Diluting the Kool-Aid

Finding myself arguing social benefits of an LMS was a sobering experience. It happened tonight in a COOLCast featuring Bon Stewart, who had mentioned that she prefers networks to systems like Moodle because the students can find each other. I shared my story of discovering students finding each other using Moodle Messages. Then I actually argued that some students might feel more comfortable contacting each other inside an LMS, where there is a commonality with other students, all of whom are taking the class. This might be more comfortable than Facebook, where you are supposed to be “friends”. In the LMS, you are clearly colleagues and might feel freer to call upon each other for, say, help with the class.

This, combined with my last post including some good things about an LMS or course blog, means I’m diluting the Kool-Aid.*

I know the strong flavor of connectivism, the headiness of open networks, the high of networked learning. I’ve experienced and studied it in the CCK08 class four years ago, in the joy that is ds106, in Twitter, in Facebook, and Diigo and Google Plus. I am a networked person, a networked teacher. I’ve read Vgotsky, Holt, Tapscott, Gladwell, Kamanetz, Rheingold. I’ve taken class with Siemens, Downes, Cormier, Couros and Groom. My articles on why Learning Management Systems are badly designed and anathema for novice online instructors still hold true.

Yet I’ve been continually skeptical (some would say critical) of ignoring the bad impacts of social media, the privacy violations, the perpetuation of teenage popularity contests through such sites as Technorati and Klout. I’ve also read Lanier, Bauerlein, and Carr. And I’ve watched in horror as the wonderful openness that is MOOCs gets commercialized and monetized and universitized and systematized.

I’ve used Blackboard and Moodle and WordPress. I’ve watched my own students get lost, inside and outside an LMS. I’ve seen them ignore the obvious, mislay the instructions, forget the deadlines, fail the class, inside and outside an LMS. I’ve also seen them fly outside the box, discover wonderful things, build their own learning, both inside and outside an LMS. In my SMOOC I’ve guided a global contingent of adults in using their own blogs, aggregated to a central blog, and had some get lost, and some get joy.

And each semester I agonize over using Moodle again, feeling trapped in my 6 sections of 40 students each. But I am not a novice online instructor. I create meaningful assignments, and make informed choices about what I have my students do and not do. I can force an LMS to do what I want. So why do I feel pressured to “network” my students’ class experience? Will their learning really improve if they search the web for primary sources and post them on their own blog instead of in a dedicated class space? Will they learn history better communicating with fellow (18 and 19-year-old) students in the space where they talk to their friends? Will they become better historians if they follow their own interests to the exclusion of, for lack of a better term, the canon of historical “content” considered basic knowledge in other countries?

All the flavors are important: self-directed learning, open education, constructivism. But a watered-down version, inside an LMS or on a common blog, can let them join the party without passing out in the bathroom. They can use the open web for their research, finding their sources, then return to the familiar “classroom” to get information, post their work, discuss with colleagues.

But me? I can drink the Kool-Aid straight up to study all this. I want it as strong as I can get it for my own learning about the web as an environment for learning and an educational tool. But I wouldn’t want that if I were taking an online class in biology, math, or literature. I wouldn’t want to go find my colleagues in Facebook if I didn’t understand that Coleridge poem or what Assignment 1 was supposed to be about. I’d want a classroom, and class colleagues, and a space I know is dedicated to learning. I’d at least want to start with watered down Kool-Aid and a sippy cap, then get the strong stuff in a big girl cup when I have more experience.

Or, at least, that’s what I’m thinking today.


* Cultural literacy note: “drinking the Kool-Aid” is a tasteless reference to the Jonestown Massacre

4 comments to Diluting the Kool-Aid

  • I’m finding myself less and less concerned about where the main course spaces are these days, so long as students have the ability to take their work with them. So in that sense data portability has become more my focal point than PLEs as such.

    I still believe there is a lot of value in PLEs for the people who really “get” them and have developed the necessary literacies/skills to fluently navigate them. However I also find that students often seek the known L&T spaces that they are familiar with. So unless you are teaching a course on digital culture or media, there is a real danger of the sites/services taking priority over the subject matter and related learning processes.

    I think ultimately in order for PLEs, distributed networks, MOOCs and the like to really have a meaningful effect they seem to require a program level view that devotes the necessary attention to helping students develop the right skills. Given this doesn’t tend to exist in most places, it really does point to the need for a more tempered approach to where these tools fit, I think.

  • I like Tropical Punch myself, the real fruity kind.

    As a half full glass optimist, I prefer to think the networking effects can happen in most any space. Getting lost is uncomfortable, but I worry if we shy too often away from that, because you learn more from finding your way when lost then never getting lost.

  • Lisa, you are lucky with Moodle. With Desire2Learn (and, as I’ve learned) with Blackboard, there is nothing there to drink. The pitcher is empty. For example, in Desire2Learn, students are FORCED to use their “name of record” even though, in a given semester, about one-third to one-fourth of my students are using either a nickname (Bobby instead of Robert, say) or, even more seriously, using their middle name instead of their first name (so, D2L forces my student Greg to be Harold, whether he wants to or not). As long as students do not have basic control over their identity in an online system (choosing the name, choosing the avatar, “representing” themselves in virtual form), I cannot find a good way to make use of the system. That’s why I use a Ning for my class interaction space (blogging space, comment walls for additional person-to-person interaction, etc.). There’s simply no way to make Desire2Learn do even the minimum of what I need it to do for networking… which is no surprise, since Desire2Learn is being marketed to an audience of faculty for whom networking is not a priority. In fact, for many it is positively undesirable.

  • @Mike – agreed on portability, which seems to me relatively rare. I focus on spaces because that is where most faculty start.

    @Alan – yes, exactly, networks can happen anywhere – I just confess I’ve been biased thinking they cannot happen inside systems, although I do think systems may stifle their freedom. I wonder now whether the stifling, kind of like the 1930s Hays Code, doesn’t inspire some need to break away and create your own.

    @Laura – I don’t know what to call those super-closed systems. There is something different about the restrictiveness of Bb and D2L that defies logic and totally contradicts the whole Hays Code idea. Ning is, of course, a system too, a network in a box, but in that way more like Moodle or WordPress.