Escape the Complexity by Looking Backward

This was one of the worst starts to the semester ever, thanks to the horrors of the Moodle integration with the college’s enrollment system. In getting very little sleep working out complex problems by simply observing the behavior of Moodle, I became not only exhausted but also increasingly uncomfortable with the complexity of the system and my dependence on it.

We all know I am not a fan of the LMS, and yet I use one because I have so many students whose work must be monitored. This semester it’s 220+ students, in six class sections. My preferred pedagogy demands that I be personally involved in presentation, interaction and assessment, so it is a lot of involvement per student – this is not MOOC land. Moodle has served me well, despite the fact that it is a closed silo or walled garden (choose your metaphor), except…

Except that as time has gone on Moodle, like every LMS, has increased in complexity. Features multiply, usability issues become new features instead of being repaired in the previous format, and more layers are added (such as the contextual menus). The college is in Moodle 1.9, but I piloted 2.0 with my summer class on my own server, and am currently piloting 2.2 with my fall on-site class on the college’s contract with Mooderooms. The forced integration of the enrollment system with Moodle 1.9 added another layer of complexity.

Rewind to 1998, when I began teaching online. There was no LMS. What we had were standard HTML web pages for presentation (syllabus, lectures, readings), and a little program called Webboard for discussion. Most exams and papers were submitted via email, and we would create folders in our own email system for each student or class. When the LMS arrived (and actually we had three of them to choose from then), it seemed ridiculously cumbersome and old-fashioned to use email for assignments or Webboard for interaction, so we switched over.

from Colin Milligand’s 1998 paper

Well, now it is the LMS that has become ridiculously cumbersome. The sheer number of Moodle operations that were affected by the integration of the enrollment system was appalling: it impacted everything from faculty being able to control the short name of their course to whether a particular student could be added to a group. And as the complexity of these systems increases, “security” issues cause administrators to block more and more permissions for faculty, including the ability to change a student’s password. This forces faculty further and further from the heart of the system.

The obvious thing to do is leave the LMS and go forward, into the land of social media or WordPress. With 240 students, no funding, the inappropriateness of ad-based websites for education, the number of good sites (like Ning) that have gone premium or want you to advertise for them, and the fact that I don’t code, the options would be limited. I always think of WordPress, but given what happened this summer with my provider, I’m not so sure.

So what if we left the LMS to go backward instead of forward?

Presentation would again be via web page. That’s no problem. HTML5 may not be ready for prime time, but hyperlinks still exist, and javascript makes popups and mini-quizzes function in all browsers. All that code I stole way back when still works. The only thing that’s really changed is CSS. No biggie – I disagree with separating form from content, but I can follow a CSS book the same as I can follow HMTL directions.

If you think about it, Google Sites is basically going back to this “make a web page” idea. So is Weebly and other sites that help you make a web page. And embedding media is easy now that so many sites give you embed code (I damn near memorized the tome “QuickTime for the Web” during the early 21st century- such feats are no longer necessary).

Interaction spaces abound. Assuming that the issue of privacy and being treated like a commodity can be resolved, absorbed, accepted, or otherwise set aside, social spaces are available. Wikis, though not yet as user-friendly as they should be, work as spaces. For the squeamish, good old bulletin board scripts still exist (although I haven’t found one yet that accepts embedded media and nests the posts).

For record-keeping and gradebooks and quizzes, Engrade is still there and getting bigger. Or, even more basic, a private spreadsheet kept on your hard drive isn’t a bad idea. One could use Dropbox to access it and grade anywhere. Emailed essays would be even easier to categorize and process now than they used to be, with email programs allowing tagging and automatic folder placement.

The technologies used in the “old days” are highly reliable. HTML is a standard. Old embed codes work almost everywhere. Simple gradebooks and quiz programs are just databases. Less complexity, fewer parts, fewer things to break.

If we went all the way back, we could teach faculty much of what we were taught back in 1998. Somewhere between then and now we stopped creating things and began plugging “content” into other people’s systems. Building our own spaces might have made us more creative. It could have made us less tolerant of software controlling us instead of the other way around,  in the same way that learning to garden or cook makes you less tolerant of mass-produced food. If we revived these skills, learning the old ways of DIY HTML could even change the attitudes that stifle pedagogical creativity.

And it would get us out of the LMS and back to a simpler world. Less convenient, perhaps (not as many 7-11s on the corners, no home delivery) but less complex and easier to understand, manage, and fix.

We could call it the Back to the Web movement. As with Back to the Land, we’d learn less about how to conform to things that aren’t sustainable, and spend our mental energies on things that are.

7 thoughts to “Escape the Complexity by Looking Backward”

  1. Moreover, the increasing tendency of the most useful social media services and widgets to evaporate makes me more determined to keep it simple and control my infrastructure so far as possible. Recent examples – Meebo chat rooms; Google chat badge; Tungle (disappearing December). Of course, I’m still hopelessly dependent on various third parties. Le sigh.

    1. Only people who run their own servers can be completely independent, but we’ve clearly gone beyond just keeping backup copies on our hard drives. If not total independence, we should at least be able to survive better in the wild.

  2. I’m working on a new LMS implementation right now, and I feel your pain. We haven’t gotten to SIS integration yet. I used to slam the LMS a lot as a walled garden, but more and more, I believe the issue is our insistence upon linking it with the SIS. The wall is not the LMS, it’s the course. The way the official course rosters are generated, rarely resembles how people teach, whether online or f2f. Students pop into a course on another day, because they have an appointment. Instructors co-teach. We have guest lecturers and mentors. We share materials beyond the start and stop dates of a course. We let students see samples from prior classes.
    It seems to me, the thing we need to give up is the integration with SIS. The sheer investment in development and maintenance to make integration happen is ridiculous. The course creation, instructor assignment, and registration workflow is the least successful component of change management. There are too many individuals, and too many different processes in order to create a data structure that resembles reality.
    What if we could use the LMS, but go back to when we asked instructors to create and populate their courses? What if an instructor could have one course for everything, or divide courses? What if you could open the course early, or leave it open longer? What if students could invite parents and friends, and instructors could bring in guests?
    Maybe it’s my own silly dream, but I’d love to be able to allow students and instructors to use the system how they like, and not based upon who is paying whom for what service.

    1. The variety of approaches you’re using argues for abandoning the SIS integration, but it is a dream because the administrative imperatives (including pseudo-authetication and faculty who don’t tend their rosters) will likely carry the day. This is only one small example of the convenience technologies that encourage standardization over variety and creativity.

  3. Hi Lisa, another great post. You teach History. This is was is missing in your POTcert course: teaching from the past. I started online in 1997. I do remember the ugly threaded forums that were used at that time. I prefer the flat ones but my HTML site and Worpress have been hacked before. I know HTML but I don´t know php and MySQL coding. I am also tryng to go backwards and KISS

    1. Hi Eduardo! Perhaps here it is not so much history as memory. I have never been sure how much people new to teaching on the web would actually benefit from knowing what came before, though we certainly encourage some knowledge of HTML, if only to fix problems – that is in the class.

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