02 February 2016

Walking the plank of platforms - into a sea of learning

We've been looking at Kannu - a relatively new addition to the new wave in the crowded space of learning management systems (although we're noticing some are leaving). It's strange that new comers are still trying to come into this market, dominated by a few providers servicing frigid contracts for a mostly illiterate user base.  Perhaps Kannu knows what everyone knows - that no-one is satisfied with the current crop of LMS, or the quality of service from the suppliers, or with the conditions in which we are obliged to use them.

No LMS is inevitable

But they may not have considered the idea that no-one is satisfied because the very concept of a learning management system is flawed. That it is possible, indeed natural, to imagine and conduct education without an LMS. #bringyourownaccount is a key word concept we're trying to grow here in RMIT, which is linked to #adomainofonesown and #studentasproducer. Applying these ideas to an LMS design creates something very different.

The LMS is really a flawed concept, it has been this way for me for a very long time. The title is more than an oxymoron - the idea that people manage their learning all in the same location, formats, folder structures, using the same types of 'pens and paper' (browsers and devices), within the same platform, behind lock and key, with a brand new useless email address to boot, according to an instructional design, all of which is switched off when all is said and done... well, it doesn't make any sense.

Many people working in the space of digital and online education in the early 2000s were terribly frustrated by the encroachments the LMS was making on people's practice, and with the associated paradoxical ideas of reusable learning object theories and related content standards. This discontent only became compounded when the socially connected Internet started to rise in 2004. (It's interesting to observe that same frustration at a larger scale today, as many more people have come online and who's experiences and expectations have been shaped by a corporately controlled, socially connected Internet.

The Internet is the Platform

In 2004 D'Arcy Norman and his network put up a concept called Small Pieces Loosely Joined. I don't recall them acknowledging it at the time, but it was certainly channeling David Weinberger's earlier 2002 book of the same name. This long predicted socially connected web was perfectly encapsulated by the Cluetrain Manifesto of 1996, and the mind boggled with what was coming when Sloan put out the Evolving Personal Information Construct (EPIC2014) in 2005.

Small pieces loosely joined - a connected online learning experience where the whole Internet was the platform, was looking like becoming a solid argument and a broad trend that would dislodge the LMS from its institutional stranglehold.

I would love to go back to 2004, and be in that room in Vancouver when Alan, Brian and D'Arcy did their thing:
The plan is to take the folks in Vancouver, and split them into 3 groups. We'll assign each group to a role. They'll become either "Centralists ( bent on global domination with the One True Application ), "Decentralists (complete anarchists, with bits and pieces scattered across and off the 'net), or the more conservative "Fence Sitters (who will try whatever works, but aren't religious about it).

Web - ism

In the years that followed, not a small network had gathered around these general Webist ideas. Some of the crew went Edupunk, buoyed by the success of the original MOOCs. Stephen Downes did, and still does, a wonderful job leading and representing many of the ideas in the network, and drawing new voices out of the Long Tail. George Siemens even published a learning theory to represent the thinking, Connectivism. Yochai Benkler wrote Wealth of Networks. Wikipedia went from strength to strength, and it seemed as if everything might be crowd sourced. I new paradigm open network was upon us and everything was going to be disrupted.

But then a Nothing began to take over...

Facebook, Twitter and Google interrupted the open connectivity of the web by obscuring and all but killing off the glue that bound the connections in these early days (RSS, embed code and widgets). Xenophobic instincts took over and openness began to close off before it had a chance of being realised.

Andrew Keane popped up in 2007 with The Cult of the Amateur and was a formidable force of skepticism on the web2 hoo ha. I destroyed the sense of connectedness I had with my own network by publishing some confrontational posts with ambiguous meaning relating to cult of personality. Adam Curtis added his long view analysis with All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace. Sherry Turkle wrote Alone Together, and MOOCs got the big corporate white wash of 2011 where openness lost all meaning. A dark cloud seemed to loom over the idea of open and networked learning. Those with their heads in the LMS sand could be forgiven for not knowing a thing about it!

The open web seemed lost...

We didn't do enough

What seems to have come out of this folding is a realisation that, while a corporate neoliberal element in education has persisted and maybe even renewed its poor vision for education, and we may lament the loss of the potential of the Internet and any relevance we thought Webism had to the education agenda, we ourselves did not do our work thoroughly enough to ensure impact. The deep problems that Illich highlighted in the 70s with Deschooling Society and Tools for Conviviality were VERY relevant to our Webist ideas, but we didn't confront them. Mike NearyJoss Winn and Richard Hall attempted to connect and offer their Marxist academic analysis to at least one of our network gatherings but I barely see a reference to their work by the A-listers. We didn't edit the Wikipedia pages, or publish content that Wikipedia editors could cite. Had we considered these and more properly, we would have realised the inevitable future for our revolution. History repeated its acidic taste.


But don't mistake me for being defeated. The point I'm trying to make is that it doesn't have to be this way and I think things like Kannu are a sign that the fundamental problem of the LMS is gradually being realised. Its an opportunity to restate the noLMS position and to attempt once again to re-calibrate the terms of reference for the discussion.

Kannu offers a customisation for creative arts education. It's a realisation that one platform doesn't fit across all of an institution. The next realisation perhaps is that one platform doesn't fit across one program, let alone one Faculty, or across a diversity of teachers and learners. Real learning environments are simple, loose pieces that are all around us, and quickly adaptable. Anything that is not that or heavily designed, is doomed to frustrate more than enable people trying to learn a thing or two. It may well be that educational institutions will never accommodate this wisdom. As Illich said way back in 1971:

"Universal education through schooling is not feasible. It would be no more feasible if it were attempted by means of alternative institutions built on the style of present schools. Neither new attitudes of teachers toward their pupils nor the proliferation of educational hardware or software (in classroom or bedroom), nor finally the attempt to expand the pedagogue's responsibility until it engulfs his pupils' lifetimes will deliver universal education. The current search for new educational funnels must be reversed into the search for their institutional inverse: educational webs which heighten the opportunity for each one to transform each moment of his living into one of learning, sharing, and caring. We hope to contribute concepts needed by those who conduct such counterfoil research on education – and also to those who seek alternatives to other established service industries."

How we might follow that principle was articulated soon after in 1976 with A Pattern Language, listing a "Network of Learning" as its 18th pattern:

"...work in piecemeal ways to decentralize the process of learning and enrich it through contact with many places and people all over the city: workshops, teachers at home or walking through the city, professionals willing to take on the young as helpers, older children teaching younger children, museums, youth groups travelling, scholarly seminars, industrial workshops, old people, and so on. Conceive of all these situations as forming the backbone of the learning process; survey all these situations, describe them, and publish them as the city's "curriculum"; then let students, children, their families and neighborhoods weave together for themselves the situations that comprise their "school" paying as they go with standard vouchers, raised by community tax. Build new educational facilities in a way which extends and enriches this network."


We can let that LMS world go and let something like what Illich wrote be a guiding principle for what takes its place. We could start by looking at the Student Management System (and other core systems) for ways to meet more of the governmental requirements and obligations that we've let the LMS stand in poorly for. We could instigate a Bring Your Own Device, Bring Your Own Account, A Domain of One's OwnStudent as Producer, maybe even a Cities of Learning approach to education - carefully checking in with Illich's principle to approximate the 18th Pattern of a Network of Learning. We might then focus resources on a network of simple venues, cafes, rooms, a strong stable Internet connection for them all with a maximum distributed bandwidth, community hotspots, mesh networks, discounted 3 and 4G, a position on questions about data and power and the many other issues about the Internet that our community needs us to no longer ignore. Establish more appropriate policies around Intellectual Property. You get the idea - I'm ready for discussion around the practicalities.


Mark Smithers said...

A most enjoyable post. The missing piece here (depending upon whether you want go totally freeform or not) is xAPI. The premise being that learning happens everywhere but I (as a learner) may want to track, record and share a record of learner experiences. The point being that it is the students that have control.

Leigh Blackall said...

Are you sure that's what TinCan does Mark? Last I looked, it was more a system for making individual's data available to an institution. It didn't mention anything about user control, or equal access to the sum of data fir individuals to compare with a network. I might be out of date here, but the last time I looked, I produced the Data and Power presentation, asking what I think are some very serious questions. That presentation is linked to in this post.

Tim Klapdor said...

Enjoyed your post Leigh. Have definitely been wrestling with the concept of the LMS in much the same way. This is my last piece on the topic https://timklapdor.wordpress.com/2014/10/01/lms-week-the-ring-my-hat/ and it still pretty close to what I think. At the same time the "solution" to this is swapping the centralised system of the LMS with a distributed system that combines a Domain of Ones Own with shared and collaborative spaces (that would be utilised by classes). The LMS might be the universities system for implementing this, but it needs to be accompanied with more autonomy and ownership by students. I'm glad to say that there seems to be plenty of interesting people working on interesting stuff going in this space.

Mark Smithers said...

The discourse around it's use is almost inevitably about the use case of institutional access to user data but some of my recent reading of xAPI is that there is no reason users can't control their own data in non institutional repositories. I need to look at this some more though. I may well be wrong.

Leigh Blackall said...

Tim, your post and the wider discussion that it links to is very valuable. Especially in that it updates me with what is a newly emergent network to me, of people continuing this critical discussion. Thank you for that. My further comment is posted at your link.