Discussing the LMS – #EduSoCal14

I had the opportunity to spend two days discussing the LMS at EduSoCal14, a conference-like happening on the Loyola Marymount University campus based largely around professionals in education and technology but branching into more inclusive conversations that recognize the ubiquity of technology in today’s educational landscape.  We ran a one-day roundtable session on Tuesday to discuss the LMS, and the results were presented to the conference proper on Wednesday.  The experience was nothing I would have anticipated, resulting in a great deal of thoughtful discourse but very little solid outcome.  

The notes from our conversation are available on Google documents; links here and here.  The hope in organizing a conversation was to deconstruct the LMS:  what is it, where did it come from, why do we use it, why is there a great deal of dissatisfaction, and what is the future of online education both inside and outside these portals?  As the de facto moderator, I tried to frame the conversation based around historical precedence, especially noting the roughly 10 years between the dawn of low-cost telecommunications at college campuses and the dawn of large-scale LMS.  Prior to telecom we had CAI, and after the LMS we had…well, the LMS.  I wanted to see what caused the move to the LMS, and how this system affected its stakeholders:  students, faculty, and administration.

Looking back I wonder about the various lenses I put on the conversation.  First off, viewing the LMS from the perspective of the stakeholder implies a technological neutrality — tech is but a tool and not the realization of a sociocultural milieu that has implicit political and cultural ties.  I highly disagree with such an assumption, but framing by user casts neutrality as a given.  Also, looking back I believe the 10 years between telecom and the LMS is the wrong space to study when determining where the LMS came from; the LMS came from the 40 years between PLATO and Blackboard, and an arbitrary 10 years has importance but is not a true north for the history.  Rather, what is important in framing a discussion around dissatisfaction with the LMS is Jim Groom’s assertion that prior to the MOOC of 2008, online education was nothing more than a reconceptualization of physical classrooms for a virtual space, theoretically and pedagogically (via Bryan Alexander; it starts about 20 minutes in).  If this is the case, the LMS stands in the way of the educational transformative opportunities early researchers such as Soren Nipper, Tony Bates and John Daniel saw possible in an age of telecommunications.

As we noted in our conversation, the LMS does not exist as a stalwart or as an agent of evil.  It was created to serve a need and it is a business.  Companies like Blackboard created their software to provide options and opportunities to higher education, and continue to update with patches and course packs to offer more opportunities.  Much about this is admirable.  A mantra in our conversation was there’s an add-on for that, meaning that if there was a technology or pedagogical opportunity an instructor wanted to utilize in the LMS it probably already existed or the LMS would throw one into their next bundle.  These features make the LMS savvy to the articulated needs of higher education, and from a business perspective keep the customer close and happy by providing requested services.

But just because the LMS can do things such as social networking or provide blogs does not mean it is the ideal place to do this, or even an adequate one.  The LMS is an Intranet, and while there is linking to third-party apps and sites and vendors, the constitution of the course happens within the walls of Blackboard or Desire2Learn or Sakai.  Blogs, wikis, discussion threads, social happenings all are contained within this structure, removing their utility and opportunity upon the completion of the course.  As a roster manager and gradebook and framing mechanism for a course and hub for IT, the LMS does an admirable job.  It provides a digital version of what happened and happens in face to face spaces.  As a space to incorporate more cutting-edge theory and pedagogy, the LMS can offer products but fails to provide them better than exterior options; its primary benefit for these is ease and economy for faculty and administration.

From the perspective of Evgeney Morozov, it is ease and economy which create unsubstantiated paradigms around technology.  By focusing on the ease and economy of an add-on versus the hardship and cost of other options and the languid state of the status quo, solutions are evident and optimized.  For Morozov, this emboldens what he calls a Libertarian culture where every interaction is commercial and involves consumption rather than allowing for spaces and places where community and collaboration can happen because social nature pushes toward such culture.  And this consumer-driven culture was noted in both Tuesday and Wednesday’s talks; faculty and administration are frustrated at student attitudes towards education, looking at it as a rubric-driven checklist to a fully-paid certificate, with 24 hour customer service.  Blasé attitudes about learning are not new to students, but the notion of students demanding immediate customer feedback and help-desk features are unique to the higher education landscape.  Moreover, one of the participants in the panel noted that there is a fourth stakeholder at many institutions — the tuition-paying parents.  I found this true and frightening.  We have remade the digital classroom in the same light as the original classroom, except now with lower efficacy for learning and higher expectation on the institution providing services.  It hardly sounds like ease or economy.

It may be impossible to tie it all together, but one attempt — The LMS is not perfect, but also not terrible.  The LMS serves its purpose of transferring in-person classrooms to an online space, changing things not to be pedagogically fresh but to design digital events so they offer the same outcome as face to face.  There are opportunities to do more, but they largely lack in comparison to those opportunities outside the LMS walls, and often it is these outreach issues that cause problems and strife for people on the bleeding edge of progress.  Perhaps we need to think about the problem from the perspective of the course.  This is in no way a call for skills-based or competency-based learning, quite the opposite.  The Internet provides us avenue and agency to approach mediated and accredited learning in a manner wholly unique to course-based learning; we see this all the time in non-formal and informal learning spaces both online and face to face.  Is there a way for the technology to aid in reconceptualizing learning around a course-less educational system rather than buffering the course-laden one?

Posted on: May 14, 2014admin

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