All posts by dnorman

on the false binary of LMS vs. Open

long, rambling post alert. it’s been awhile since I’ve posted, so lots of things have been stewing. bear with me.

It’s fashionable to hate the LMS. It’s the poster child for Enterprise Thinking and lazy (online) pedagogy, so it is easy to rail against the LMS as The Cause of All Educational Evil. The LMS is put into the stocks, and we are expected to stand in the town square and throw rotten fruit at it.

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We’re pushed into a false binary position – either you’re on the side of the evil LMS, working to destroy all that is beautiful and good, or you’re on the side of openness, love, and awesomeness. Choose. There is no possible way to teach (or learn) effectively in an LMS! It is EVIL and must be rooted out before it sinks its rotting tendrils into the unsuspecting students who are completely and utterly defenseless against its unnatural power!

I feel like I’m cast in the role of an LMS apologist, because I have a more nuanced approach.

I have been an advocate, proponent, supporter, and contributor to open source communities, open content licensing, and generally sharing stuff because why not? I have also played a key role in the recent adoption of a new LMS by my university. But. How on earth can I reconcile these two diametrically opposed world views? Gasp.

It’s almost as if different tools are used for different purposes.

When I think about the LMS, and its role in the enterprise, this is what makes many peoples’ hair stand on end. THE ENTERPRISE HAS NO BUSINESS IN THE CLASSROOM! etc. Except that’s largely bullshit. Of course classrooms are an Enterprise issue – whether physical (buildings and facilities are expensive to build and maintain, and need to be managed properly etc…) or online.

But, the arguement goes, online means there are no rules, no boundaries, no constraints. People should be free to do whatever they want.

That’s great – I think it is truly awesome that people can craft their own online environments, to support whatever online activities they want to do. And that instructors, staff, and even students (gasp!) can do this stuff on their own, with no interference or meddling from The Enterprise.

But. We can’t just abdicate the responsibility of the institution to provide the facilities that are needed to support the activities of the instructors and students. That doesn’t mean just “hey – there’s the internet. go to it.” It means providing ways for students to register in courses. For their enrolment to be automatically processed to provision access to resources (physical classrooms, online environments, libraries, etc…). For students’ grades and records to be automatically pushed back into the Registrar’s database so they can get credit for completing the course. For integration with library systems, to grant acccess to online reserve reading materials and other resources needed as part of the course.

Anyone who pushes back on this hasn’t had to deal with 31,000 students, and a few thousand instructors. This stuff needs to be automated at this scale. Actually – “scale” is another divisive issue. Why worry about scale? SCALE? WILL IT SCALE? As if scale is irrelevant. If a university needs to deal with tens of thousands of students, I assure you that scale is absolutely relevant. Anyone who thinks we shouldn’t spend time worrying about providing a common and consistent platform as a starting point needs to spend a week helping out at a campus helpdesk, answering questions from instructors and students.

OK. So the LMS is primarily used by institutions to make sure that there is a common starting platform for online courses. That courses are automatically created before a semester. That students, instructors, TAs, etc… are given access with appropriate privileges. That archives and backups are maintained. That records of activities and grades are kept. This is the boring stuff that is supposed to be invisible. But, it’s necessary if we are to responsibly teach online.

If instructors and/or students want or need to, they can of course do anything else they feel like doing online. Providing an LMS doesn’t mean “YOU SHALL NOT USE ANY OTHER TOOL” – there is no mandate to say “ONLY THE LMS SHALL BE USED”. It’s a starting point. And for some (many? most?) courses, it’s sufficient.

GASP! THE LMS IS SUFFICIENT? HOW CAN HE SAY THAT? BURN THE HERETIC!

Calm down. Take a step back, and think about some of the courses at a university. How about, say “Introduction to Chemistry” – yup. An LMS is entirely sufficient for that kind of course. Provide course info, share documents, maybe do some formative or summative assessment, and store some grades. LMS? check.

How about, say, “Calculus III”. Same pattern. LMS? check.

“Introduction to Shakespeare”? Students might want to blog about passages in Othello. Or link to performances of Macbeth. Maybe post photos of a campus production of King Lear. Great! Throw in a blog. Use the LMS for the basics, and do other things where needed. The LMS course becomes a source of links to other resources, and takes care of the boring administrative stuff.

But – why wouldn’t the instructor for the Shakespeare course want to be completely free of the shackles imposed by the LMS? THE SHACKLES! They might. Or, they might want to have a private starting point, before moving out into The Wide Open.

Even if the instructor decides to completely ignore the course shell that’s automatically created in the LMS, and go out on their own – say, using a WordPress mother blog site – they still need to take care of the boring administrative stuff. They’ll need to come up with a system for adding students to the mother blog site (and removing students when they drop the course). They’ll need to come up with a way to store grades (unless they’ve been able to convince adminstration and students that grades aren’t necessary – I haven’t met anyone who’s had luck there). They need to keep adding features to their custom website, until it starts accumulating lots of bits to handle the boring administrative nonsense.

Eventually, you come up against Norman’s Law of eLearning Tool Convergence:

Any eLearning tool, no matter how openly designed, will eventually become indistinguishable from a Learning Management System once a threshold of supported use-cases has been reached.

The custom platform starts to need care and feeding, maintenance, hacks to import and export data. It starts to smell like an LMS. So now, instead of a single LMS that can be supported by a university, we have an untold number of custom hacks that must all be self-supporting.

And here is where the pushback from the Open camp is strongest – BUT WE DON’T NEED OR WANT SUPPORT. JUST LET US DO OUR THING!

Which is great. Do your thing. But, what about the instructors (and students) who don’t have the time/energy/experience/resources to build and manage their own custom eLearning platform? Do we just tell them “hey – I did it, and it wasn’t that hard. I can’t see any reason why you can’t do it too.”? That starts to smell awfully familiar.

Which brings me back to my personal position on this. There is room for both. Who knew? The LMS is great at providing the common platform, even if it’s just a starting point. And the rest of the internet is awesome at doing those things that internets do. There’s lots of room for both.

“GREAT? NO WAY! THE LMS MAKES PEOPLE TEACH POORLY!”

No. It might make it easy for lazy people to just upload a syllabus and post a Powerpoint and think they’re teaching online. But that’s no different than physical classrooms being used by lazy people to show endless Powerpoint slides punctuated by more slides. Lazy teachers will teach poorly, no matter what tools they have access to. Just like awesome teachers will teach well, no matter what tools they have access to. The LMS is not the problem.

“But – why waste taxpayer dollars on an LMS at all? Just cancel the contracts and use the money for other stuff!” Um. It doesn’t work that way. We have a responsibility to provide a high quality environment to every single instructor and student, and the LMS is still the best way to do that.

And, although the costs have risen rather dramatically in the last decade, and seem ungodly high in comparison to, well, free… universities spend an order of magnitude more on the software that runs the financial systems – stuff that doesn’t have any direct impact on the learning experience. Hell, there are universities who pay their football coaches more than what they spend on the LMS for all students to use (thankfully, my campus doesn’t do that). For universities with $1B operational budgets, this kind of investment in online facilties is almost lost in budgets as a rounding error.

Anyway. Whew. I’ll try to write some more on this. 1600 words of rambling is a sign that I need to work on this some more…

  1. photo from Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru / The National Library of Wales archives in the Flickr Commons []