07 April 2010

On the system that manages learning

I have been involved in high school, vocational and academic educational development since 2001 - mostly, but not only, focused on teaching and learning online. In that time I have been close to (and sometimes benefitted from) the unfortunate mainstreaming of the Learning Management System. Along with it have been the distracting notions of sharable learning objects, IMS standardisation, usability, reusability, interoperability, open source and patents, copyright and intellectual property, and other impossible complexities relatively unique to the bureaucratic requirements of the LMS.

More lately, and I mean 6 years late, attempts to bring features of the highly popular social web into the Learning Management System simply paint a stark picture of just how segmented and irrelevant we have allowed education and online learning to become. Even when it is plainly obvious we do not understand the emerging grammar of the medium, we seek to entrench our ways of operating even further.

Those thoughtful and persistent resisters (David Wiley, Chris Lott, George Seimens, Stephen Downes, D'Arcy Norman, Brian Lamb, Alan Levine, James Farmer, Anne Bartlett-Brag, Barbara Dieu, Teemu Leinonen, Dave Cormier, myself and many more 2001-2010 and welcome Jim Groom, Mike Caulfield, Jon Mott, Anya Kamenetz and yet so few 2006-2010) who point out the paradoxes of content production and managed learning, as well as the breaking of social connectedness, access and equality, the lack of exit or even entry plans, the negative impact on literacy, the gross waste of time and money, the correlation to higher costs and tuition fees, the little to no evidence of need beyond unrealised profits, and the sad closure on hope for the possibility of a deregulated, peer to peer education system, have largely remained isolated to innovation departments, unknown to IT departments, and ignored by managers long enough to allow the LMS to lock itself into standard operations that continue to determine all our educational realities.

The critics' endless and passionate efforts to bring about a more free and socially connected education culture through communications technology have been losing footings of relevance each disappointing year, as the LMS and all it represents as an artifact, wins conservative hearts and minds, and shape shifts to fit the architecture of control that it seeks to serve.

...Anya Kamenetz's book DIY U might just be breathing new life into us yet!...

The LMS and all that it represents (commodofication, control, power, bureaucracy, compliance, exclusivity and restriction, dislocation, dysfunction, irrelevance, status quo, cohort learning, quizzes, tracking, escapism, conformity, risk aversion, and extreme conservatism) has become a central and costly feature to most institutions of academic and vocational education and training. In my experience, it is also the single biggest barrier to people grasping the grammar of communications today, and realising the possibilities discussed in this network.

What little there is that remains of the resistance to this disappointing reality is a firm belief that deinstitutionalised education, connected with social networks who know no borders, boundaries or limits to knowledge sharing, can only emerge from outside the institutions (Wikimedia, P2PU, DIY U, OER, networked learning), but the money and resources locked up inside institutions will always threaten to absorb and corrupt these ideas, and the thing that birthed the LMS will always be there to take another grab.

I was going to attempt a paper for the International Journal of Educational Integrity, (Abstract deadline extended to 7th April 2010) as an academic formalisation that was to revisit the 2004 post: Everything you need to teach and learn online. That post (as are the updates lately) are really just a tired attempt to disrupt people thinking of the LMS as a technological fix.

But sadly, unlike the hey day of 2005/6, I get the distinct feeling that such emotive commentry, supported by 'evidence' that is no longer admissable, or manifestos - where truth is self evident, are no longer sort or welcomed. I don't think many people at all have seriously contemplated the problem it encapsulates, or the reality it dertirmines, just as I am yet to meet a colleague who has really considered the inconvenient truth that Ivan Illich painfully desrcibed.

As always I aim to convince just a few that the LMS and what it represents, is at best a distraction or worse - escapism. It, along with institutional trappings, has little to offer people interested in teaching and learning. I'm hopeful that Anya Kamenetz's book will give us a fresh over view of where we are at, and suggestions on where we might go next. Certainly her interview does already.


Doug Holton said...

I'm not quite sure I get your point.

Complaining about Blackboard and the like is a popular sport now (just like complaining about Powerpoint the past 15 years). For the most part this has been a good thing. It's no longer a 'taboo' or 'rebellious' point of view (I'm not sure it ever really was, because people were skeptical about LMSs from the beginning).

I don't really see that we are "losing" and LMS tools are "winning" when a good percentage of instructors resist LMS tools and use wikis/blogs/etc. instead (or in addition). Sometimes they resist LMSs and other technologies for the wrong reasons though, so that they can stick to their old practices.

For what it's worth, I haven't use Blackboard for any of my courses over the past 3 years. I've used both third party commercial social networking tools (like youtube, blogger, pbwiki, wikispaces, etc.) as well as open source tools and my own customized sites based on open source tools (drupal).

But if I were assigned to teach an introductory calculus class or circuits class with 300 students, I probably would use Blackboard or Moodle at least for the quiz tool, to make grading simpler. The drupal quiz module is coming along, and I could use it, but at some point I'm just re-inventing the LMS in drupal.

davidtjones said...

Here's another perspective

Blackboard, in my opinion, has been a significant force for good in learning. By developing a sustainable business model, Blackboard has insured a solid foundation for the adoption and continuance of the LMS at a diverse range of institutions. The future of the LMS market, with the emergence of community/open source models such as Moodle, and the entry of new players in the space means that past performance may not be indicative of future results. Whatever the shortcomings of the product or the company, we all must give the Blackboard credit for catalyzing a revolution in how learning is constructed and delivered.

I don't agree entirely with this view, however, I'm not sure that this is a situation for focusing solely on the thesis and antithesis, perhaps it is time for a synthesis?