The ELMSLNephant in the Room

Just over a year ago, Eric Barron was named the 18th president of Penn State, and on May 12, he assumed that role. One of the first things he addressed were the six areas in which every great university should excel, which included:

  • Excellence
  • Student engagement
  • Demographics and diversity
  • Student career success and economic development
  • Accessibility
  • Technology

How, he asked, as one of the premiere teaching, research, and service institutions of the world, could we make ourselves stand out? Numerous committees across the University rose to the charge and began tackling these six areas head-on to identify opportunities for excellence. One group started looking at piloting and identifying a new LMS. Another began investigating “content” — what it is, how we use is, and how we can best serve it. Other groups began exploring the best ways to support our online students. One of the committees on which I serve took particular interest in the economic development part of Barron’s six areas, in which he said:

I also am keenly interested in the degree to which public institutions of higher education drive economic development. Few believe that the major research universities are doing a good job of bringing intellectual property to the marketplace.  If we can better address this issue, we will significantly improve the standing of institutions like Penn State.  And, if we’re really good at teaching at the cutting edge and driving economic development through research, innovation and education, then we’re making ready jobs for our own students. It becomes an imperative that Penn State consciously and deliberately seeks ways to increase the value of our intellectual capabilities to serve the state, the nation and the world.

If you look across the entrepreneurial landscape, one of the most lucrative areas is in ed tech. How can we make our University stand out as an ed tech innovator? We have an incredibly rich instructional instructional design community. Our Learning, Design, and Technology program and faculty are highly regarded. We are home to the TLT Symposium, the Web Conference, TEDx, Start-Up week, and other events that showcase our entrepreneurial spirit. We are even home to ELMSLN.


ELMSLN is an open-source Drupal 7 initiative that was borne of the College of Arts & Architecture (who actually won Campus Technology Innovators awards for their Assignment Studio (2010) and ELIMedia Server (2011)). The goal of ELMSLN is to produce a sustainable and scalable online learning ecosystem as well as investigate and invent innovative solutions to digital learning. Its features include collaboration, accessibility, scalability, automation, central management of content, and multimedia asset management to provide an exceptional educational experience. These features allow for reduction of costs, increased time for innovation, mitigation of security risks, collection and analysis of data, and ultimately an improved and cohesive learning experience for students. Besides the College of Arts & Architecture, four colleges/departments are using ELMSLN at Penn State, including the Eberly College of Science, the College of Health & Human Development, the College of Agricultural Sciences, and the Rock Ethics Institute. Additionally, the University of Wisconsin’s Law School and Center for Patient Partnerships are using it. It solves the problem of the LMS, of content management, student support, and more. It’s open. It’s local. It’s collaborative. It’s a philosophy. It’s anything WE (as in PSU) want it to be.

I belong to six committees. Six (at least). I attend presentations from vendors, spending precious time listening to spiels from about why Penn State should throw money at their cutting edge technology. To be honest, sometimes I don’t understand it. Why are we throwing money at vendors when we could be throwing money at those people here who are our lifeblood? Why not empower our programmers, designers, and technologists to create something that represents and showcases all that is innovative about Penn State? At each of these presentations or committee meetings, I often wonder why someone doesn’t stand up and ask this question (including myself!). It’s not that like it is something foreign. It’s not like we don’t know what to say when someone stands up and says “We are…” or “Why can’t we…” The  answer should-and-always be the “we” as in “Penn State”—not “Vendor X,” “Vendor Y,” or “Vendor Z.”

This moment of edupreneurial greatness should be coming from within our walls, not from without, because it’s already here. It’s time we stop and consider the ELMSLNephant in the room. We have conversations all the time around it, but nobody wants to look at it in the eye. It’s there, but it’s spoken about in whispers. Some groups say it’s unsafe. Others say it’s ridiculous. But, that’s because they refuse to learn about it or have a conversation about it. If we want to truly rise to excellence not only in the world, but within our own community, we should at least consider what we already have and have open conversations around it. Greatness is not achieved by looking outside, it’s achieved by harnessing and unleashing all that we have within and sharing openly with those on the outside.

(If you want to learn more, you can read the white paper, check out, or watch this OpenED presentation.)


One thought on “The ELMSLNephant in the Room

  1. Reblogged this on Behind the network and commented:
    A call to action by one of our own. We are all in endless meetings; it’s time to stop talking and realize we’re all developing the solutions already and to unite! We are building the future and I’ve never been more motivated then I have this year. We are a distributed team across colleges here, across institutions (with Wisconsin), and across nations with a group that will release a case study this summer about their ELMSLN deployment experiences.

    We can now get a new copy of ELMSLN running on digitalocean by copying and pasting 3 lines and waiting 9 minutes. This sets a server up from nothing to a fully functional deployment, automatically authoring modules unique to the deployment, networking systems together on the fly. This is no longer just a Drupal site, it’s an organism.

    It’s only a matter of time before that includes domains, certificates, load balances and beyond. All open, all free. We already have a deployment that self updates when a known configuration works; it’s only a matter of time before all deployments automatically upgrade themselves. They already back themselves up, harden the security of the file system, and run scripts that first discover what needs upgraded, then performs the upgrades. We are not here to disrupt, we are here to fundamentally transform.

    It’s no longer about which vendor to get locked into. It’s about which vendor will help us implement and integrate with our processes.

    This isn’t just about building an LMS, because that concept of a data storage silo structured like the phpBB forums they are based on from the 90s is dead. This is about building, modifying and sharing whole systems within systems. This is remix culture brought to the edtech space and done in a way that encourages dissent not stamp it out.

    This is the network we are building. Let’s build amazing ecosystems together.

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