LMSing around

Well, it’s been a long time that we have all been discussing the evils of the Learning Management System. From my own articles back in 2008 and 2009, to Michael Feldstein’s November post with all its responses, those of us who believe we are progressive, non-conformist, future-thinking, out-of-the-box people have been gleefully dissing the LMS. The LMS is a tool that encourages conformity, poor pedagogy, closed silos, commercial exploitation, robo-grading, and the death of the open web. It discourages openness, shared resources, perpetual web portfolios, and the joy of a cloud-based utopia.

I have happily been anti-LMS for many years. And all this time I have been using Moodle.

Some are surprised. I had a colleague come up to me, apologetically, last term. He had an LMS question, but prefaced it with, “I know you don’t use an LMS, but…”

I have been participating in Connected Courses, where naturally we all agree that the LMS hampers connections. Connected Courses is a wonderful idea, with wonderful people. The hub of it is housed on WordPress, a customized installation managed beautifully by the god of WordPress, Alan Levine, and designed by a team fed by a grant. It is not a model that many others could follow without institutional support and/or a maestro like Alan hanging out in the garage. I’ve used WordPress in a similar construct (but by no means as lovely a site) for the Program for Online Teaching Class over several years. I gave up on it in May 2013  – it was just too hard. The plugin that makes it possible, FeedWordpress, is supported by one man on his own time, and requires lots of tweaking.

I don’t have staff, assistants, or a grant. I teach at a community college. I teach 40 students per section, 5-7 sections per semester, usually with five different preps (a prep is a particular course – Western Civ I, US History II). I often teach as many as five of these classes online, with at least three different preps. Many of my colleagues teach at multiple campuses, and teach over 300 students in multiple sections all over the county. In all these years, the suggestions of how to be open and wonderful and non-LMS with this many students (considering the requirements put upon us to track and grade their work) have been very few. Connectivism? After much experience, study and thought, I have determined that the management of large numbers of students’ individual achievement cannot be solved with connectivist models. (The popularity of MOOCs is testament to this. Commercial and university xMOOCs are often robo-graded and/or managed by large numbers of “staff” and graduate students.)

Given the 265 students I will need to teach this spring, the LMS provides the space I need, given the dearth of good alternatives.

What the LMS is good at, of course, is management:

  • automatically graded quizzes provide instant feedback to the student
  • grade book feature provides for privacy and quick checks on progress
  • customizations enable me to organize the grade book in a way that makes it possible for me to see at a glance where a student is doing well and where s/he is struggling
  • easy embedding makes it possible for me to make external sites, presentations, and tools part of the class
  • students are automatically added and dropped via connection with the college’s student enrollment system
  • security features create a space mostly closed to surveillance

It’s very poor for:

  • open learning
  • student-created content that lives beyond the semester
  • making students feel like individuals
  • providing multiple learning paths

BUT I mostly solve what’s bad through my own design and pedagogy:

  • having all written work done in forums where students can see everyone else’s work
  • encouraging students to draft all their work on their own hard drives
  • keeping track of students’ preferred names from their posts and using them publicly in the space

No, I can’t solve it all. Neither can WordPress, Ning, Facebook, Google, Schoology, Drupal, Canvas, or the open web. There’s been nothing radically different out there in years. Startups of great tools have mostly shut down. Progress in online learning technology has slowed to a crawl.

So am I a traitor to the cause? An apologist for the LMS? A closet user who then shows up at 12-step meetings? No, I’m just practical. Do I think that users like me can make the LMS better? Nope, I’m just back to 2012. Only now I don’t feel so guilty.

16 thoughts to “LMSing around”

  1. I still don’t like LMS and am glad I don’t have to use them. That said, I also have to agree with you. I’ve hoped otherwise but after having taught on line (independently and micromanaged) with cobbled up arrangements, used groups, LMS and blogs (now loosely monitoring a volunteer, self paced learning project, no grades or credits) and taken/followed/sampled online workshops, cMOOCs, xMOOC and the sundry mooc-ish arrangements that have evolved from them, the same conclusions as yours are inescapable.

    Laura’s arrangement — independence and numbers — is so perfect but just not what most of us get to work with. I stand in gob-smacked-ness at what you manage to fix the gaps.

    Kidnapping Alan and keeping him in the garage is, besides being illegal, just not a practical solution — or worth doing time for.

    1. So true about garage confinement, Vanessa – but I think cloning Alan and cloning Lisa would be GREAT…!!! That’s the kind of scaling we need to see: more Alans and more Lisas. 🙂

  2. Do I say enough Lisa how much I dig what you do? Few teachers have tried more approaches to teaching with technology. Trying syndication hubs. Fighting frames in moodle. I invite you to cease apologizing.

    I too admit I haves used an LMS (both blackboard and canvas) in the last rounds of online teaching.

    It’s time we drop this sweeping anti/pro LMS idealogy (though my anti stands are in the spirit of poking fun). I do feel like we give too much credit/powers to tech:

    “The LMS is a tool that encourages conformity, poor pedagogy, closed silos, commercial exploitation, robo-grading, and the death of the open web. It discourages openness, shared resources, perpetual web portfolios, and the joy of a cloud-based utopia.”

    I am not sure the sources of these sweeping generalizations. The technologies do not have this kind of absolute power over the way we teach. I see horrible pedagogy in open platforms and compelling pedagogy in LMS. It’s the same shallowness of citing all bad presentations on PowerPoint. People make bad presentations.

    You embody what’s best in teaching- you do the best you can with what resources are at hand. Putting out these ideas of LMS Bad / Open Tools Good is one of those false binaries.

    My work in open tools is not an assertion that they are superior based on the virtues of the platform but trying to test what is possible, just by trying with what is at hand. Same as you are doing.

    Apologies not needed nor 12 step groups.

    1. Thanks, Alan! The sources for the sweeping generalizations go back to so many articles and blog posts of people whose work I deeply respect, and I think each item has a point and a very good argument behind it. These technologies shouldn’t have that kind of power over the way we teach, but they so often do.

      But you’re right, as always – I also have seen bad things in good places and vice versa. I’d like to think the more open spaces might have bred a larger group of people whose work will be valuable regardless of platform.

  3. Hi Lisa,

    I too am a regular user of Moodle and find that it still has some features that I really like. I was interested to read that you have students do all of their work in forums so they can see each others’ work. I too use the forum in Moodle but more for holding online debates. I was wondering if you have used any other forum-style apps out there, e.g. in Google Apps, or is Moodle still the best way to do this in your opinion?

    1. Hi Adam! I have examined many forum styles and products, and I’d love to tell you there’s something better than Moodle, but really it’s only Moodle or WordPress that allows the nested discussions (multiple levels) that I want in an online forum. Ning was the only other one that had it but now it costs too much (i.e. not free without branding your own work).

  4. Lisa, you are so right about scaling and numbers! What you have listed here as the four things that the LMS is terrible at are things that are very important to me (open learning; student-created content that lives beyond the semester; making students feel like individuals; providing multiple learning paths)… but my teaching load is just one-third of what you are asked to do based on number of students. So, the problem is not the technology. The problem is scaling and how universities are creating situations where the large numbers of students are the problem, a problem no technology can solve easily. Just when are universities going to be required to report DATA (big data, anyone?) on how large classes are and just how much attention students actually receive from their instructors as a result…? That would be something to see. At my school, the data is actually sitting there in the form of impossibly clunky PDFs that report enrollment numbers per class (http://www.ou.edu/provost/course-evaluation-data.html), but I’ve never seen any statistical analysis on student load in both directions, i.e. student-load-by-instructor and class-size-by-student. We need to see how many students a given faculty member is responsible for in a given semester (not course load, but student load, just as you report in your post) and also the average class size in which students find themselves (say students are taking five classes; well, what is the average class size across those five classes, and what then is the average class size across the student body, as sorted by year, major, etc.). That is data I sure would like to see. Another important number: faculty hours teaching per week. I am just an instructor, so I teach fulltime with no other duties — but I’m at a research school, where tenure-track faculty are only supposed to spend 16 hours per week teaching total (and not even that much, truth be told, when they are doing the research that will get them their tenure). So, counting numbers of students and counting hours of teaching: that’s some basic arithmetic we don’t talk about much, but we should. Those are numbers that impact everyone in fundamental ways, with or without an LMS. I’m a foe of the LMS, but that’s because I am a fan of personalized learning. And first and foremost that requires time for us to be persons with each other. Time that is increasingly a luxury as universities keep on scaling up. Or should I say $caling up. Sigh!

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  6. Thank you very much for writing this. It’s a useful contribution to the debate. I would love to read more detail about four things that you think that LMS’s currently handle badly. What would the ideal course website (whether created in an LMS or other site-building tool) provide to help you do those things?

    It is disappointing that Moodle does not meet your “student-created content” needs, particularly if you have ever read the original educatioonal vision for Moodle: https://docs.moodle.org/28/en/Pedagogy#Social_Constructionism_as_a_Referent. However, I get the “that lives beyond the semester” bit. Also, the way Moodle is normally used is very different from that vision.

    1. Hi Tim! I’ll give just one example of Moodle frustration, my current effort to prep for my honors section. I wanted a way to implement contract grading, where each student can choose which tasks they do or not, within certain parameters. Tried a number of variants in the Gradebook, but having categories work the way they do made it difficult. And contract grading was already a compromise, since what I really wanted was for each student to choose which task got what weight (i.e. Student A could take the quizzes for 40% of the grade, an assessment for 40%, and a final for 20%, while another student could do the quizzes for only 10%, the assessment for 80%, and the final for 10%). So then I tried two tracks, a research track and a reading track, but again, using categories (which I wanted to do since I have immediate-feedback things that can be, for example, 16 mini-quizzes for 20% of the grade) it proved impossible unless each choice added up the same (i.e. the quizzes or a paper for the same 20% – one track couldn’t have one set of percentages and the other track a different set).

      Such personalization could, of course, be done by hand in a paper gradebook with a calculator. But then one has to wonder why I would use an LMS at all instead of just a website with links, like I did back in 1998.

      Looking at Laura’s comment above, it is a difficulty with personalizing learning pathways. And yes, I know that can be done in Moodle with Lessons, but they are very difficult to design and edit outside the program, and thus are stuck inside of Moodle, and I find the editing system of large-scale changes in Moodle very cumbersome (i.e. I cannot change ten quizzes in ten different weeks to all have the same settings, but have to do them one at a time).

      Open learning is hard with Moodle tied to enrollment, and fear of guests, and outsourcing control to a Moodle vendor (but that’s what I’ve got unless I run my own installation, and you can see my many previous posts on how well that worked out).

      I have indeed been thinking about the “perfect” LMS, and at the moment when I picture it, it has lots of drag and drop boxes that I can organize myself into a course, and anywhere on any page. Kind of like a glorified home page with widgets. I’m sure there are a zillion reasons why such a vision wouldn’t work, but it seems I’m always trying to find an option that isn’t available.

      I must say though, thank you for coming by! I have followed your work for some time, and it does not escape me that often when I find an answer at Moodle.org, it has your name attached to it. 🙂

  7. At the risk of sounding like I want to have my cake and eat it too, your stance on Insidious Pedagogy still works every day for me, whether I am in Blackboard, Canvas, or WordPress (all of which I use). The key (as you have illustrated so often) is weaving the open web into the portal of the LMS and customizing the LMS to enhance the particular learning you are facilitating. The evil LMS lies in the default settings applied universally to a diverse set of learning opportunities.

    1. It’s true, Britt, and of course I’ve been preaching the “it’s all in how you use it” model for some time. And yet, there are hordes, absolutely hordes, of what I would call “novice” folks coming into these systems every year and setting up their courses with the defaults. Professional development is touted as the answer to everything, but you and I both know the problem with “default” professional development, right?

  8. Laura, you hit a nerve here. But, first a question: your alloted 16 hours/week (maximum?) is for how many classes?

    I’m a newly hired adjunct faculty, and told 3 hours (minimum) per course.

    The question of how big an enrollment before the course closes apparently was already a hot topic before I got there, and I’m feeling the heat …

    At the Stanford night school course I’ll teach this winter, I took away my request for seating a circle, and so now I have 50 students, and more still enrolling; For online learning, without text, I”d think after 12 it’s going to be challenging (the cut-off will be 25)

    ( With you 100% )

    1. Hi Gary, I’m an instructor at Univ. of Oklahoma, so my job is 100% teaching, but the tenure-track jobs (and most of teaching at OU is done by tenure-track faculty) are only 40% teaching (40% research, 20% service/other)… so that is 16 hours per week for a 2/2 course load. But course load really doesn’t help define the situation since a course might range from 10 students to 100 to over 1000 (we have some mega-lecture courses)… and all that jostling and jiggling as to how many students each person is responsible for happens at the departmental level. Of course, students PAY the same per credit hour, regardless of whether they are in a class with 10 other students or 100 or 1000. Crazy!
      I’m really lucky because when my college set up its online course program back in 2002, the Dean at that time was very firm: no more than 25-30 students per section, and full-time online instructors (there are only a few of us who teach full-time online) would have only three sections. For me, it is the perfect job; I actually resigned a tenure-track job to take this job because I love teaching.
      So, back when I was an asst. professor I typically had 70 or 80 students total per semester (one class of around 50 and one smaller class of 20-30)… but I was supposed to take care of all those students in just 16 hours a week. Now I have not many more students (80-90 students total)… but I have 40 hours per week to work with them. Am I a better teacher as a result? You bet I am!

    2. Gary, just browsed around your homepage. Wow! We have some overlapping interests indeed. I teach Myth-Folklore and Epics of Ancient India, and the jataka tales are a special obsession of mine. Introducing students to Buddhist storytelling traditions is one of the great pleasures of my teaching life. So glad our paths have crossed in cyberspace! 🙂

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