November 11, 2014

The LMS... again...

There are many important issues that Michael Feldstein raises in this big and useful blog post — Dammit, the LMS — and they relate very much to one of the main issues that I've been pondering as part of Connected Courses over the past couple of months. I've found it stimulating and exciting to connect with people who share my beliefs about teaching and learning, mostly because I don't feel that connection at my school. So, yes, I see serious problems with the teaching culture at my school, an inability to grow and change that is really harmful to our students, and I get frustrated because I believe deeply that the students deserve better. So, sadly, I do share Michael's pessimism about the LMS and teaching culture in higher education today, but I'll lay the blame somewhere that he does not mention: graduate school.

First, though, some background about the problem as I see it: like Michael, I've been thinking about and working with LMSs since back in 1999, and I have to agree with Michael's overall verdict — "I find the topic to be equal parts boring and depressing." Also like Michael, one of my biggest frustrations is that the mainstream LMSs haven't changed hardly at all in the past ten years. For example, we've used Desire2Learn for almost ten years at my school, and it is virtually unchanged in that time. Oh sure, it is not Desire2Learn anymore; it's D2L Brightspace (yes, D2L BS)... whatever. The name may change, but the LMS remains essentially the same, as if the social transformation of the Internet had never happened.

I also agree that the problem is cultural, not technological. And here's where I would put more of the blame on the standard LMSs for perpetuating a conservative culture of closed by default, instead of open by default (see Martin Weller's nice post: Open by Default). When a faculty member uses some permutation of lecture-quiz-discuss in the closed environment of D2L because that is the only option they have, they do not even have the opportunity to experience the different kinds of learning that can happen in more open environments. So, when I show faculty members what I am doing with student web publishing in my classes, powered by some great aggregation and syndication tools, they like what they see, but when I tell them that D2L does not provide any of the needed tools, they shrug and move on. Would they like to do things better and differently? Sure, I think so; I am not so pessimistic as to say that faculty don't care or cannot tell the difference, especially when you show them some impressive student learning outcomes. But if the only tool the university offers them is completely inadequate to the task, it's understandable that they would just carry on with the same-old same-old. Even worse is the deceptive and dangerous way in which the LMS pretends to offer services and tools which are such poor imitations of the real thing: lousy blogging tool, lousy portfolio tool, etc. (On that, see Mike Caulfield: Maybe the reason people don't use LMS collaboration tools is the tools are not collaborative).

So, I agree with much of what Michael says, but where I disagree is when he wants to entertain the possibility of a "perfect system," as if the quest for a learning management system even makes sense. By way of contrast, let's look at the many different tools faculty use for their research (including a chemistry lab, for example, as Michael invokes in the post). When we think about research tools, it's clear that there is a whole wide range of tools that faculty use both to do research and also to promulgate their research. They don't expect there to be one "research system" that all the researchers will use to do all their research, some sort of Swiss Army knife for research that will "do it all" ... and anyone trying to promote such an approach for research purposes would be laughed off campus. There is no RMS. And so we do not have a decade of blog posts about the problem of the RMS. Faculty are instead busy using real tools for research, and they are also creating great new research tools all the time.

So, since an RMS is such a laughable idea, why haven't we also laughed the idea of an LMS into nonexistence, replacing it instead with whatever range of tools faculty need to support their teaching? (And that is the approach I would advocate BTW.)

Sadly, to answer that question, I think we have to go back to the professional training that faculty receive. In graduate school the future faculty learn all about the research tools they will be using in their research. Laboratory tools, bibliography tools, computing tools, and on and on. They learn about those tools intensively as graduate students, and their success in graduate school depends upon their effective use of those tools.

But teaching tools...?

Uh, nope. It's just not part of graduate school training in any discipline: there is very little training in teaching at all (and thus most people teach as they were taught), and there is even less training in the wide range of digital tools now available to support new kinds of teaching that can be very different from how classroom teaching has been done in the past.

So, it's easy to mock the faculty for their limited and skewed perspectives as Michael does here in the bullet points near the end of his post, and as I have done likewise in my frequent moments of frustration. But if we step back and ask about the causes of the problem, I think we have to look at graduate school programs and the fact that preparation for a teaching career is simply not part of most programs. As a result, we end up with sophisticated scholars, experts in the research tools of their discipline, who are nevertheless inexperienced in the basic tools of teaching, a lack of experience that is most acute in the digital teaching world, new as that world still is. Combine that lack of experience with the poor quality of the LMS, and you clearly have a recipe for disaster.

A disaster for which students are paying the biggest price of all.

So, while I would like to vow not to write about the LMS for another ten years as Michael does here, and while I would like to stop caring about the lack of progress at my school, I cannot seem to make myself stop caring. Thanks to a new tool in my toolbox, Inoreader, I am actually enjoying the best semester I have ever had in my fifteen years as a college instructor. Does that mean I think everybody should drop whatever they are doing and use Inoreader? No, of course not. But since none of the concepts that drive Inoreader can even be glimpsed in an LMS like D2L (aggregation? syndication? nope), it's going to be very hard for me even to have a conversation with other faculty about this. Still, I can keep trying. And hoping.

I wait in hope.


  1. These words make me smile "I am actually enjoying the best semester I have ever had in my fifteen years as a college instructor." It's not because of a tool, its what you have managed to create with that tool. I would venture that perhaps that it's not a lack of teaching tools, but a lack of developing the craft, in fact, to me we have gone too far down the Toolism as Solutionism approach.

    I see a lack of imagination. Fear to imagine. Compliance. People just want a big fat easy button---

    Your latin cat got me thinking.

    I do not see you at all waiting in hope.

    Waiting in hope is passive, it is an aquiescence to power.

    You are doing things, you are not sitting around waiting for something better to happen. Taking action. It got me digging for a brilliant post a year old from Richard Hall, where he (what I got out of it) says he despised hope, and then celebrates something much more powerful- courage. To act.

    Let's see some courageous kitties?

    1. Arghhhh forgot the link for Richard's post

  2. Oh, thanks for your comment, Alan - and Richard's post is new to me: wow. So much goodness there - I especially like this part about pushing back "against the quanta and the clocks that diminish us."

    Meanwhile, you have given me an excuse to share some of the kittehs without fear... of whom there are many. I am (mostly) one of those, ha ha. Anyway, thanks for the comment - and thanks also for getting me hooked up with Connected Courses; I am having a blast with this. I joined in because I got so curious and excited about the GoogleDoc you had set up with people sharing their connected courses and strategies... and now I've met some of those people and many more besides. It's been super!

    Oh, and about toolism: I don't normally sound like a toolist type of person, really, ha ha... but wow, I have to say that the opportunities provided by Inoreader, opportunities I had never even contemplated, sure have been a boost for me this semester. It's been a while since I discovered software that suited me so well as this! And that's a good feeling. :-)

  3. What a great comparison Laura - the RMS that we will never see. I think there is a lot at play here - Alan's "easy button" is a big piece, there are all the traditional IT departments that are most comfortable with managing software packages, not suites of services...and I think you really nailed something, we are just never taught to teach, or to even be curious about teaching the way we are taught to be curious and prepared for research.

  4. Yep, Stacy, the teaching v. research thing is huge, and not just at research universities (although it is surely worst here), but in the graduate programs that train future faculty to do research, even if they may find themselves with a 4-4 course load somewhere or cobbling together a living as adjuncts teaching an even heavier course load than that. It's such a big problem and so pervasive, that we just kind of forget to talk about it... and it's also so depressing to talk about. I don't see any real solutions except for the initiative shown by individuals like the folks whose stories you have been collecting re: open textbooks or the handful of people who present at TSI every year, etc. What we do as individuals is important, but it's also ultimately trivial (but I focus on my students: what I do is NOT trivial for my students...).

    As for changing how things work in graduate school, it's a bootstrap problem: I just don't see how it could be done even IF people wanted to do it, when obviously they don't. If anything we need to be looking at less time in graduate school in order to do something about the crushing debt that people are incurring (did you see the article Phil shared about grad student debt yesterday? terrifying!).
    The Real Student Debt Problem No One is Talking About

    The one really hopeful thing that is changing is the move for open access on the research side. Maybe as faculty get comfortable with that and embrace open for research, maybe (in 10 years? 20 years?) there will be open for teaching.

    Assuming we haven't all been MOOCed by then... :-)

  5. Hi Laura, I always love you thoughts, thanks for sharing :-). I don't have evidence on this either way, but I often wonder about the student side of things. When all the other faculty are just plodding along in D2L and you introduce Inoreader, you probably get excited students. But if you introduce Inoreader, the next class communicates only on Twitter, then there are classes using DropBox, Pinterest, Skype, Diigo, Khan Academy, Nearpod, etc... I can see reaching a point of learner fatigue (but maybe I'm just not giving learners enough credit). It seems like at some point the administration is going to say "holy cow our students can't keep up with all this, let's find a system that will consolidate them all into one place." and thus the LMS is reborn.

    Like I said, I don't actually know, I just make this stuff up as I go :-). But is it possible research is different than learning because we have decided to make it more group-oriented? Would individualized research-based learning get rid of the need for an LMS?

    1. Thanks for your comment, Brian! And listen, I've been hearing the "poor students will be confused" argument for years... but I have yet to see any evidence of that. Students are here to learn, and learning about different tools and how to use them well is an incredibly important thing to learn!

      Is D2L a tool worth learning? Absolutely not. Students will never use it again. It's just for school, just for getting the grade.

      But blogs, Pinterest, Skype, Diigo, Instagram, Twitter, all of that... YES, these are useful tools, and it is very likely they might need/want to use them in the future.

      So, I think every faculty members needs to choose the tools that are most powerful and most useful for any given task, and then provide support for the tools. I provide DETAILED and ENTHUSIASTIC support (as you can imagine, ha ha - I love these tools!), and I make sure that they use the tools every week on a regular basis so that in a couple of weeks it becomes second nature anyway.

      And you can't assume that students know how to use any of the tools - for example, I have a Tech Tip that teaches students how to create email folders in their university Exchange email, and there are students who thank me every semester for teaching them how to do that because they never knew how email folders worked... Go figure. Anyway, I'm glad to take on the burden of teaching such stuff because I like it; for me, it's not a burden. I prefer Gmail but if the students have Exchange email, I try to help insofar as I can.

      But faculty who make their students blog when they themselves don't blog, faculty who expect their students to produce video when they themselves don't produce video, etc. - sure, yes, that's a problem, and can be very frustrating for students. If faculty just expect campus IT to do all that technology teaching and support for them, I think that is unreasonable. I use tools with students that are a part of my everyday professional life, and I am glad to share my professional skills and experience with them, just as I share my skills and experience as a reader, writer, researcher, etc. I can't imagine doing otherwise. :-)

    2. Sorry, I wasn't clear. I think helping students learn *real* web tools has long-term value. I think there is a set of student out there that can't learn web tools, but we can work through that. And I think there are faculty that aren't aware enough of empowered enough to leverage and support those tools effectively, but we can find ways to hold their hands. However, I think asking everyone to jump across ten different disaggregated tools to get at their learning content is unfair. I get grumpy if I have to use more than five in a day, especially when a new one doesn't work like I think it should.

      I still think there's something about the larger-group nature of learning as opposed to research that pulls us toward a consolidated system, but I guess I'm not articulating it well :-). I'd like the "hub" system to just be a collector and jumping-off point, similar to what Michael said. More like how I use Feedly than how I use an LMS right now. I don't know if we'll ever get there, but I'd like to..

    3. Oh, but I'm not asking everyone to do anything at all except to make wise choices based on being well-informed about their options and how those options help them meet their goals. If you get grumpy doing more than five different things in a day, that's how students live every day when you think about it: even if faculty use the same tool (LMS), the PROCEDURES in every class are totally different, different rules, different culture... and the students already have to navigate a different culture in every class they take, often based on the eccentric whims of the faculty. The students are jugglers already, and juggling tools is the least of their worries.

      The LMS does a great job at getting students enrolled in sections that are integrated with the overall enroll system and facilitating, up to a point, some very basic communication with those students. It's good for keeping track of grades in a secure, private space. Those are the features I use it for.

      But is the LMS a good choice for other important things that faculty do? For me, it is a terrible choice for the things I do: creating a writing community where students share and comment on each other's work, building an online textbook for my students and others to use, etc.

      And disaggregated tools are HOW THE WORLD WORKS, so no, I don't see a problem with that at all. On the research side of the university, there are specialized tools for specialized purposes, some widely used, some narrowly used, but nobody talks about the need to STOP using a variety of tools (and teaching students how to use those tools) simply in order to achieve some kind of topdown sameness imposed on us by people who often are not even users of those tools themselves.

      I offer my students a good ground in the basic tools I support (that's the consolidated system for my class)... but for students who want to go beyond that, great: all I ask is that their blog have full RSS for both posts and comments and that their website not have advertising. The LMS, meanwhile, offers nothing I can use for either of those purposes because D2L is what we have. If we had Canvas (but we don't and probably won't ever: the D2L inertia is ENORMOUS), then I would evaluate my choices based on that different set of options.

      There are lots of ways to build hubs, but I think each class is going to have a different kind of hub based on the different kinds of information that are being shared through the network. My students don't use Inoreader by the way, and they are not even interested in Feedly, for all that it is very user-friendly; I do the aggregating and syndicating, and for that Inoreader is a godsend. It's given my classes a much more powerful and flexible hub than I ever had before, glory hallelujah. For other classes, it's not the right tool... but it is for mine.

    4. Fair enough, I actually think we're mostly in agreement. I still think there's something to be said for a consistent jumping-off point, but honestly most of the problem I see is bad software and a pervasive feeling of disempowerment (the lack thereof is one of my favorite things about you, btw). Lots of work still to do :-).

    5. And we missed out on a great chance years ago: when Instructure contacted me and showed me Canvas back in 2010 or whenever it was, I thought it was so cool that real content could be published on the open web and I tried SO HARD to get people at my school to let me teach a test class with it back then. But nobody had any interest... and in the years since, I've gotten so frustrated with D2L that I've just soured on the whole business. My use of tools has evolved in the ecosystem of my school, where D2L is what it's all about, and D2L is a tool which suits my needs not at all. No doubt my perceptions would have been different if I had not been suffering from D2L-induced-tool-deprivation all these years, ha ha.


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