Beyond the LMS: What Next-Gen Learning Platforms Should Do

Learning management systems (LMS) were developed 15 years ago to managed digital courseware in higher education. With digital conversions well underway in K-12 schools, a variety of instructional tools including LMS are being adopted. However, the long and varied shifts from group instruction to personalized learning, and from age cohorts to individual progressions makes it hard for EdTech entrepreneurs to match their product roadmap to emerging customer requirements.

As a result (and as frequently discussed) it’s harder than it should be to create an effective sequence of learning experiences in K-12. There are three primary reasons:

  • Weak demand articulation (i.e., slow shift to digital, varied requirements, tortured purchasing procedures that favor low bids rather than quality articulation);
  • Historic underinvestment in EdTech (compared to other $1T sectors); and
  • Well intentioned federal, state and philanthropic projects have chilled investment and delayed progress.

At the height of the Great Recession, states like North Carolina received a Race to the Top (RTTT) grant and launched efforts to build a Instructional Improvement System (IIS). Like other RTTT state grantees, efforts to build IIS have been slow and disappointing. North Carolina uses Pearson’s PowerSchools and SchoolNet as the foundation for its school information system, Home Base. NC is considering adding a learning management system (LMS) that should provide NC districts with an affordable integrated learning platform. But it will still fall short of what some forward leaning districts are looking for.

After ten productive years as superintendent in two South Carolina counties, Valerie Truesdale joined the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) to lead the innovation agenda. The strategic plan calls for CMS to transform classrooms into “personalized 21st century learning environments for every child to graduate career- and college-ready.” In 2012, none of the 165 schools were 100% wireless and the entire school system was still running XP. Lacking the budget for a fast digital conversion, the district launched a personalized learning initiative to build teaching capacity in advance of issuing devices for students. Seeded by a $100,000 grant, and led by Jill Thompson, a pilot group of student-centered schools are systematically building personalized learning environments with an emphasis on student ownership of their learning (see Jill’s blog on misconceptions). Thought partners in groups such as the League of Innovative Schools and Consortium of School Networking (CoSN) help by sharing strategies that fuel personalized learning efforts.

The experience has allowed Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools to develop a clear vision of a personalized learning toolset. Teams in pilot personalized learning schools outlined specific use cases and more than 40 specific tasks.


Beyond functionality available in many traditional LMS, CMS is looking for 10 capabilities:

  1. Single sign-on: portal where students can gain access to apps, view assignments and schedule; parents can view student work in order to help them better at home.
  2. Mobile: device agnostic (laptop, smartphone, tablet) and 508 compliant. Allow voice-to-text and text-to-voice capabilities.
  3. Playlists: easy construction of ordered digital learning experiences from a large tagged learning object repository
  4. Pathways: allow students to co-construct learning sequences base on learning preferences.
    Microsoft Word - Pathway5.NF.12.docx
  5. Map: visual roadmap of learning goals and an achievement recognition system (e.g., badging) that allows students to demonstrate competence.
  6. Portfolio: A portable digital portfolio system section that follows the child through their schooling.
  7. Notes: individual and collaborative note taking feature in a virtual binder.
  8. Goals: a visual learning goal tracker that captures each student’s aspirations for career and college to spur self-evaluation, self-regulation, and self-motivation.
  9. Co-lead: support addition of a co-teacher to a class or an assignment.
  10. Groups: create learning groups quickly and easily (like Edmodo does).

“It is already hard for parents to understand the instructional shift taking place in classrooms,” said Thompson. She thinks including parents as key system users is important, “Allowing access to their students portfolio, notes etc. will help them to be able to ‘see’ what their child is learning.”

Another valuable feature, according to Thompson would be college and career awareness and guidance features. (See Core & More: Guiding and Personalizing College & Career Readiness for a list of 12 features.)

Truesdale believes that a student-centered digital system that requires each learner to self-monitor and provides affirmation of personal effort and learning will be a game changer for building a student’s cognitive and emotional confidence, which are essential skills for success in career and college.


This blog is part of the Learning Platforms Series brought to you by The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. For more, stay tuned in for the final published project, Getting Smart on Next-Gen Learning Platforms and check out additional posts in the series:

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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Raymond Rose


There's another important feature all the Next Generation LMS should have -- accessibility. There are legal accessibility issues that are part of LMS design. The easiest one for me to point to is navigation. Every LMS needs to have mouse-free navigation. What that means is, take the mouse and effectively put it in the drawer. You should still be able to navigate to/through the entire course/LMS without that mouse. If that's not possible then the LMS would not be considered accessible to students with mobility disabilities, and the institution using that LMS is subject to finding of discrimination.



What about social learning and competency-based learning? Platforms like Keiro and Digedu provide elements beyond those of the traditional LMS.

Charles Reigeluth

To truly personalize learning, the fundamental structure of an educational system must change, from time-based student progress to learning-based student progress. Such competency-based education requires four major functions of an LMS:
1) Recordkeeping for student learning: It must offer tools to keep track of what each student has learned.
2) Planning for student learning: It must offer tools to help student and teacher develop a personal learning plan, including designing or selecting projects that will help the student master the standards s/he is working on next.
3) Instruction for student learning: It must offer immersive project learning environments when possible and just-in-time tutorials to aid learning during the projects.
4) Assessment for/of student learning: It must integrate team assessment into the project environment and integrate individual assessment into the tutorials, in a manner similar to the Khan Academy's criterion of 10 practice items in a row correct.

Of course, these four major functions must be seamlessly integrated so as to automatically share information with each other, and other functions, such as calendar, email, bulletin boards, portals, and much more, must also be integrated. A research team at Indiana University has developed a full set of design specifications for this kind of LMS. It is called the Personalized Integrated Educational System (PIES). The preliminary set of design specifications was published in Educational Technology magazine (, and the updated, elaborated version is currently being submitted for publication.

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