I’ve been noticing an interesting thread in online conversations recently, with people I respect either bashing or defending the LMS. Audrey Watters’ Beyond the LMS seems to suggest they’re a sinister tool of imperial control, Jim Groom and Brian Lamb offer five arguments against the LMS, and Jeremy B Williams’ post implies that LMSes are somehow keeping students away from the information they want to learn. On the other side of the coin, Darcy Norman offers a “both/and” argument for using the LMS as a basic jumping-off point for instruction, Jared Stein gives a history lesson in how far LMSes have come in the last decade, and Phil Hill shows how far they will come in the next.
I find that most of the criticism of LMSes takes it for granted that they’re closed, confining, and inflexible without digging into the specific ways they actually help or hurt effective instruction. It reminds me about the Monty Python scene in which the
Judean People’s Front People’s Front of Judea ask “What have the Romans ever done for us?”
This post is going to talk about my experiences using Web 2.0 tools to accomplish common instructional goals, and how those tasks were made simpler once I had access to an LMS.
Before I started working with LMSes in 2008-09, I had all my high school digital design students start their own free blogs (Blogger, WordPress, Tumblr, Weebly, etc), then I would pipe their RSS feeds into Google Reader so I could see all student submissions and get notifications of new work to grade. I had to pipe those feeds into a different tool to create a public-facing portal so they could see each other’s work (and so parents and administrators could see). Any work items that couldn’t be posted to a blog had to be submitted directly to a web dropbox I set up. Then I had a separate gradebook app I’d use to grade and respond to submissions privately. Finally I had my own class blog that housed all the lesson plans, course resources, and other communication to students– with separate posts and tags for the different class blocks I taught.
Throughout all this, there was near constant “technology overhead” just to create a space where everyone could see what they needed to see. Things that should be simple like “how do I turn in an assignment” or “how can students see each other’s blogs” all had overly geeky answers that were lost on many students.
I have a high tolerance for that, but the students didn’t, and it wasn’t a model that I could easily share with my less techie colleagues. The whole house of cards depended on my ability to troubleshoot tech problems and invent creative workarounds as problems arose. Not to mention that I spent a lot of valuable prep time wrangling the technology that could have been better spent giving student feedback.
Coming to Blackboard 8 after that experience was a revelation, and despite the many lackluster tools in Bb, it provided a few basic improvements over a wild-west blog conglomeration like mine (or even #DS106 for that matter). I learned how to use Bb while reading David Wiley and Jon Mott’s visions for an open VLE that bridged the open architecture of the web with the benefits of an institutional system.
At very least, the LMS gives each class its own “meeting space” where everyone is together and can see both public materials (intended for the whole class) and private materials (intended just for them) without having to cobble various tools together. If you need to group students together so only a subset can see each other’s work and share materials, there’s a tool for that and it’s fairly simple to set up.
It vastly simplifies the task of collecting student work and giving students timely, transparent, private feedback in a way we can be certain complies with FERPA laws. The LMS gives students a centralized place to submit work, and gives teachers tools to analyze submissions to identify students who need more targeted interventions.
Lastly, the LMS provides a standard framework within which you can embed other tools. You can put a Twitter widget, a YouTube video, or a VoiceThread stream on any page in any LMS by simply embedding the HTML code for those tools. This was very helpful for me as a faculty trainer because we knew what would (and what wouldn’t) work inside our LMS.
Moving from Bb to Canvas opened up greater freedom to create open licensed, public-facing courses using creative commons materials and 3rd party open web tools– all while keeping that shared meeting space and simple grading mentality.
Canvas improves on the closed nature of Bb by offering LTI integrations with 3rd party tools that are easy enough that faculty can do their own integrations– very much like WordPress plugins. It also has an ingenious feature that allows the gradebook to ingest any web content with a public URL– allowing students to work in their favorite tools (personal blogs, twitter, YouTube, or something more exotic) and Canvas gradebook will take a snapshot of what that work piece looked like at the time of submission.
Canvas’ outcomes feature is also deeply integrated into the Assignments tools and the Gradebook, transparently displaying the intended outcomes of instruction at every step along the way to both students and instructors. This is a potentially transformational practice that would be difficult if not impossible to do on your own, hacking wordpress blogs together.
I think it’s very natural and common for people to get frustrated with LMSes and want to throw them out the window, but you’re just as likely to feel as much “cognitive overhead” when trying to cobble together an online meeting space out of iPad apps, Twitter feeds, and Google Docs. It’s even more difficult for students if they have six teachers, each with their own idiosyncratic processes and tools for turning in assignments or checking grades! Sometimes you want these basic course functions to be simple and easy so you can get to the real work of teaching and learning.
All told, there are few alternatives that cover so many bases so well. (Ab)used effectively and creatively, the LMS can bring transformational change to teaching and learning in a way that is harder with ad hoc Web 2.0 tools. As more LMSes (hopefully) follow the open VLE model towards openness, interoperability, and transparency, it won’t feel so necessary to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
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