks to podcasting and the rise of audiobooks
  • We still have theatre, even if some of the buildings are falling down around our ears
  • We still have vinyl records
  • Music cassettes are (amazingly) having a moment
  • We still have printed books – more are published every year – and they still have readers
  • We still use pens to write things down; and yet humans are still capable of prodigious feats of memory (just remembering all those logins, for a start)
  • Even oral culture is still thriving, as can be seen in slam poetry events, football terrace chants in the UK and school playgrounds around the world

Old media, unlike old movie stars, are turning out to have far longer shelf lives than were imagined by the philosophers, churchmen, journalists and cultural commentators down the centuries who have regularly predicted knowledge-death for each of them in turn at the hands of newer rivals.

Clearly, ‘A Star is Born’ gives us a bad model for how we should think about media. In the world of media, all the Bradley Coopers are still alive and kicking. Doing high-kicks, in fact.

Media convergence – or divergence?

Media convergence is a theory in communications that describes the way mass media tend to merge together in the digital age. Digitization of content provides something like a universal computer language, which allows media content produced in one medium to be easily adapted for use in any other medium. According to media convergence theory, in the age of the internet therefore, all media become one and we end up with just one medium, the internet.

While this might be true on the technology (and corporate) level, in terms of our lived experience it fails badly as a description of the media world we live in day to day; which feels to be more about an extreme and uncontrollable riot of runaway diversity and divergence.

Take the news. A consumer in the 1950s would have received news from one newspaper posted through the door, a family radio and perhaps a television with a very limited number of channels. Nowadays, however, I can choose to receive news from any number of media providers across the world, some professional, some ordinary citizens, through multiple web and social platforms, on an ever-increasing number of devices including phones, watches, TVs, radios and smart speakers, in a variety of formats including broadcast-style bulletins, blogs, podcasts, tweets and internet memes.       

Theory tells us that media converge. Meanwhile, it is not convergence, but media divergence that we actually experience.

Divergence of learning content 

And this holds true, as well, for learning. Divergence and proliferation of content forms is something we have certainly seen in digital learning. When the first specs for learning management systems were drawn up, it was assumed that learning content would come in a single consistent form: as modules of self-paced elearning. The SCORM standard, too, was drawn up to reflect the model of online learning as it was then conceived.   

But even at the moment when SCORM became universally accepted as the standard for the learning industry, and the ‘classic’ model of the LMS locked into place, this paradigm was already under attack. Digital learning content was becoming available in a host of other forms that didn’t seem to fit the model. What about informal learning? What about the many other ways people learn that are not all necessarily part of a course, or a module? What about pdfs, videos, infographics, virtual classroom, microlearning, checklists, curated content, individual learning pathways, experiences, self-directed learning ..?

This was the moment when LMS began to evolve into something else, which we now call LXP. So hello Lady Gaga, bye-bye Bradley Cooper. Why would we need both?

There’s more than one game in the casino

Perhaps the reason why people railed so vigorously against the SCORM/LMS paradigm was that for the longest while it seemed the only game in town. There was a market logic to this. Vendors had found a model that locked into a widespread and pressing need among their buyers (chiefly large organisations) to serve and record compliance learning, which many of these organizations had to do at considerable scale just in order to be able to continue trading. This need was big enough and dependable enough to build an industry upon. 

There was certainly innovation in the vendor market but held back by an initial lack of investment in the space (the companies were all quite small in the early days), the ambitions of heads of learning, stoked by an active guru community, eventually outstripped the abilities of learning technologies providers to innovate their way out of what had become a confining straightjacket. Practitioners needed more innovative solutions than the vendors were supplying.

In addition, hindsight now enables us to see that there were two big holes in the underpinning technology that would have been needed to move the evolution of learning systems forward:

  1. A viable successor to SCORM – attempts to update it have largely failed, leading to a whole industry stuck on an outdated version. This made the issue of content diversity difficult to address. 
  2. The right expertise and resources in the field of artificial intelligence (AI) – needed to bring in the sort of personalization that the ‘modern learner’ required. For a long time, the lack of this effectively locked the industry into an outdated cohort-centred paradigm.

With time, the development of xAPI filled hole number one. And the learning technologies world is now catching up with AI, filling hole number two. Meanwhile, the industry’s scale issues have been ameliorated by consistent growth and more inward investment in the space. The result: LMS is no longer the only game in town. However, it is still a game that substantial numbers of practitioners need to play.

Comply or die?

Large organizations still have substantial compliance needs. Many of those organizations also have a lot of fairly generic basic management training to do, and the ‘classic’ paradigm of SCORM/LMS provides a cost-effective and perfectly serviceable way of doing both these things at scale. If it were the only way of doing learning, I think we would all be in despair. But as one arrow in a quiver-full of different options, LMS has its place and will hit the target every time given a particular set of conditions. Other options are available for other conditions.

Secondly, cloud computing and the growth of APIs have made corporate systems far more interconnected, with the result that we think less nowadays in terms of a single unitary destination platform that does everything, and more in terms of a stack or an ecosystem, with interconnected systems that each perform different functions (divergence and diversity again!). In Josh Bersin’s thinking, LMS and LXP both play their different roles as part of the integrated corporate learning stack.

It also needs to be said that organizations at later stages of the adoption curve, who are just embarking on their digital journeys in many cases, find the classic model much easier to engage with and implement quickly, if only as an initial step in their digital transformation journey.

So no, video will not kill the radio star; Bradley Cooper will still be with us for a considerable time to come, and rumours of the death of LMS are, in the words of Mark Twain, greatly exaggerated.  

Next steps

If you want a more considered discussion of these issues (but with fewer film stars) and some practical advice on making your LMS/LXP choices, download the white paper here

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