[Un]packing the Learning Management System

Of all contemporary web-based educational technologies, the enterprise learning management system (LMS) has enjoyed the broadest adoption and use among higher education faculty. This should not come as a surprise. The LMS is grounded in management practices that provide the instructor with complete control of how the space is used by students. Perhaps this is one reason for its broad adoption and often-narrow use to enhance learning. Technologies are often adopted in ways that support and reinforce existing teaching practices, in essence doing old things with new tools. The LMS simply allows these practices to be repackaged for the web.

So you can imagine that I was not the least bit surprised to hear my students in a recent class describe their experiences of Blackboard as used by faculty in their graduate courses. They echoed findings from the ECAR study of students and IT: faculty post documents, readings, grades, and sometimes course content…and students find this convenient. It works great as one-way storage and distribution mechanism, but it is not seen as a space where learning takes place.

In our class session, I intended for students to take a critical look at the design of the LMS and to explore questions about the pedagogy that is valued based on its design. One hoped for outcome was to see that the LMS is not a neutral space, and is something that we should think about critically in order to make deliberate decisions about its use in teaching and learning. To inform the discussion we read Hamish Coates, Lisa Lane and Gardner Campbell.

We also had the great pleasure of hosting Jim Groom as a guest speaker via video chat from his perch at UMW. Jim’s energy and passion about this topic are legendary in my mind, and I greatly appreciated his willingness to spend time with our class and share his ideas.

While some of the ideas Jim shared have become quite familiar to me at this point, I always find that he pushes my thinking to look at a new facet of something I may have taken for granted, and which really needs continuous attention in the conversation we create about teaching, learning and technology. I often take for granted that the web is a space for learning, but am reminded that this is not always broadly shared. Jim helped me to see that this remains a central part of the conversation, and is important to continually address when the LMS is often the defining space for the intersection of formal coursework and the web.

So, I’m reminded to continue asking the question: How can we engage in teaching practices that envision the web as a space for learning?

Here are some of the take-aways from Jim’s talk that help me continue to live in this question:

  • The conversation about the LMS – and its role in teaching and learning – is really part of a larger argument about the nature of the web. If students experience an “open web” in their personal lives and a “closed web” in their academic lives then this simply reinforces notions that what they do in school on the web is just “schooliness”…not learning.
  • Closed and proprietary systems are not about learning they are about management. If we want to engage students in learning on the web we need permeable membranes that connect, not walled gardens that contain.
  • Explore ways to foster openness in the learning process. Part of the greatest potential of the web is how it permits, as Jim said, “networks of people to huddle” and learn together. At the same time this remains one of the most challenging parts of the conversation I have with colleagues…openness is a paradigm shift for many people…faculty and students alike.
  • When we position students as thinkers and scholars we place value on the intellectual work they do. In doing so, we should identify and create spaces for students to openly share their ideas. UMW Blogs is a great example of this. The notion that the intellectual efforts and learning products of students should be canned up and deleted at the end of a 15-week course seems pretty ludicrous in light of this.

It seems crucial that we engage current and future faculty in openly discussing the role of the web in teaching and learning…and to consider how the ways we engage students in these spaces with formal learning will shape their views of how the web should and can be used…in education, and perhaps in other areas of social life as well. I want my students to question what is at stake when we choose to teach in closed systems on the web. My hope is that they see the future of learning on the table, and that they have an important role to play in shaping it.