The LMS and the End of Information Literacy

Having worked with the Canvas system deeply for several months, and then worked closely with an online student who needed help at various levels, I have concluded that the underlying philosophy of Canvas (and OEI in California) is to remove the information literacy requirement for online learning.

Canvas’ defaults encourage a simplistic, linear course with step-by-step navigation for all tasks. The features for instructors to customize extensively, have students collaborate, and make grading meaningful, are conspicuously missing. When requested in the community, such features meet with success mainly when they adhere to the basic philosophy of simplicity.

computerizedlearningThe implication is that any depth must exist within the instructional materials accessed through the system. At the top level, the environment in which the student must work, the danger of cognitive overload is mitigated by providing as few options as possible. It is a clear return to 4th grade “computerized learning”, the kind that takes place in a lab. Pupils sit at stations, and the software guides them step-by-step by pressing as few buttons as possible. With visual and touch-screen interfaces, this is now even easier. Complete a small task, get instant feedback, press ‘Next’.

The fact that such interfaces prevent branching, distributed, or complex learning is considered to be a feature, not a bug. All information is “chunked” for easy understanding and assessment.

Back in the early 1990s, we were all excited about the open web and its possibilities for the exploration of human information. We were able to look up things that had previously been inaccessible before, and we developed pedagogies designed to use that easy-to-access information. To do so meant designing our own pathways through the material, to help students turn their study into knowledge.

With the coming of the read-write web, it became possible for users to interact with the software in online spaces. IRC and other forms of synchronous chat had been available, but required some technical knowledge. Web-based interactions, which required little technical understanding, became simpler and easier to use. With the development of private web spaces like Facebook and Google, companies came to control the interfaces, simplifying even further what we needed to know to use the tools, and pruning the content we could access easily.

wikinoAlthough at first there had been plans to teach information literacy as a school requirement, this trend has tapered off because of such ease of use. In many places, information literacy is still articulated as a goal, but is not implemented in any meaningful way. The result has been students who have no idea what to type into Google when asked to find, for example, information about American imperialism in the late 19th century. We already are aware of the challenges of distinguishing between good and bad sources of information, and want students to distinguish between a scholarly source and a pop culture source. But instead of increasing skills, the fear of bad websites has led to banning certain things, through filters in grade schools and syllabus dictates in college. (When I encouraged my student to use Wikipedia to find primary sources, she was aghast, telling me it had been drilled into her head for years never to use Wikipedia for school.)

Increasing numbers of students have no conception of what constitutes a website, or a link, or a browser. With no understanding of how to navigate a complex web page or database, students have become unable to comfortably navigate a complex online course, regardless of the LMS. It is possible that only students with more sophisticated web skills are able to benefit from the learning pathways we design. As instructional designers remove more and more of our responsibility to construct these pathways ourselves, the “best practices” encourage computerized learning goals such as chunking, instant feedback, and tightly controlled pathways at the expense of discovery, integration and community.

While I would prefer, for the sake of our democratic society, a metacognitive awareness of the control exerted on us by our tools, I have to admit the temptation to follow the larger trend. We have successfully trained an entire generation not to think while using an electronic tool. We may no longer be able to expect them to do so for the sake of their education.

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21 thoughts to “The LMS and the End of Information Literacy”

  1. Thanks for this article. I’ve been feeling similar disquiet about the use of learning analytics, not just to track students’ progress but to guide it, showing students what the analytics algorithm surmises is “best” for them to see next, based on their usage data to date. Not only is this insidious and controlling, it’s also largely invisible to students – they don’t even know that their “learning pathway” is being manipluated via machine learning. Scary stuff. Apart from the questionable ethics, it actually disempowers students by removing their agency in the learning process.

    The chaotic nature of web surfing is not all bad – it’s certainly not a waste of time if done mindfully (even if not well-structured). The use of predicitive analytics to design “personalised learning pathways” (what a euphemism!! – it couldn’t be LESS personalised!) removes any creativity from the learning process, shuts down opportunities for productive digression, and worst of all, takes the wonder (in both senses of the word) out of learning.

    While learning analytics are a useful tool, in particular for identifying students at academic risk (and hence assisting the targeting of retention strategies) the temptation to use them for evil not good is always with us. I’m doing my best to resist it!

    1. Yes, I see the connection to analytics – it hadn’t occurred to me that this could indeed be extended to mandatory pathways guided by prior work. Good call on that. I like “productive digression”!

  2. Thanks for this, Lisa! After trying out Canvas as a space over the summer, I had no desire (NONE! ZERO!) to try to actually build something in there. Why would I? I am used to real web spaces built with real tools… and I would say it is a sad commentary on faculty web literacy that they would be satisfied with trying to create content using Canvas “Pages” where you cannot even put labels on things or organize your content into folders/directories, and where there is, literally, NO navigation unless you stuff the content into “modules” with a strictly linear “do this next” approach to navigation. Blech!

    I can easily create a flexible, searchable, discoverable, expandable, sharable, linkable FUN library of free books online for my students using a simple blog (… what a nightmare it would be to try to build that in Canvas. By creating their own blogs and publishing several posts every week, my students likewise learn the power of blogs for content development; some of them also choose to learn how to use a site-building tool like Google Sites, which means that they are then able to look at the advantages and disadvantages of the different tool options. They will never learn any of that inside Canvas.

    Even if you make a Canvas course 100% public (as I have done), content authoring inside Canvas for faculty seems doomed. The LMS doesn’t care about courses as they persist over time; instead, the LMS is built to support an enrollment system which assumes “new course, new semester.” So, yes, I can migrate a Fall course into a Spring course instance: but what about links people might have made to my Fall course content? I won’t be updating the Fall course anymore (I’ll be updating the Spring course)… so either people will be seeing stale content or they will not find the content at all (if I shut down the old course to avoid the duplicate content problem). Nightmare. It’s why I cannot and will not do any course content development in Canvas. Canvas allows open content, yes, but that turns out to be not very useful because, as an LMS, Canvas does not accommodate a lasting course website that gets developed semester by semester, year by year, with stable links and evolving content (while students come and go).

    We have a Domain of One’s Own program at my school, so faculty can get free, excellent webspace of their own to use for course websites, as can students… but that option was not even mentioned in the Canvas training I took this summer, even though the Canvas trainers work in the same program that provides the DoOO pilot.

    It’s downright surreal to be having this discussion in 2016. This is not at all what I expected when I started publishing course content back in 1999 on the open web. Course content MATTERS. But the LMS does not seem to agree. I just don’t get it: why do we do this to ourselves…? Discovery, integration, community: that is what we need, just as you say, yet it is not what the LMS offers at all.

  3. Hi Lisa,

    I would partially agree with you. During my university studies, I used to enroll to Coursera-MOOCs while learning for the university. And this gave me two dimensions of learning: the Coursera stuff was more like that foundation that gets skipped in the university, and the university courses required me to read and discuss off trodden tracks.

    I think, both have their right to exist, you just have to know what is good for what.
    And I still think that the time with the professor is better spent if the students already have a certain knowledge and you can discuss critical points intensively.

  4. I recently visited a small liberal arts college that is sunsetting their use of a LMS entirely – they said faculty by and large didn’t see the value in it when they already had a wealth of other web tools available. I think that’s a smart and gutsy call.

  5. I’m no huge Canvas fan. In fact, I’m no huge LMS fan. And I agree that hyperlinking implies navigation, and that wayfinding and other similar conceptions should be integral to how we think about, design, and use online resources.

    But I see challenges in both a less-structured student web experience, and I see opportunities in Canvas to do just what you’re saying.

    First, there’s a fine line between helping students learn to explore and navigate–and letting them get lost and confused. Navigation, like everything else we do with students, should indeed be scaffolded, as you suggest.

    If you meet your students face-to-face, you can support them in navigating a more complex network. You can demonstrate it and answer questions.

    But if your students are 100% online, as mine currently are, when students can’t find things, they can easily just get stuck. And that can crash their entire learning process for that week.

    Second, I don’t see Canvas as enforcing linearity so strictly. Canvas is very configurable. If you want to put every task in linear order, you can–but you need not. Goodness knows it takes a lot of work to build a more interesting interface in Canvas. (Why do LMS purveyors assume that I have all day to click 18 times to create the simplest web experience?) You can ask students to look for things, help them experience the web as a hyperlinked space, and help them get used to finding things where they are likely to be, not in a lockstep straight line.

    I applaud your focus on these issues. But then I have fears and hopes along these lines that are slightly different from those you highlight.

    1. Understood. Yes, it is possible to get to know Canvas well enough to be more creative — my previous posts who rather desperate attempts in this regard, many blocked by Canvas’ own restrictiveness. The defaults (used by most novice online faculty) not only do not encourage it; they actively discourage it.

      “Finding” things is a complex issue. What’s desired here is that all courses have the same, simplistic navigation. No one wants students to get lost, but be do want some navigation skills to be nurtured. Not all sites they may experience will be laid out like the Canvas defaults. We are encouraging a dependence and an increasingly inability to explore, by ignoring the basic construction of the web, and learning experiences, as areas of education. Canvas is the most blatant LMS I’ve seen designed to sidestep this knowledge.

  6. I agree with Lisa here: luckily for me, I designed my courses in the real Internet before the LMS had decided to “help” me do that. Do my students get lost? Not much. If they do, they ask me for help, and I help them, and then I improve the design thanks to their feedback. I don’t need to be in a classroom to do that.

    Canvas lets faculty PRETEND that they don’t have to think about design, which is much more insidious in my opinion. By taking away options to make things “easier” for faculty, the LMS helps you to build a nice, safe, predictable, boring course that does not help your students learn, nor does it help them develop digital literacy skills along the way.

    The Canvas training at my school as we make the transition was a “click-here-click-there” approach (exactly what the LMS anticipates), rather than an exploration of what kinds of opportunities are available to us online – some opportunities like in the classroom, some not. Personally, I am a fan of “connected learning,” so the connectedness of the Internet is essential for the kinds of classes I want to design, making the Internet a far better space than the classroom ever was for me. Instead of a teacher-centered classroom, I need students to have their own spaces, connected to one another in a learning network.

    Canvas is a total fail for me in that regard, as is every LMS which does not allow each student to be a node on the class network of learning. I had some dialogue with Canvas’s Jared Stein and Brian Whitmer about this: why does the (awful) Canvas profile page not function as an aggregator, pulling together student contributions within a course or, even better, across courses? The success of person-based streams for social networking has been around for YEARS now, but has the LMS learned from that? Apparently not. And without person-based streams, I cannot design the kinds of courses I want/need to design.

    Convo with Jared and Brian here:

    Now that OU is using Canvas, I watch the Canvas Community, and I just don’t sed much interest in connected learning, which is not surprising I guess. Canvas represents what schools (administrators, technologists) want: a MANAGEMENT… SYSTEM… which is about controlling students. Not about connected learning.

    And really, it is not on Canvas: it is on us. Apparently we’ve got the LMS we want. To quote Pogo: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

  7. Excellent discussion.

    I am not a fan of Canvas either–very much for the reasons mentioned.

    When I supported faculty migrating to Canvas, my suggestion was often:

    1. Hide the existing menu and create your own links.

    2. Write a page presenting the entire course, then a page for each week or unit. Use these pages to orient and guide students, and link *directly* to the resources/activities (files, quizzes, discussions, etc.)

    3. Use the ‘course front page’ at the beginning of the course, and then swap it out each week or unit for you new guiding/orienting/linking page.

    That is rather locked down and does not encourage navigation within Canvas.

    But then one of the upshots of this discussion is *perhaps* that students may learn more about navigation by *leaving* the LMS than by staying within its unappealing beige-colored walls.

  8. Lisa,
    I read this post two days ago and I’ve been thinking about it since. I find myself in the curious position of having built my own courses on open platforms (WordPress and GitHub Pages, mainly) for years due to frequent moves and then taking an instructional support position where one of my main roles is to train teachers on how to effectively use Canvas.

    I find myself torn between its usefulness in getting teachers introduced to the idea of putting course materials, and entire courses, online. The templating can be helpful as they make the transition. I agree with Mr. O’Neil above, in that many of my recommendations center on having a fluid, changing course presentation for students based on the current topic or major course needs.

    How much of the frustration being felt (we’re feeling?) is because many of us have already made the switch? Are the confines of the platform are poignant because we know what the alternative can look like? I’m still teaching one course and I’m doing my best to push Canvas to its limit so I know what it can really do in a class setting. At the same time, I’m continuing to make mental notes about what it cannot do and what alternatives we need to present to faculty as they look for more tools to add to their inventory.

    1. Hi Brian – yes, I think some of us who’ve been doing this a long time are feeling the pain not only because we know what the alternative can look like now, but because we know what it could have become. The technology restraints that limited creativity in the early days have been mostly resolved, and yet with all these choices, this is what we do? Reminds me of my favorite Zits comic, from 2008:

  9. Re: what Brian Bennett said about “what the alternative can look like” … my guess is that one of the biggest barriers we face in promoting different approaches to course design online is that faculty have usually never experienced a student-centered online learning experience. If their experience is driven by their own learning in a classroom, it’s understandable that they would not understand student roles and teacher roles in an online space where things can work differently, even very differently, than in a classroom. If they cannot imagine what the student experience is like, it would then be very hard to imagine their role as the instructor in that different type of course. That problem might change as younger faculty who are coming up, but not if the only online courses they might have taken themselves were poorly designed courses which attempt to mimic (badly) online a conventional classroom course.

    The only solution I can see to that type of problem is for faculty to cultivate an active presence online in social networks where they are learning as part of their professional development. It’s unlikely that there is a simulated “course” they could take that would be a real learning experience, but if they participate in some kind of social network and develop a real presence online, an authentic presence, then on the basis of that online learning experience of their own, they would have a better basis for designing an online course in which students would be using digital literacy skills as part of their own learning.

    Although it’s hard to generalize, the digital literacy skills of many faculty are not really that high, and their use of the LMS is certainly not helping in that regard. Students suffer from that stultifying effect of the LMS, as Lisa pointed out, and faculty do as well. My digital literacy skills are high, but I did not learn them from using Blackboard or WebCT or D2L or Canvas. I learned basically nothing from those LMS tools. Instead, I learned my skills from using real tools as part of my working and learning online, especially blogging and microblogging tools, and because I build my classes with a blogging network, I get to learn new things about blogging and web publishing all the time as a result of working together with my students.

  10. P.S. I also have to point out that Canvas Community’s very lively shared communication space for Canvas users is NOT run with Canvas software. Instead, it is powered with Jive community which has LOTS of features that would be enormous enhancements for the Canvas space, shifting it from being a content-delivery-system into a learning community platform. Participating as I do sometimes in that community, I can get “acclaim” and “positive feedback on my contributions.” At Canvas, I can only get… grades.

  11. One thing I often do when supporting faculty who will use online tools is: to ‘eat our own dogfood.’

    That is: if they’re going to build a course in Canvas, all OUR materials are stored in Canvas.

    I then systematically use different tools and ask the faculty I’m supporting what they think of each.

    This way the faculty do get the ‘student experience’ (or part of it), and they incorporate that into their design decisions.

    A larger issue around that is: most people don’t understand design as a process. People often think they are transferring a live experience piece-by-piece in a one-to-one ratio with an online experience. Of course, THERE IS NO SUCH EQUIVALENCE.

    Design is problem-solving where the goal state is largely undefined. And, as several here have thoughtfully pointed out, faculty don’t have a clear image of what that is and SHOULD NOT until they have really defined what they’re trying to accomplish.

    Everyone commenting here has been down that road, and so you know not only the disciplinary learning goals but also these other goals like media literacy, navigation, wayfinding, etc.

    A lot of faculty who teach online will never have all the experiences the folks discussing here have. But faculty who teach online can get a taste of it and see how online teaching is not just plunking down assets in a linear flow–to return to the original topic.

    1. If newbie faculty get the student experience, and that experience is based on Canvas defaults, they will find it easy. I have watched faculty do this with Blackboard – the defaults are understood and used as the base of any class, regardless of the pedagogy the faculty use in their classrooms. So I’m not sure I’m against starting with the “transfer” idea – it may help faculty who are new to online consider their pedagogy first. The difficulty here is that if they do understand their pedagogy, and do see some ways of creating it in the online mode, but then the system cannot create it for them, I’m not sure we’ve come very far in design.

  12. Well, I am putting the materials in Canvas, so I am not using the defaults. As I wrote: I’m using different approaches so faculty can experience them first-hand and choose.

    I disagree that a face-to-face course can simply be transferred one-to-one online with even moderate effectiveness. If the course is all lectures, with two tests, a midterm, and a final, I can be fairly sure that will not be an effective online set-up, based on what we know about social interactions, frequent and rapid feedback, and online learning.

    Even when faculty have a nuanced sense of pedagogy in the face-to-face context, the learning transfer to a new platform is challenging. That may be what you are saying, Lisa, but it’s hard to tell from our abbreviated online chatting–which is sort of the point.

    1. Oh, I don’t think we really disagree. F2F courses cannot be simply transferred to online. But if an instructor is aware of his/her pedagogy, and has developed effective methods of teaching in the classroom (that would certainly include more than just lectures, tests, a midterm and a final), then that can be a good starting point for determining what they want to do online. I have seen countless cases of good pedagogy, pedagogy that suits the instructor and emphasizes his/her strengths, thrown to the wind as the faculty member tries to grasp what they must do in an LMS just to make it functional. So yes, indeed, it is challenging. What you’re doing with making things available in Canvas is, I’m sure, designed to encourage creativity. Not everyone has that kind of awareness and presentation of what faculty do, the way you do. For most faculty, the introduction to online teaching, through Canvas or any LMS, will be LMS training based on defaults.

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