Should social learning be part of a Learning Management System?

Adriann Haney | 07/28/2010

Inexorably, Learning Management Systems are extending their functional footprint. There has always been a grey area between training management systems and Learning Management Systems (LMS); just how much of the process of scheduling and managing classroom-based education should be incorporated into an LMS? Similarly, high-end, enterprise LMSs have increasingly added functionality traditionally associated with HR systems (such as succession planning, 360º appraisals, etc.).

Now we are seeing a trend amongst LMSs to incorporate social learning capabilities. Previous feature-creep has only risked unnecessarily over-complicating the user-interface for those clients that don’t need the extraneous functionality. However, could it be that there are compelling reasons why social learning should be explicitly excluded from an LMS?

Social learning is not only differentiated from formal learning (that is the raison d’être of an LMS) by its ad-hoc nature. A key requirement of a social learning platform is for it to support and encourage the community-based knowledge-sharing that has always occurred naturally amongst groups with shared interests. To do this effectively it must reflect the structure of those organic communities, not the formal ‘org-chart’ pinned to the HR director’s wall. And LMSs invariably do reflect the formal structure of an organisation; for resource access, reporting, messaging, etc..

Further, a social learning platform requires little of the core LMS functionality such as scoring, learning paths, enrolment management, certificate management and on and on. In short, there is little in common between the two modes of learning, at least from a systems perspective, excerpt the word “learning”.

These are just a couple of examples of why we have strong reservations about LMS vendors launching a land grab for the social learning territory. That is not to say that an LMS should not embrace social networking. Far from it. Discussion forums associated with specific courses, and the ability to schedule courses delivered using virtual classroom systems are but two examples where these tools can be used to support a richer formal learning environment. We just don’t think an LMS can serve two masters. The demands on systems to support formal and informal learning are very very different, and in many ways incompatible.