Learning management systems have been the dominant technology in online higher ed since the late 1990s. These systems are, by design, as instructionally agnostic as possible. They’re designed so as to not impose specific instructional strategies on the educators that adopt them. This design fits with the prevailing division of responsibilities and occupational roles in traditional brick and mortar universities, in which course design is primarily a solo activity. (The LMS was quickly adopted by institutions precisely because it didn’t require changes to the traditional organizational model.)

Instructionally-agnostic software plays an important role. But now it’s time that we start to also use software to extend our capacity as educators. This means moving beyond the “correspondence” model of distance education – in which we use software solely as a cost-effective tool for distributing traditional education materials (typically those repurposed from print and classroom environments). It means using software that captures and embodies our best thinking about how students learn. Instructionally intelligent software extends our capacity as educators – it helps us do more with our limited time, money and skills.

For example, it’s obviously not feasible for most educators offering online courses to provide every student with hundreds of opportunities to apply their knowledge of the material and then to provide immediate, contextual feedback. Yet, educational software can be designed to fulfill this function. And by so doing, we are leveraging software to a far greater extent than with instructionally agnostic software.

Other applications can provide students with customized learning paths. Simulations can allow students to “learn by doing”. In each case, the software helps us provide students with more of the types of learning experiences we think are beneficial.


Keith Hampson, PhD is the founder of digital / edu / strategy, a research and consulting service that helps colleges, universities and education businesses develop better strategies for maximizing value. 

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