The LMS: The Crockpot of Education?

Fr. Sarducci Introduces Mr. Tea

“It does all the work!”

I am not particularly for the learning management system any more than I am for or against word processors. But no one expects that by owning word processing software, you are somehow a writer. Or that better word processing software will make you a better writer. Back in the late 70s on Saturday Night Live, Father Guido Sarducci introduced “Mr. Tea” – “You provide the tea bag and the hot water and it does all the work!” He was, of course, making fun of the Mr. Coffee and crockpot culture of the time – appliances that really didn’t solve any problems or solve them well. Anyone who has had a pot roast cooked in a crock pot knows what I am talking about. In many ways, the learning management systems colleges are using are part of the “set it and forget it” culture of our time: why have the students work on a project when we can give them a canned multiple choice test from the publisher? There is even software that will read student papers. There is something about learning management systems and how they are built that does not really bring out the best in teachers or students. As an instructional designer, I have noticed over and over again how instructors who knew how to teach had to adapt what they do to the tools that they used and sometimes sacrifice the teaching and learning experience – they start to use canned tests or commercial publisher’s content because the tools do not allow students to show their work, collaborate effectively, or engage with one another in a meaningful way. It takes a lot of experience to learn how to teach effectively over the internet just as it took time to learn how to teach face-to-face. But the new LMS is out there.  The latest LMS is always easier, faster, and better by any hyperbolic percentage you care to add here. It is brighter, shinier, and more Web 3.0-ish. But then the “problems” arise: faculty find out that in spite of all of the slickness of the LMS, it takes real time and real work to teach online.

What the new LMS will NOT do:

  • Provide a human presence to the class
  • Create engaging learning experiences
  • Develop authentic assessment in your discipline
  • Build relationships and trust
  • Read and grade papers or assignments with meaningful feedback
  • Provide students with your knowledge and experience
  • Cook a brisket in under an hour

Besides the brisket part, those are all things that you have to do as a teacher. This is the work of teaching. Online teaching doesn’t take more time: not knowing how to teach online is what takes time. Faculty spend 16 or more years in a traditional classroom and then teach for more years in a traditional classroom and then they are often asked (or told) to teach online with little training. And it is not the same as teaching face-to-face. It is not better or worse, but it is profoundly different. A new LMS will not solve this problem. It will be solved by mentoring, practice, research, workshops or classes. It is a problem faculty learn to solve.

So what options are there besides the canned classroom served up by the LMS? There are a number of them. Ironically, many of these ideas were being explored when I got into online learning as far back as 1997. Back then, at California State University, Monterey Bay, we were exploring eportfolios and portfolio assessment. Paloff and Pratt were talking about online learning as a means of creating learning communities rather than using the internet as a one-way delivery of information. In the early 2000’s, I was working with publishers on banks of data that would feed into simulations for studying things like epidemiology. The students would form disease a disease control task force and use the data to make decisions about what to do next. It wasn’t about the software or the data – the students had to use the tools in such a way as to build the relationships and communication that allowed them to solve the problem.

For the last 7 or 8 years educators such as Stephen Downes have been writing about what was to become the “personal learning network” idea. This where students combine their own tools to manage their own learning and connect with their teacher and one another to create learning. This is also an important component in the ideas around Downes and Siemens’ Connectivism theory.  What is really important about the idea of a PLN is that the students are learning, creating connections, and developing a network using the actual medium they will be working in when they get out of college. Since I left college no one has asked me to write a five page essay or take a multiple choice test unless you count the DMV – and judging from the morning commute, that system of testing is a utter failure. In fact, I was at a meeting once at a major education publishing house five years ago, and they were talking about a new hire. When the manager asked why one candidate over another, the other manager said one of them new all about blogging and had a great blog. The irony here is that despite understanding what was important for the operations of the business, they couldn’t see how the same processes were going to change the print industry and our relationship to knowledge and learning.

Jim Groom, Tim Owens and others are taking this to the next level with Reclaim Hosting. I first ran into Jim Groom via his course, DS106, which is project based, student directed class (some call it a cult) on digital story telling. This course represents a curriculum design that makes things like LMSs irrelevant as does Cormier’s Rhizomatic Learning. Reclaim Hosting enables students to register their own domain, install their own blogs and other tools and manage their own learning while keeping control of their own information. Why wouldn’t we want students to do that? I used to have concerns about teaching students how to do this but at the end of the day, I realized that we had to work just as hard to learn how to use the LMS. We had to work just as hard to teach students how to be dependent on a corporation to “manage” their learning. Why is that a good thing?

In the meantime, institutions are addicted to the promise of the LMS. For administrators, the LMS is great: it provides assurances of privacy and FERPA protections, it gets the students in and out at the end of the semester, and records all the grades (when the gradebook is set up right and working). But as John Culkin said “We become what we behold. We shape our tools and thereafter, they shape us.” What will become of us if the tools we use are open, collaborative, and in the hands of students? Learning shouldn’t stop once class is over, or at the end of the semester, or at the awarding of a credential. We don’t need an LMS that slices, dices and makes Julianne fries. We need open tools that facilitate real learning which is a life-long transformative experience that changes how one engages with the world. I am keeping my eye on Reclaim Hosting and implementations of it such as what Chris Mattia is doing at CSU, Channel Islands as something that could possibly be rolled to other California State Universities.

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