Why your LMS sucks

During the pandemic year many faculty have been forced to create fully online classes in a Learning Management System, such as Canvas or Blackboard. It has been surprisingly difficult. Even those fluent in technologies like email and social media have been flummoxed by the difficulties of using the LMS as an online classroom. There are three main reasons why.

Got folders?

Learning Management Systems appear to be innocent shells into which teachers load “content”, but in reality they each have their own built-in pedagogy. This pedagogy is often archaic and is based on outdated norms of information organization. In the 1990s, LMSs imitated the folder-style structure of Mac and PC (Windows) operating systems. They were really just places to upload content items (usually Word files) and perhaps run a single discussion board (by 2005 or so).

Surprisingly, even when LMSs added more and more features to enable greater interaction and activity, they retained the old structure. It is designed to present material by type: Pages, Lectures, Discussion, Grades, etc. You can see this in the way the menu is constructed.

Presentation by type undermines the organizational integrity of the course. Most scholars think in terms of their field, and how best to present its habits of mind. As teachers, we think next in terms of wrapping elements together to encourage understanding. We do not think in terms of all the articles, all the lectures, all the exams, all the discussions.

Instead, we think in terms of weeks, or units, or modules. We section the learning, combining various elements to cover a particular subject. Separating those resources by type makes no sense when one is creating a pattern of learning.

One solution is to break this framework. If the LMS allows us to add, delete, or hide menu items,we can make new pages which link to the whole pattern of information. It may be possible, for example, to have the menu say Module 1, Module 2, etc., instead of Announcements, Syllabus, Pages, Discussion, Quizzes.

Even so, the system may force its own design. We may have a Module 1 page with all the links to activities, but when the student clicks on that activities, the breadcrumbs may show the folder name (“Quizzes”). Students can get lost following these.

Student-led what?

None of the major LMSs make it easy to implement constructivist or connectivist learning theory. Unlike twenty years ago, instructors may have studied and be trained in active learning teachniques, and have been using them in the classroom. When faced with the LMS, they find themselves stymied.

Created student-led or student-designed work is difficult. LMSs require teacher permissions to set up an assignment, quiz, content area, or discussion. Although some discussion forums allow students to begin topics, this feature must also be set by the instructor.

Some systems seems to be more adaptable, or at least expandable. In LMSs like Canvas, LTI’s (tools using the Learning Tools Interoperability standard) can be added to the system with varying levels of success. An example might be an improved discussion board, or Google Docs, or a group annotation app. Some integrate fairly well into the LMS, making them easy to access from inside the shell and pushing grades back into the system. But all require a bit of technical expertise to set up, and the integration is rarely seamless. Some, like Google Docs, may require students to have a separate Google account, while others need their own structural folder inside the LMS for all activity related to that app. This is particularly true of textbook publishers’ material, which often tries to integrate the publisher’s own textbook site with the LMS.

The solutions here take one of three directions: the internal approach, the LTI approach, or the textbook publisher approach.

Since students can be given control of discussion boards, the internal approach would include using them for different kinds of activity other than discussion: posting lists of websites, sharing resources, posting quotations from reading. The other folder areas (quizzes, pages, etc) can simply not be used.

The LTI approach would involve using more collaborative tools, like Google Docs or group annotation apps or pinboards as the main outside tool, with the instructor learning it well and monitoring it thoroughly.

The textbook publisher approach would be to ignore or hide everything possible in the LMS navigation and use the publisher’s folder as the main work area.

Fifteen papers due today!

Gone are the days when your class was the only online class students were taking. They are now enrolled in many classes within the same LMS at the same institution. In an effort to help them remember the deadlines for everything, the LMS aggregates all the information from all the courses into task lists, using a Calendar or To Do feature.

For example, a conditional release feature makes it possible to prevent a student performing Task B (a test) before they have done Task A (an assignment). Task A is designed to prepare the student for Task B, and ideally would be done within a short period of concentration. But on the student’s Calendar they see Task A, then Task 1 from another class, then Task iii from yet another class, before Task B. By the time they get to Task B, they have no idea what was learned in Task A. An example from three of may classes, running at the same time:

Same day, three different classes

Perhaps you have designed a module to lead students through an introduction, then a short lecture, then a video, then a discussion, then a test. All of these will be disaggregated by due date and will appear in a jumble on the students’ Calendar. Wrapping elements for your class together to encourage deeper understanding becomes impossible.

In addition, by listing all the tasks from all the classes together, the Calendar or List “flattens” all the assignments. It becomes impossible to tell which tasks are more or less important to the student, to learning, or to the grade. They all look equivalent in the same font and size, even if one is a two-minute video and the other is a paper that would take several days.

Unfortunately, this problem may not be solvable. Few LMSs allow control over whether or not to show calendars and lists to students. Because permissions for such features run above the individual course level, instructors usually have no access to any methods that would change the LMS behavior.

The bottom line

Creative pedagogy can work within the limitations of the LMS, but it is not easy to implement. Systems are designed to systematize, and the LMS is designed to create cookie-cutter classes based on outmoded structures rather than to promote innovative approaches. Thus for many of us, understanding its design is essential to adapting, subverting, or acquiescing to its suckiness.


Also published on Medium

2 comments to Why your LMS sucks

  • Great point. Over the past decade, in both Blackboard and Canvas, I set up my own format for classes. I use a module approach for each week, and each module is set up in a format called P.I.A. – Preparation / Interactions / Assessment:

    • Preparation – Preparation is used to help you organize your thoughts before beginning the lesson or module. There are three sections in Preparation: Perspective, Objectives, and a specific task list for the week.

    • Interaction – Interaction is where you encounter new information and work with it (and each other) to develop knowledge. Based on Moore and Kearsley’s (1996) types of interaction needed for distance learning, Interaction for learning occurs in four ways: (1) Student with Content, (2) Student to Student, (3) Student to Instructor, and (4) Student with Self.

    • Assessment – Finally, Assessment is an opportunity for you to demonstrate that you have achieved the objectives you were challenged to master. The evaluation at the end of each module may be informal (discussion comments) or formal (assignments resulting in a grade with feedback).

    Feedback from my students is that they appreciate the consistency week to week and feel my course is more transparent as to assignments … even given that Canvas tries to couple my assignments with those from other classes.

    • Lisa M Lane

      I love this pattern! It builds in the pedagogical reason as well as setting a consistent pathway.

Grade work, not students

It seems like a technology thing, but it isn’t. Of Moodle, Blackboard, and Canvas, only Moodle lets you grade posts, not students.

Bb and Canvas both let you use rubrics/ratings to grade discussions, but both want to grade by student rather than post. Canvas even forces you into one grade per student, regardless of how often they posted.

This is a perfect example of bad pedagogy embedded in the technology. It’s based on the idea of grading students, because students get the grades.

But I don’t grade students — I grade work. In forums for posting primary sources, I rate each source, using qualitative scales — primary source fulfilled, live link needed, full citation needed, etc. These correspond to number grades that go to the Gradebook, but what the student sees is the comment, indicating which corrections they need to make.

And in Moodle I can grade them all with drop downs, because a single, simple forum is all on one page. Super quick.

Bb and Canvas’ insistence on grading per student means several clicks per student, per class, every week, for every source posted. Bad pedagogy, bad workflow.

Perhaps if these LMSs considered that we were grading work rather than students, it wouldn’t be designed like this. When a student asks “did you grade me down?” or “when you grade me, remember I have four classes”, I always point out that I never grade them, only their work.

How did we get to a place where the default is to grade students? Is it our educational culture, associating a person’s work with who they are? Surely that’s a bad idea. When we conflate a person with their work, we imply that their work is not only a product of themselves, it is their self. Every critique become a critique of the self.

We mustn’t embed bad ideas into immutable systems. Really.


Canceling the experiment

Yes, only one day later, following the completion of the zillions of questions I wrote for the activities, I am canceling the experiment (see previous posts on the experiment and its challenges).

I think the last straws were:
1. The photo of a Gay Rights poster that said, “Gay is NOT a choice” with a caption that talked about being gay as a “sexual preference”,
2. The lack of text transcript for any of the songs or speeches, including Woman by Nikki Giovanni and Angela Davis’ audio from prison,
3. Trying to overlook spelling and grammar errors that I’d mark if they were on a student’s paper,
4. Pearson throwing all the assignments (over 1,000) into the Blackboard grade book, instead of the ones I’ve assigned, with no option to just use those (the two options were “all” or “select”, meaning one at a time),
5. Discovering that Mac OS (10.6 or 10.9) running Chrome won’t work with Blackboard because of Java issues, so I have to use Firefox, and
6. Realizing I have just lost over a week to this that I could have spent improving my own materials.

So, alas, no cool article comparing artisan courses to canned courses. At least until we’ve got better canned courses.

6 comments to Canceling the experiment

  • Ted Major

    At least until we’ve got better canned courses.


  • At least your “experiment” was informative for the rest of us…though no real surprise. We spent years trying to get publishers to put materials on the web…and now we need to get them to put “quality” material on the web. One publisher argued with me that it was not their fault…it was the fault of the textbook author – they were just the publisher!

    • That’s the thing – this isn’t even putting materials on the web. They are charging students huge sums to access this stuff, when better work is available out there (where my students currently find it themselves in my artisan classes). The textbook author comment is hysterical – I was approached by several publishers when they were putting these things together. The person who does it is rarely the author. Grrrr. 🙂

  • You are the craziest braviest teacher out there, just the effort had me saying “woah”

    The scary thing is speculating how many other teachers just pop open the can and dole out the stuff.

  • Just echoing what Alan and Britt said: VERY SCARY to think that we are “supposed” to be just using the canned stuff like this. I’ve shifted the emphasis from course content (chosen by me) to student-created content… but insofar as I do need content resources for my students, I wouldn’t expect any publisher to have much of a clue as to what I am looking for… not to mention what my students can afford. THANK YOU for this information about how the experiment went, or, rather, how it DID NOT GO. I hope lots of higher ed admins will read this and start thinking about how important it is to support those of us developing CC- and other openly licensed / public domain materials so that we can effectively connect and share, as opposed to using publishers’ expensive canned slops in our LMS silos… eeeeeek!!!

Challenges of the Experiment

In my last post I detailed my experiment for Fall, wherein I will teach one section of modern U.S. History online using a publisher’s course package, adding only my own discussion topics (four) and writing assignments (five). All other presentation materials and assessments will derive from the package. The class will take place in Blackboard, our fully supported college system.

There are challenges already. The package is set up by chapters, yet chapters cannot be assigned individually inside Blackboard. I have “linked” my Pearson package to the Blackboard class, but all this means is that a button can be used from inside Blackboard which takes you out to the Pearson site. (Supposedly the Blackboard gradebook will reflect the Pearson grades – I’ve “linked” that too.)

PearsonListBut that’s not the real challenge – it’s the material. For each chapter, there is a long list of resources: document activities, image activities, map activities, “closer look” features. Since each of these has at least one question attached (I assume that’s the “activity” – there’s nothing else active here), I assumed these were multiple choice questions, for automatic grading. Turns out most of them are “essay” questions, all of low quality (i.e. “what is x talking about in this document?”), that I would have to grade. I’ve assigned over a dozen for each chapter. Besides, the whole idea of the experiment was to be using their pedagogy as much as possible instead of mine.

So now I’ve spent many, many hours creating multiple-choice questions, one for each document or image. Because I’m an experienced teacher, my questions are good and require critical thinking even though they’re multiple-choice. That in itself may undermine the experiment.

The other (huge) challenge is the quality of the materials. Not only are the questions stupid, but the items themselves do not contain full citations. Some are just copyrighted “Pearson”. Many do not name a photographer, or just say “Library of Congress”. PearsonClipSome don’t even have a date! They let you into just enough code that I can kind of correct some of these by adding words to the title. But there are audio files with no lyrics or transcripts. And, worst of all, the primary source video clips (Edison’s footage of Annie Oakley, footage of the Rough Riders) are in low resolution and look terrible. I could find better quality of the same footage using Internet Archive. There are also typographical errors in the transcript and in the titles and descriptions of the sources.

The interface for me requires a lot of deep drilling to do things, and the system persists in showing items I supposedly made invisible because I won’t be using them. It does, however, distribute any changes I make across the system.

Clearly MyHistoryLab is just a book supplement, rather than a full course cartridge, and yes, I expected much more. REVEL, their new, more interactive program, only became available yesterday, so I can’t use that yet because I don’t have time to play with it and make assignments. Stuck with MyHistoryLab for this semester, I can only hope this will be a semblance of the experiment I planned.

Embedding stuff: the missing manual

We’ve had some assignments at Pedagogy First! lately where we asked people to embed stuff, but didn’t tell them how! 8-0

Sooo….Here is a YouTube video on embedding a Slideshare slidecast into Blackboard, Moodle and WordPress:


Here is another, on embedding a Jing video from Screencast.com into Blackboard, Moodle and WordPress:


And here is one on embedding a YouTube video (like these) into a WordPress post:


2 comments to Embedding stuff: the missing manual

The dangers of segregating the digital sphere

I have begun to think it is dangerous to consider the digital, the online, the technological, as separate from the whole.

Partly this thought is a result of attending Martin Weller’s presentation this morning for the Change MOOC, where he presented a wonderful discussion of Digital Scholarship. But my question was whether the attention given to digital scholarship as its own issue doesn’t undermine the effort to have it become mainstream.

This goes beyond the “no significant difference” argument that comes up periodically for online teaching, although for me it started there. At our college, online teaching came about as a “modality” or “mode of delivery”, because it was 1998 and we were trying to offer it as an option for students. We taught ourselves how to teach online, all before learning management systems, best practices, or student learning outcomes. And most of us involved said it was just teaching, doing what we do but adapting it for a different “classroom”. I’m not sure I ever saw the difference between “online education” and “education”, or my “online U.S. history class” and my “U.S. history class”.

It’s not that I don’t acknowledge differences between the relationships, work tasks, and communication we engage in online and those we engage in face-to-face. But I also acknowledge differences between relationships, work tasks, and communication in various face-to-face settings, and it has always been that way. If we say “online community” instead of just “community”, we imply a separate reality that may or may not be the case. Rick Schwier’s presentation in Alec Couros’ EC&I831 last night noted that there are many ways that communities form in online environments, and of course there are many ways that communities form in-person also. Schwier noted that some of us use multiple online personalities, reflecting the in-person reality that you don’t talk the same way to your priest as you do to your coach as you do to your mom as you do to your college president.

A class is a class to me, whether it’s taught under a tree, or in a circle, or over the internet, or by hand-written snail mail.

I’m going to argue for completely ignoring the fact that things are “digital” or “online”. In terms of scholarship (it’s own heavily-laden word), continuing to fight for the acceptance of “digital scholarship” perpetuates the idea that it is somehow different from “regular scholarship”, that is is not as real. We shouldn’t focus only on the vetting of articles, the false scarcity of  information and the tyranny of for-profit journals, but on behaving as if it’s just scholarship. The same standards (peer review, for example) should apply if  you’re going to say it’s real, or scientific, or important, but whether it’s online for free or in a bound pay-walled journal  is irrelevant in terms of its value. It’s either good research and useful to me, or it’s crappy research regardless of format.

This is why I am against the idea of having a “dean of online”, a “coordinator of online education”, or anything else that segregates the digital aspects of education into their own sphere. If we do that, we continue to emphasize its differences. While this may be an advantage up to a point (getting funding for online projects, justifying masters programs in educational technology, paying government employees to create standards and rules for accessibility), it also provides ammunition for those who are resistant to technology and resistant to change. It packages the “technology-enhanced” and the “online” and the “distance ed” into something that is easier to dismiss and de-fund. Such packaging can also discourage innovation by making “online education” a specialization beyond the understanding of ordinary faculty, something that requires strict management by administrators. And that packaging can be literally packaged, by selling “online courses” created by “teams” at for-profit institutions, or “course cartridges” in Blackboard, available for those too controlled or too timid to create their own classes.

The distinction thus gets in the way of professional development, when good faculty feel they are entering a new and scary world instead of just extending something they already do skillfully — teach.

So I’m declaring myself against “digital scholarship”, “online community”, “distance education”, and anything else that applies a special adjective to something wonderful we do as humans but happen to do using a computer.

And no, that doesn’t mean my Facebook “friends” are my “real friends”.

13 comments to The dangers of segregating the digital sphere

  • james

    Digital Humanities?

  • Agreed. I’ve grown to dislike the constant differentiation between eLearning and non-eLearning. There are differences to consider in different mediums – audio, video, virtual (e.g. secondLife), etcetera – but the same goes for large class teaching, group work, tutorials, laboratories etcetera.

    The emphasis on the fact technology is involved creates perceptional boundaries that shouldn’t be there.

  • You make some really great points that I hadn’t thought about, especially about desegregating online from traditional scholarship. Yes, scholarship is scholarship regardless of where it’s shared.

    I can’t help but think, though, that digital technologies have changed (or should change) the way we do things; that is, teach and research/write. Many educators continue to use technology in teacher-centric ways. They see teaching with technology as a way to disseminate more information quickly and efficiently. For whatever reason they haven’t tapped into technology’s affordances of collaborative knowledge-building, etc.

    The segregation probably started with the “no significant difference” argument, but online learning can mean a higher form of learning that involves greater critical thinking, problem solving, etc than the more traditional methods of instruction. I think this is true as best practices are more easily shared and web 2.0 tools allow educators to engage in PD.

    • Well…the methods and technologies we use to share knowledge always change the way we do things (thinking the advent of writing, paper, printing, the teletype machine, the telephone). Useful technologies enhance and expand good practice, but they needn’t become so specialized that they overrun those uses. And the potential for higher forms of learning, greater critical thinking, doing things in a non-teacher-centric way, etc can be there f2f (or in other formats) as well. I confess I am no longer sure who’s defining “best practices”, but it can be done in any environment, I think.

      • I agree, some of these learning theories that are now being touted in elearning circles, like constructivism, was around before computers in ed! I like what you say, “Useful technologies enhance and expand good practice….” That’s supposing that good practices existed prior to computers with a particular teacher, and that, unfortunately, isn’t always the case.

  • Eric r

    Awesome as always. Love the insights.

  • RoseQ (@RoseQ)


    To add to the discussion – and to pick up on a discussion Lisa and I had offline from this space – I presented a paper on Tuesday on exactly the issue of creating divides and dichotomies that may ultimately not be useful and often are not productive- in fact, may be downright alienating! Not only is the topic relevant but also the fact that I used (with permission:) ) the Beginner’s Questionnaire as a “take-away” for attendees. I did modify it to exclude the scales (as I didn’t intend to engage how they could be interpreted) and added more details/ links to both the overall programme/ certification and this particular instantiation of it. Thought you’d all enjoy being a little famous by association 🙂

    My point being that we can both demonise and celebrate specific forms (modes/ pedagogies etc) of teaching & learning and we can also create divides between teachers (lecturers) and technology – but to what end? I particularly support engagements which focus on abundance thinking rather than scarcity/ deficit and likewise which seek common ground rather than differences. I’ve uploaded the ppt slides, includes abstract to slideshare if you’d like to take a look.
    Quilling 91 utlo2011 http://slidesha.re/obiMds


    • Great slides – I like the “dangers of dichotomy” and the idea of teachers reclaiming their space. There is fear on a number of levels, but the focus should be on what we can do. And it’s nice to see the questionnaire adapted and used. 🙂

  • I agree theoretically, but I do wonder if taking a hard stance (“there is no difference”) from the onset will create more problems. Working as one of the online learning coordinators that shouldn’t exist (and that’s actually one point I agree with more strongly ;)), I think the major issue for online/digital/etc. education is that the separation already exists. It exists because non-online educators (i.e. most educators and most often those in power) think that online education is something fundamentally different and, usually, something fundamentally inferior, regardless of the evidence to the contrary.

    Ditching the separation from the start is, I think, a recipe for reinforcing the separation. We have to recognize the established separation in order to work to tear it down. I know that I’m spending a large part of my time as a coordinator arguing precisely against this descriptive/evaluative split between “real” education and online education. But I couldn’t do that if I rejected the dichotomy out of the gate. It’s an unfortunate truth that we have to use problematic categories in order to tear down those categories. Ignoring those categories actually helps those categories continue on.

    So, yes, let’s aim for destroying the perceived split, but let’s do it by recognizing the existence of that split and targeting its problems. I think this is a good start–pointing out the problem with the split–but the solution–ignoring the distinctions in place–is probably going to contribute, not prevent the segregation of educations. It’s an unfortunate reality that online education is starting from a disadvantage position.

    • I get it, Brandon, I really do, and this is basically the position I’ve taken for many years. I’ve chaired committees and helped with the “online aspect” of everything, but I’m seeing the split worsen. One reason is that people who think they know “education” but don’t know “online” are lazy and want to delegate the “online” stuff to someone else instead of developing a larger view of what “education” is. For this and other reasons, it’s getting more and more granular and less inclusive. I’ve gone along for years with hiring specialists, and considering online issues separately, while trying to convince Senate presidents and other faculty that it’s all just education, that the curricular committee needs to understand how online fits in, and that each committee on campus should have someone who gets online education issues, rather than creating separate DE committees or ignoring the issue entirely (the result of our most recent organization was no faculty input into technology at all for several years) . I’m not so much ignoring the distinctions in place as insisting we must wrap them into much larger concepts and deal with them internally, because the division is increasing the disadvantageous position online learning has in the larger sphere.

      • Makes perfect sense. In fact, that delegating is why I have the job I do. Good for me. Bad in general. I would much prefer that things had continued under the original plan, which was a mixed faculty/student committee putting together solutions and resources, but the faculty just weren’t willing to see online education as anything but lesser. An attempt to build up the online program began to look like an attempt to cut it down to almost nothing. And so began my advocacy.

        The question becomes how do we frame the issue in these terms? How do we push to get online added as just one part of a committee, for instance?

  • […] was concerned about the dangers of segregating the digital sphere, and she remarked that: “The distinction thus gets in the way of professional development, […]

Defaults are bad

I’ve said it before, but the evidence is clearly stacking up.

Take “Hackgate“, where devious journalists apparently hacked people’s cell phones. How did they do it? No complicated geekiness involved, really. Each cellphone provider programs its phones with a default password. Few people change it. So it’s easy to log in as someone and get their info.

According to Tristan Stewart-Robertson , “Most people wouldn’t think to change the standard manufacturer’s code, such as 9999 or 0000, to protect voicemail, and so it’s usually quite easy to access.”

In other words, leaving your cell phone on its default is bad.

Do you like WordPress? I do. When I set up a new blog, it gives me an “admin” username automatically. But since it does that for everyone, it’s easy to hack into.

So you need to make your own account with a password, make that account an Administrator, then delete the default account. Because default is bad.

As online instructors, we do it with Learning Management Systems. Blackboard says this menu button is for syllabus, so we upload our syllabus there. This button is for discussions, so we create them all there. This one is for quizzes. Now they have one called “Content”. Oh my, that’s helpful.

My class is organized like a syllabus. I need a button for Unit 1, a button for Unit 2. Every time we do a workshop where one of our faculty demonstrates how we’ve adjusted an LMS to make it look like a syllabus, we see light bulbs go on all over the room. We have, over the years, called these workshops things like “Making Blackboard Work for You”, “Redesigning Blackboard”, and “The Interactive Syllabus”. Yesterday our presenters Andrea Petri and Laura Paciorek gave a workshop called “A New Wardrobe for Blackboard: Technical Basics of Instructional Design”. Andrea showed us his class, organized into units, with each unit a page full of links, all in one place for that unit.

We’ve got tutorials, like this one on creating an interactive syllabus in Blackboard by Pilar Hernández . We have a handout showing a logical chapter-based LMS menu. Laura Paciorek made a screencast on how to change the Blackboard menu . And still, the first thing most new instructors do is load their .doc syllabus into the Syllabus or Content area. Sigh.

Not changing the defaults is akin to leaving the light flashing 12:00 on the VCR (you remember VCRs, right?). Next semester we’ll offer another, longer workshop. We’re thinking of something like “Creating Learning Units in Blackboard”.

Because defaults, you know, are bad.

2 comments to Defaults are bad

  • Anna Stirling

    Lisa – your blog is great! I stumbled upon it while looking for information to present at a professional development workshop about online teaching and it echos everything I have been saying for so long! THANK YOU! It’s great to know there are other people with the same frustrations I have. :o) I will be sharing your blog as a resource in my training.

The LMS and the adolescence of web learning

I am noting this semester that although our surveys still show a substantial preference among students for Moodle over Blackboard, more students than before are whining and saying they want just Blackboard.

The main reasons are that they’d prefer having all their classes in one system (convenience), and they don’t want to be confused by using a new system (ease).

I am concerned because I sense that the “one LMS to rule them all” viewpoint is getting more and more traction, and that the new argument (as opposed to administrative, top-down, management arguments) is going to be that students prefer it. Diploma mills like to standardize their LMS configuration for all their classes to control content and teaching, but they justify it by saying that it’s easier (read: better) for the students. This thinking is bleeding into public education.

While I understand the desire for convenience, I have long argued that when students take classes online, they are learning not only the subject matter but technology skills. Being exposed to more than one system means they are learning transferrability of those skills, which I think is important in the workplace. And it’s more important than the inconvenience of using a second log-in (which they do anyway because they have Facebook open at the same time).

On the issue of ease, there may be levels of web learning maturation at work here:

Childhood: people who are very new to using the web for learning tend to accept what is given to them, because they don’t really know what the options are. When online learning with the LMS was new, most people were in this category.

Adulthood: people who use the web a great deal and in varied ways tend to do better in online classes, and assess the worth of the LMS (or any tool) based on how well it works for the course.

Adolescence: in between are the adolescents. They know just enough to be dangerous. They have enough experience to want convenience and not enough to understand the larger issues of pedagogy, including the restrictiveness of an LMS on what the instructor wants to do. They can drive but have no sense of how traffic works.

And they haven’t been exposed to enough good online classes, or enough online classes that customize the system sufficiently. If you take five classes in Blackboard, and in each one the instructor has left the course menu items pretty much intact, than that is what you think a Bb class looks like. You know where all the buttons are.  The students don’t know this, but the way I would use Bb, my class could look just like it does in Moodle:

Well, pretty close anyway.

Why it’s important to deal now with the “teen angst” of web-adolescence:

1. Not customizing the LMS to suit your pedagogy implies that we all teach the same way. If we all teach the same way, then a computer can do our work instead. (I’ve been reading Daniel Pink’s A Whole New Mind – he’s pretty clear that if a computer can do your job, eventually it will.)

2. Instructors should use the tools that best create the environment they want, and that increasingly means web applications that require multiple log-ins. Students should get accustomed to using separate tools for separate tasks, just like in the real world.

3. Acknowledging the teen view means taking it seriously, but it doesn’t mean developing policy around it. Just as parents try to mitigate the excesses of the teen diet and habits, we owe students our wisdom in creating the learning experience that is most appropriate. (Oh dear, I’m starting to sound like Edmund Burke again.)

In a world dominated by look-alike online classes, the tendency will be to assume all classes should be that way.

In a world featuring variety and creativity, the tendency will be to assume these as part of learning online.

I’d much prefer to both learn and teach in the latter.

5 comments to The LMS and the adolescence of web learning

  • Hey Lisa,

    Nice post – I see this drive for generic, I mean consistent, courseware quite a bit, and it can be frustrating to try and promote flexibility and being ‘fit for purpose’ instead. I sometimes ponder the drive for consistency in the multitude of enterprise learning systems that are being integrated together in contrast with the myriad of inconsistent online tools that many students are probably already using and wonder if we really aren’t giving them enough credit in being able to cope with flexibility.

    Thanks for the post 🙂


  • Todd Conaway

    I love the comparison and you ask some great questions here.

    “In a world dominated by look-alike online classes, the tendency will be to assume all classes should be that way.” frightening.

    I was really inspired by Gardner Campbell’s “No Digital Facelifts” video early on in the ds106 class (http://ds106.us/2011/01/12/a-personal-cyberinfrastructure/)and I have been thinking about the need for and value of developing our own learning environments as teachers and as students. The LMS seems to play down that part, often pointing to the lowest common denominator, or standardization, of web based experiences. If the goal was to recreate the classroom the LMS would be fine, but I think we have recognized the danger in just delivering content. Just like there is the world outside the classroom, there is also the world outside the LMS.

    Awesome post.

  • Pilar

    This is right on, Lisa.
    In my opinion, we most definitely are not giving students enough credit for being able to cope with flexibility. In my online Spanish classes, I’ve asked students to go from Blackboard to Ning, to Voicethread to their online workbook to Skype. Let’s count em’….up to 5 different logins. I’ve never received any complaints from students, including on anonymous evaluations of my teaching. Variety and creativity are valued from an on-site instructor.
    What’s best for online students? Well, for starters let’s not short change them. Like their on-site counterparts, they deserve and appreciate creative approaches to teaching.

  • Lisa, thanks for this post. My campus is literally in its adolescence (established 1994) and recently went from Blackboard to Moodle. At the same time, we tried to solve the “single login dilemma” across the campus network– not quite there yet but it’s better. At the classroom level, which (ahem) is where the students are, this may be exaggerated as a dilemma by IT, students, and faculty. You’ve hit a point I have not seen discussed elsewhere:

    “…a second log-in (which they do anyway because they have Facebook open at the same time)…” [emphasis added]

    Students log in once for my class, at least once more (surreptitiously or not) for FB, chat, games, and should I mention on more than one device? Multiple logins are normal and we need to teach accordingly.

  • Julia

    Lisa, I really enjoyed your post, but I can’t help but to feel completely confused after reading it! I guess you could say that I am in the childhood phase; for sure, because I’m not even sure what a lms is. I guess maybe you can help me figure something out then….I am looking into an elearning conference this September put on by 2elearning.com. Has anyone heard of this?

Encountering Balrog 9…I mean, Blackboard 9

Oh, my, that start page is ugly. Looks like all they’ve done is moved everything to little menus on the side.

OK, let’s customize that home page. Add my own banner, which has worked and looked beautiful on everything from a plain web page to WordPress. Hmmmm….

Looks like maybe we’re not getting the idea of a white background?

OK, I’ll click that cool gearwheel on Announcements. Maybe I can change settings there to email students or something. Oh, a click down just to do this?

OK, I’ll do a welcome announcement. I’d like a snazzy font for it — this HTML tool bar, which I had to click Thawte’s “Trust” to get to appear, certainly seems full-featured. Oh, these are the only fonts?

It’s starting to feel a little Microsoft here. And it took me a minute to figure out how to get back to the Home Page, where my Announcement isn’t actually in the announcement box — it’s just a link.

So really, nothing’s changed except that you can now embed more media — the toolbar is more complete and lets you upload or link out to a URL. Very, very good. But the discussions are still threaded rather than nested, too many clicks are required to get to something simple, and it’s still got that DOS feel.

I haven’t gotten swiped off the bridge, but it’s not looking good so far…

Then my colleague Pilar Hernández did a screencast to show me how she’s made her Bb site for her class behave more like Moodle. We’re still in the mines, but maybe there’s some light showing…


Entering the Mines of Moria

Ning went commercial, but it worked great for my on-site San Elijo class. So where should my class be this fall? I need a posting board, a gradebook (I linked out to Engrade from Ning no problem), and somewhere they can work in groups posting images and text to illustrate group presentations.

I applied to Pearson for a free Ning, but they’ll brand it even if they ever do approve me. Could use Moodle, of course, but that’s boring — all my online classes are there already. Would like something more Ning-like, but Spruz and Wackwall have ads or are creepy (at least until Wackwall releases its Oxwall code in a few days). Grou.ps looked good but a colleague of mine had trouble with it. Facebook? Um…maybe later, when I really feel like ducking my head to crawl into the creepy treehouse.

My college is upgrading to Balrog, I mean Blackboard, 9. I have been invited to pilot it for fall. So perhaps, just perhaps, I should run the class there. I’d learn about Bb9 so I can help faculty, and I’d see how much web 2.0-my I can plug into it.

I haven’t offered a class in Bb in years. I have this sense of going to the dark side, without the cookies. Or descending into the Mines of Moria. Will I survive? If I do, will I be forever changed? Perhaps I shall emerge as a White Wizard, wiser than before….

2 comments to Entering the Mines of Moria

  • I find that I disdain Bb more now than I ever did before. In no large part, I think, because it’s based on informed knowledge about the application rather than blind hatred.

    Then again in some ways it’s an amazing challenge to see how many cracks I can put in the closed system and how much light of day I can let into the mine. I like challenges, so looking at it that way I’m able to swallow the bitter pill just a little bit more easily – but not much LOL

    I don’t think you’ll feel compelled to embrace the borg if you do offer a course in it. Personally I find it reminds me how much better distributed systems are for everyone but bureaucrats and administrators.

  • Lisa:

    Sure Bb 9 does not do all we would want, but it does do the logistics side well (roster management, gradebook, email). So I use it as the portal but link out of it to wikis or Google Site that allow for more open collaboration. My students seem to think it is all “Blackboard” but if they are learning, I could care less what they call it.

    Having said that, I love the visualization of Balrog 9!