institution-free LMS

A Quest to Create An “Institution-Free” LMS

In the summer of 2012, I was heading to Ljubljana to teach a four-week course to a group of Slovenian university students. I gathered everything that I needed to teach the course: readings, case studies, links to blogs and web videos, and more. But there was one problem. I didn’t have a good way to share these materials with the students.

This got me thinking. We are all well aware of the many issues educators and students have with the usability of many learning management systems. But this was the first time I experienced the issue of not being able to take a course I had already set up in my St. Thomas LMS with me to teach somewhere else. And it occurred to me that there are probably many educators who face this issue on a regular basis (adjunct faculty who teach at more than one institution, for instance).

When I returned to Minnesota, I sat down with my colleague, Alec Johnson, to talk about creating an LMS targeted toward educators and their students rather than institutions. From our discussions, we came to the conclusion that an “institution-free” learning management system could solve three main problems for educators and students:

  1. Simplicity: An institution-wide platform by definition needs to be everything to everyone. Many educators simply want an LMS to allow them to easily set up and manage courses, incorporate relevant content, and share course schedules and materials with students. And students simply want to know what to do and when. Without the need to be feature-driven, an “institution-free” LMS can instead focus on delivering this core functionality in a way that makes sense.
  2. Reliability: What we wanted most in an LMS was to have confidence that students were on the same page as us, knowing what to do, when to do it, and what materials to use (and students wanted this too!). Because course schedules inevitably change, we wanted a reliable way of communicating changes to students. In our experience with institution-wide platforms, this is difficult at best.
  3. Mobility: An “institution-free” platform allows both educators and students to own their courses. For educators, it means the ability to take courses wherever they teach (say, Slovenia, for example). For students, it means they don’t lose access to their course materials when they graduate and no longer have their institution ID and password.

So, we decided to set out and see if we could create an “institution-free” LMS that we would love using, and that might help make the lives of a few other educators easier as well. For the past year-and-a-half, along with a software guru named Lloyd, we have been developing and testing our platform, which we are calling JustLurn.

It hasn’t been easy, but we’re now close with a system in which an educator sets up courses in a drag-and-drop cloud-based calendar, adds materials to each day of class, and shares the calendar with their students. There are a few slick features, like Dropbox integration, an assignment feed for students, and a Chuck Norris meme (that’s Lloyd’s sense of humor), but it’s about as simple as that.

Of course, being this simple, our platform will certainly not be for everyone, but we believe that’s the beauty of an “institution-free” LMS: it doesn’t have to be.

Decoupling educator and student tools like learning management systems from institutions is still in the early stages. But it is happening, and for good reason: because these tools can then be designed for and managed by users rather than institutions, which is better for all parties.

We would love to hear your thoughts on the notion of “institution-free” tools and your willingness to use them. If you would like more information on our platform, please visit us at and let us know what you think.

Jay, Alec, and Lloyd

Picture by pippalou

Jay Ebben is an Associate Professor of Entrepreneurship at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. He is also co-founder of JustLurn, a simple course-organization tool for educators. If you are interested, please feel free to join the JustLurn product discussion here.

  • Matthew Roberts

    With three twitter accounts for various purposes, I don’t always get around to reading each of my timelines. I’m glad I did today. I’ve long had a dream of an LMS that was focused on the learner instead of the institution—something that would follow the learner and remain available to them long after. I look forward to poking around what you’ve got!