December 28, 2015

Thoughts about Choosing, Change, and the 800-Pound LMS Gorilla

Matt just shared some more detailed reflections about this dual layer approach in #HumanMOOC where the LMS is an instructivist model as opposed to the more constructivist or connectivist model outside the LMS. You can see his post here: Every Choice is Awesome. Every Path is Cool When You’re in #HumanMOOC

I understand the abstract idea, and I am certainly an advocate of choice as a good design principle, but it seems to me that this "duality" is really a false choice, given the way the LMS component of the class is set up. If the instructivist pathway consisted of people just consuming content and taking quizzes, then sure, having that happen in the LMS would probably a good choice (I balk at using the word awesome for that type of learning... but whatever: cuique suum). If students are not creating anything to share but are just consuming content and being tested, the Internet at large is not losing out when that activity takes place inside an LMS silo, and the students likewise are not missing out on anything since all the content they need and the follow-up quiz questions are accessible there in the LMS.

But it's clear from the way Canvas is being used in #HumanMOOC that the "stream" pathway is not just based on students consuming content and being tested. People inside the LMS are being asked to create content and share it inside the LMS. There is also a sense that there could be discussion since "discussion boards" are the tool being used. There are no quizzes.

And that is what has me puzzled: I do not understand how it can be a good thing to encourage learners to engage in social learning activities (creating and sharing, discussing) inside a space that hampers connections between learners rather than energetically fostering them. By trying to engage in connectivist activities inside a silo that is not very social, it seems to me there are real losses as a result: there is a loss of connection among the learners (because of the clunkiness of Canvas when it comes to constructivist and connectivist learning; see below) and also a loss to the larger learning community of the class when there are creating and sharing activities that are walled off from one another.

If a course is going to be more than consuming content and taking quizzes (as it is), then the environment really does matter; there is no neutral space (as Matt acknowledges), and not all environments are awesome. Here are just a few ways in which it seems to me that Canvas fails to provide a less-than-awesome environment for creating, sharing, and discussing:

1. There is no person-centered stream. What I mean by that is there is no way to see each learner's contributions in the context of that person's larger learning (as happens in a blog or portfolio). When I click to go to the Profile page at Canvas, it is a static page; I do not see people's contributions being reflected there, not even by way of links. This is really surprising to me: the raw data is there in Canvas; it would not be rocket science to make the profile page dynamic so that in addition to learner work showing up in discussion forums, it could also show up in the Profile. That would benefit the learners themselves, giving them a chance to see their work over the duration of the course (which might or might not be instructivism; I'm not sure how self-reflection fits in there), and it would also benefit other learners in their efforts to learn one from another (as the use of the discussion board at least implies).

2. The discussion boards are poorly designed. By now, you'd think the LMS designers would have figured out some of the features that really make discussion boards useful: being able to filter the board based on number of replies (so that I could focus on replying to the folks who don't have replies yet), being able to see the board posts ordered at random in addition to date-based presentation (randomization is a great way to surface content, especially in a busy board), etc. I always feel so badly about discussion board posts without replies. Blog posts without replies are fine (you can write a blog as much for yourself as for others)... but a discussion board where many or even most contributions go by without replies? Ouch. It hurts. It's called a "discussion" board for a reason, right?

3. The notifications are very poor. If you do want people to return repeatedly to the closed environment of the LMS, you need really excellent notifications to let them know why they need to go back in there. Yet the notification options in Canvas are surprisingly primitive, not really letting you know what you are being notified about. Ideally, you would know specifically when someone replied to you (as opposed to all the replies at a discussion board), or, even better, a set of mention-triggered notifications like at Twitter and other social networks. I get email and Twitter DM notifications from Canvas, but I end up ignoring them because they do not tell me what I really need to know in order to choose (i.e. choose based on real information) whether I want/need to leave the Internet where I spend my time to go into the walled space.

I could go on... but you get the idea.

So, like I said, I'm sure Canvas would be great for a truly instructivist model where learners just consume content and take quizzes as presented by the instructor, oblivious to other learners. If, however, the supposedly instructivist pathway in #HumanMOOC involves students creating, sharing, and discussing (as it does), then it seems to me that Canvas suffers from serious limitations that inherently limit what can happen there. For consume-and-quiz courses, no problem, but #HumanMOOC aspires to more than that, both in the "stream" and in the "garden" pathway.

Thus, rather than a truly instructivist stream versus a connectivist or constructivist garden, it seems to me that the dual design here is an opposition we have all seen before, not "stream" versus "garden" but instead garden v. garden: the walled garden inside the LMS and the many different kinds of gardens that can grow outside those walls. And for a really stimulating and in-depth discussion about what we lose by trying to build any kind of garden inside the LMS, I'll defer to Brian Lamb and Jim Groom: Reclaiming Innovation.

The problem of the LMS is a huge question, admittedly, and one that people are maybe even tired of discussing... but I think we need to keep on discussing it at every opportunity; otherwise, the LMSes will win out by sheer inertia since they are the proverbial 800-pound gorilla in the digital room. So, if people have not read Brian and Jim's Educause piece from 2014, take a look if you have a chance: it still rings true now in 2015-going-into-2016!

Just speaking for myself, I am hoping that 2016 might surprise us all by being a year of real change and innovation... maybe... maybe... :-)

But at the same time, I keep in mind this lightbulb joke which a History professor at my school told me during my first week on the faculty, way back in 1999. And this, too, still rings true all these years later:

Update: I just got my email notification for today from Canvas, and I'm including a screenshot here. Especially for "HumanMOOC," this is such a letdown: there are no avatars, no names, no nothing to let me know just who the "humans" are who were active in the Canvas space. The data is in the Canvas database, and it's not complicated data; I'm baffled that Canvas thinks it is not worthwhile to share that with users in truly useful notifications. From other interactions, I know that "" is Andy Nobes... but surely it would be possible for Canvas to use the name and include an avatar...?


  1. Hi Laura, thanks for sharing these reflections. I think they could be quite constructive for the Canvas Product team, so I've shared this post internally. It's interesting, I totally see why these occurred to you from a connectivist standpoint, but it also occurs to be that these ideas are primarily just good user experience

    At any rate, I will note that one of our goals for Canvas is to continue to develop the platform in a ways that address the needs of a broad spectrum of users, those working both within and outside the "walls" of course spaces. I think there are things Canvas does really well to connect with outworld, student-owned tools and services, and there are things it could do better -- I've got my own list ;)

    There are also things Canvas will probably always need to do to appeal to instructors who come from more traditional approaches. This is actually motivating to me, because I believe that the more teachers of all philosophical bents that we get on board, the more likely you are to be able to build a diverse community of instructional innovation.

    As others have suggested, all technology has biases which may influence how users interact with the system. My hope is that the Canvas design develops in ways that enable and even encourage research-based educational practices, so that instructors (and students) will want to engage in more interpersonal interaction, enable more project-based learning, allow more student agency, and continually scaffold toward higher order learning experiences.

    The approach is a little bit of straddling both worlds, a little bit of "thinning the walls", but always aimed at providing real utility to as many teachers as possible.

    1. Wow, Jared, I have to say that this is the biggest Canvas difference of all: you really are interested in feedback... and my school isn't even a Canvas school, so I appreciate your comment here all the more! Thank you! Brian Whitmer and I had a really productive dialogue here at this blog last year in all the discussion that erupted from Michael Feldstein's "Dammit, the LMS" post. So, kudos to Canvas for being part of the public discussions!

      Anyway, if the comments can be useful to Canvas, all the better; one of my main motivations in doing HumanMOOC was to learn more about Canvas and while I ended up being frustrated, I am glad that I could share my ideas here.

      Part of what is going on also is the specific design approach of HumanMOOC where at least some of the social options inside Canvas have not been enabled on purpose. If you look at Matt's post to which I was replying, he was writing about the decision not to include a Twitter widget in the Canvas space. For me, there just needs to be permeability one way OR the other. If there had been a Twitter widget in the Canvas space (the outside coming in), that would have been great I think... and it was simply the absence of that outside-coming-in option that led me to look critically at the inside-going-out design of Canvas notifications.

      About the profile page, oh man, I can imagine lots of ways to make that dynamic, showing people's Canvas activity, allowing them to embed a personal Twitter widget (as opposed to a hashtag-driven course widget), allowing them to add an RSS feed from their blog. And hey, a girl can dream, right?

      Anyway, THANK YOU again for your comment. I'm not interested in using an LMS, but if I ask myself a different question about which LMS is the best out there, I know it's Canvas, and I'm still hoping that there might be a possibility to move from D2L to Canvas at my school. I'm not using the LMS myself, but for the faculty who rely on it, Canvas has much more to offer, as I learned just from the cursory experience I had in HumanMOOC.

  2. Haha, Laura, this is one of those times when I think to myself, I sure wish OU had picked Canvas. I kind of always knew you hadn't dug in to Canvas, which is understandable since you never really had a reason to, but I've wanted your perspective on things for a while.

    Thanks for sharing! It's good to get a fresh perspective, and some of your points seem obvious once you see them written down.

    1. Hi Brian, it is so nice to hear from you! And OU just might change its LMS lightbulb (a new review is coming up next year I think)... and even better: now the landscape is really different, which is good for everyone — we have a Domain of One's Own project running at, so those members of the faculty who want to work in the open now have a great way to do that. And my guess is that the RSS-friendliness of Canvas would make it the perfect LMS to integrate with the open work people are doing with WordPress and so on. I'm hoping good things for the next time around. I am ready and eager to be the RSS-tester to see just how people could use Canvas in conjunction with student blogs out on the open Internet. The power of RSS just keeps on ticking: to this day I get notifications of new incoming RSS content to that pilot Latin class I set up in Canvas what must be five years ago or more. But you guys had a super incoming syndication system back then which I configured with some popular Latin stuff, and it is still sending out announcements about incoming RSS to this day! I think that is VERY cool. :-)

  3. Hi Laura,
    I missed this post while I was on Winter Break, but Keegan just pointed it out. You mention in both the text of the blog post and in one of the responses, that you think the profile pages could be greatly improved through more of a portfolio model. Have you looked at Canvas's ePortfolio tool. There the students have the choice of doing exactly what you're talking about in terms of linking their work: Are you suggesting that this should be done automatically instead? If so, doesn't that deprive students of some degree of autonomy in controlling their own data?

    1. Yes, exactly, students should choose; I never said anything about automatic: but right now there is no choice — there is no way to display a course stream, and there is no way to add an RSS stream of other external content if people wanted to do that (the instructor can add RSS streams to the course I know, so the technology is there in the LMS; students should be able to add an RSS stream to their profile page if they want IMO). Right now there is nothing you can do in Canvas LMS to create a real representation of your work for the class, nor a representation of your presence beyond the class walls. It is a 100% static page.

      If the goal of a class is for people to connect and share, as it was in #HumanMOOC, the Canvas profile pages make it impossible to do that. If I found a discussion board post I like by someone in one board, I could not even get to other work done by that student in order to connect with them.

      Did you ever use Ning? It had a great approach to profile pages; highly configurable by the user. I used Ning for years in my classes; ultimately, I prefer open blogs instead, but the Ning defined my expectations for what class profile pages should be like; the Ning profile pages were really excellent, and students liked them a lot. Now I make sure to show them how to do the same kinds of things at their blog, configuring sidebar widgets to aggregate other content online (YouTube, Pinterest, etc.).

      I don't know anything about the Canvas ePortfolio tool (just a quick glance did not make it seem like the ePortfolio was dynamic; it looked like static links of content manually curated by the students? but not sure); HumanMOOC was asking people to use and rely on the LMS if they wanted to connect and share in the Canvas-based option, and it was not a good space at all for connecting. Meanwhile, lots of good connections were happening at Twitter!

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