Oh LMS, I wish we could see other platforms…

(I borrowed the headline from a presentation at a conference this spring by Jordan Epp, one of the Instructional Designers at U of S, about the experience some of their instructional designers have had in doing things outside the LMS, mostly with WordPress although they are able to host their own WordPress which is not an option at U of R right now. Not for my unit at least. But I loved the title.)

This week our class has been challenged to post about an educational media or software that we use in our teaching, critiquing it with the following points:

  • Perception vs reality and impacts on education:
  • Proponents, opponents, and adopters of these technologies
  • Effects positive and negative on teaching and learning
  • Pedagogical advantages and disadvantages

flickr photo shared by sandraschoen under a Creative Commons ( BY ) license

The piece of technology that dominates much of my work is the Learning Management System (LMS) which in the case of U of R is Moodle. It is branded as UR Courses but under the hood it is an open source version of Moodle with some plugins and a bit of custom coding (e.g. there is no email tool in Moodle, that is a custom code for U of R).

Moodle Logo
Moodle Logo

I did a video showing some of the behind the scenes of the LMS at U of R with some of my thoughts. And below I have more details on my analysis and issues around having an LMS.

In one of our readings this week (Reframing the role of educational media technologies), the LMS came up:

An exemplary case would be Learning Management Systems (LMS), which
entered the market in the early 2000s. Driven by the principle that innovation by academics requires
sufficient staff autonomy and time for exploration, many bottom-up initiatives emerged for trying out
these new technologies. Soon, distance universities found themselves saddled with a dozen or more of
these LMS, which initially served for exploration purposes only, but gradually were used as production
systems (Westera, 2003). At some stage, however, it became unavoidable to remove most of the
systems, and define a shared institutional infrastructure. Obviously, this is was (and is) a delicate process
because many people need to be convinced, if not sometimes forced, to commence using a single
institutional system, one which they also may not prefer.

I’m going to talk about LMSs in general because, to be honest, there are variations but they are all fairly similar. I have heard similar critiques from colleagues whose institutions use Blackboard or D2L (Desire 2 Learn). Canvas was supposed to be different but it really isn’t that different. If those names are meaningless to you, you can still get the general idea if you have used any of the systems.

The purpose of the LMS is to bring multiple tools together to give instructors a virtual classroom of a sort. Like a classroom, there is a door (the login which limits access to the right students, determined by enrolment methods which are linked to Banner – our student management system). There are the equivalent of bulletin boards (pages and blocks around the pages where information can be shared as well as the News Forum which pushes information out), chalkboards (the content uploaded to the course), even classroom discussion (forums or chats), boxes to hand in assignments (assignment and quiz tools), etc. Instructors can post grades which are privately available to the correct students. It can be done quickly (it only takes a couple minutes to upload something to a course if you know what you are doing). Instructors can have control, just like they do in a classroom (although like a classroom, someone else may have put something on one of the “boards” that you are stuck with – like the copyright information which is present in all courses, and the configuration may not make you too happy if you want some different arrangement). In fact, the entire point was to give instructors control in a digital format.

The systems are built to make teaching instructor-centric. By default, the instructor has complete control and students have none. The instructor determines what goes in the course, how it looks, what happens with it. Students are dropped into that space primarily as observers in a private “walled garden.” That is the analogy most used. It is a garden where the instructor plants what they choose and decides what does and does not belong. Students may visit but only within the boundaries of what is acceptable. No one outside the walled garden can play, there is no interaction with other gardens. We are not talking about teaching in the wild (which is very much what EC&I 833 is and the type of course that Alec is more likely to design).

It is possible to give students some control but it takes time and planning and intentional effort. Even in cases where students are expected to have some control, like a seminar course, often the overall control remains in the teacher’s hands. The focus is still on the framework the teacher designed, not on how that is taken by the students.

As the quote above notes, the reality of the LMS is that institutions purchase usually just one, occasionally more than one, and only provide certain amounts of support and customization. Instructors cannot just do whatever they want necessarily because their institution may not support it. When I say support, I mean technical support (aka calling a help desk to know how to do things), financial support (aka paying for it), or even needing additional approval. In the last case, U of R has a policy that states that unless an instructor has approval from their Dean, 75% of the assessment for their course has to be regradable. When it comes to using online tools, that really means that 75% of the grade needs to be collected through something the university backs up unless it is done in hardcopy. It could be email (that’s right, the university can restore all emails sent through their servers), it could be UR Courses (which is backed up although not daily as the storage requirements are so huge that it takes multiple days just to run one backup). When using third party tools, there is no guarantee that a submission can be retrieved or preserved in the case of an appeal or dispute. The purpose of the LMS has become protection and preservation, but only in the interest of the institution. At other institutions, students do retain access to their LMS course space after the end of the semester but that is not how things work at U of R. We are still mimicking the classroom where things disappear at the end of the semester.

flickr photo shared by Harold Jarche under a Creative Commons ( BY-NC ) license

As you can guess, I’m not exactly a fan. There are times when an LMS does the job. It does, for the most part, provide some protection for private or sensitive conversations. Nothing that is posted online can ever be truly guaranteed to be private (but then again, neither can anything in a classroom because any person could be recording it or taking a photo). Some things should not be shared openly to protect students (from themselves because sometimes everyone makes bad decisions, from others as trolls and others may get involved, or from unintended consequences like professional censure or a future change of status). It gives students one place to find all their materials and all their courses (if instructors use it). It allows electronic submission of assignments and puts the mark with the assignment (again, if instructors use those features).

It is not, however, overly easy to use. The LMS is designed to some extent for the super-user. To get the most out of it, you still need to be quite technically savvy. It takes time to redesign assignments. The structures are pre-built and may not always work with what an instructor actually wants to do (rubrics and marking guides as well as the grade book are perfect examples of things that work but only if you do it Moodle’s way).

And LMSes are not made for students. No matter what anyone tells you, it was not designed for the students. There is no student ownership. Students do not decide what to do with their work in easy ways. Students have very little control, by design. Students cannot even view what information about their activities is tracked (every load of a page, upload of an assignment, email, all of that is tracked and accessible to instructors, but the systems used also track browsers, platforms, etc.).

It’s an issue. Right now, the LMS is the path of least resistance but I hope that we will see more instructors pushing boundaries, trying new things, doing things differently and giving more of the space to students to control.

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