Wednesday, 4 March 2015

What's the difference between an ePortfolio System, an LMS and Social Learning

Okay, the most obvious difference between an ePortfolio system, LMS (or learning management system) and social learning is that only one of those is a type or method of learning; that's social learning of course, the others are systems or tools if you will to help with learning and assessments. I'll come back to the social learning issue in a bit, for now let's focus on the two types of systems and how they differ.

Most importantly of all, it's all about perspective.  An LMS is primarily an organisational tool.  Sure, sure it's about learning and it should be, but the organisation that puts the LMS in place usually needs to get something out of it.  That may be records of compliance training or somewhere to keep observations or on-job assessments or even just storing of (groan) Powerpoint presentations or Adobe documents.  It's focus is on the organisation.  The organisation needs to have a database store of what its people are doing and essentially to many organisations this is exactly what an LMS is for.  Some forward thinking organisations may use their LMS differently and we'll come back to that, but for now let's take it as an LMS is by the organisation for the organisation.

An ePortfolio system is different.  The idea behind ePortfolios is that they are a place for individuals to store information about their learning and experiences.  Then they choose what to share and who to share it with.  Of course, organisations still often have the ePortfolio systems that they set up and host and you may have some rules set up around how to 'submit' portfolios and policy around who and what you can share, but there's definitely a slightly different emphasis here.  If the LMS were all about the organisation the ePortfolio is all about the person (or learner if you will).  An ePortfolio system will have administrators like an LMS, but the administrator can't run the sort of reports that an LMS administrator can and won't be able to collect and collate scores and completions unless users choose to submit them.  It may seem subtle but the difference is actually very large.

So if that seems simple enough, it may not be.  To confuse matters there's the phenomenon of social learning.  Social learning in simple terms is often thought of as the use of social media for learning, perhaps more accurately social learning is the way that learning occurs in a social setting through cognitive process or simply put we learn from others around us by communication and interactions.  The theory for social learning unsurprisingly dates back before social media was a 'thing' so it doesn't necessarily have to mean learning using social media, but the abundance of social tools and media has meant that recently social learning has become a real focus.  So social learning tools that are frequently used are things like forums, blogging, micro-blogging (Twitter for example), wikis and other synchronous and asynchronous collaborative tools.  Where do these sit?  In an LMS? In an ePortfolio system?  The answer is yes.

The collaborative tools have been largely adopted by both LMS providers and ePortfolio systems for a number of years and they can fit equally well in both.  The issue again becomes less about the system and more about the focus.  If you want to have forums in place to encourage learners to share and ask each other and answer questions you're coming down more on the social learning side (regardless of whether you use that in an LMS or ePortfolio system), if you want to have forums to test knowledge and track responses you're back in the organisational realm and you're likely to have that sit in the LMS to be able to track and moderate.

So which is for you an ePortfolio or an LMS?  The answer for big and successful organisations is likely to be both; they have organisational aims and reports that need to be met and they recognise the importance of placing the learner at the centre of their learning and allowing opportunities for them to develop and take responsibility for their own learning.  For smaller organisations it can be tricky, but there are a lot more 'free' ePortfolio systems than LMSs - the main reason for this is the focus again. Providing an ePortfolio type service for your people is a way of providing a service that is for the individuals rather than directly for the organisation.

If you want to keep a track and closely track social learning then maybe (just maybe) you don't really want social learning, you just want trackable learning using social tools - and that's not the same thing.

For now the LMS is the more popular choice out there, but already most LMS providers are claiming social learning tools and many offer ePortfolio tools built in - just remember the tool is only as good as the way it's used and an ePortfolio system should be about the individual rather than the organisation.

Agree?  Disagree? Happy to discuss or Disqus further... pop your thoughts below :)