OK I couldn’t resist the opportunity to comment on this growing thread of posts. I got CC’d into a tweet
and the more I though about it the longer it got… and turned into this post.
Thankfully Brian Lamb put this amazing list and summary together.
For most organisations the LMS had come to be the online environment. Not part of the broader world wide web, but the institutions own mini version of it. For the right kinds of reasons the LMS has been driven by administrators and vendors into becoming a closed system.
Rather than being the devils work the LMS is the result of good intentions – trying to increase access to online education in an equitable fashion and at scale. It’s evolved through the process of institutions seeking out scalable online solutions (scalable being the operative word). This search has been driven by a desire to create equity across the institution and bridge a significant technical divide and, as [Kate](https://twitter.com/KateMfD/ points out, build a tool to provide some quality assurance.
What I’d suggest though is that this QA has only ever applied to opportunity and access – not the experience of actually using the system. This had led to administrators choosing, and vendors offering, an LMS based around a feature list rather than the quality of the experience. Yes it has a wiki, by no means a good one, but a wiki none the less. I don’t think you can really blame vendors for this, they’re simply responding to their customers. You also can’t really fight the logic of administrators either as the importance and level of investment in the LMS has grown, decision making about it have risen up the hierarchy. A lot rests on these decisions so there’s an imperative to play it safe.
This is where I see we are now:
- Vendors who are stuck in a vicious “feature list” cycle that’s almost impossible to break without loosing customers and money.
- Administrators who are too far removed from the experience of using the LMS and lack the required technical knowledge to understand such a complex system, but are in charge of pretty significant business decisions. Playing it safe and going with a feature list as their primary guide is the smart thing to do in this situation – for their career and their institution – but it’s also the only thing they can actually base a decision on.
Those who are entrusted with those choices and responsible for the accompanying funds you play it safe. And the circle is complete.
However, the LMS isn’t the whole story. At the same time there is an upswell of DIYers, indie hackers, edupunks and bricoleurs who are operating edtech outside the LMS. They’re piecing together an alternative to the closed system by embracing openness. This mode of operation is so profoundly different to the status quo they’ve managed to spawn entirely new concepts for education such as MOOCs and an OER university. They are the avant-garde of edtech, pioneering new and exciting possibilities, and their approach has a focus on the quality of experience rather than institutional opportunity and access.
It’s in this concept of “quality” and the related assurances where tension lies and poses some important questions. There are trade offs and compromises required to balance experience with scalable quality.
Should institutions quality assure the opportunity and access to an online environment across their degree programs or on the quality of that experience and sacrifice consistency and stability?
The reality is that quality assurance has less to do with the binary of technology (LMS vs other) and almost entirely with the people using the technology. My overall experience is that Academic staff just aren’t well versed enough to tackle the broader digital and online space. The LMS provides a closed but relatively safe space for staff & students and one that can guarantees a minimum of opportunity and access. It does this by providing a tool that can be used to assess, manage and oversee what’s being offered. To me the LMS has always seemed like something that provides an academic with a way to get online, but something that you would grow out of eventually. It’s the equivalent of training wheels for the “real” web. Yet the LMS in limits this growth by being cut off from the web. Staff never learn to use a real wiki – just the one that lives in the LMS. They don’t learn about blogging platforms – just the blogging tool. They are never exposed to the real web and so begin to fear it, re-enforcing the safe status of the LMS. This starts with the decisions of the institution, then actions of the staff which directly affects students in terms of the tools, technologies and practices they’re exposed to.
Dealing with the lack of technical prowess and digital literacies in academic staff is much harder and more expensive problem and it’s this – not the LMS – that needs to be addressed. The LMS isn’t inherently evil, I’d actually suggest it’s often the least evil choice an institution could inflict. What makes it bad is that for most institutions it’s the only choice for doing anything online. The web isn’t a part of how learning and teaching works in most institutions. Citing the web is still frowned upon, actually using it means you’re actively breaking the rules.
The fact is that there are only a few good online teachers who are able to craft and wield technology well enough to effectively create and deliver the type of experience they want and address issues around scalability and equity. There can only be one Jim Groom ;-).
We need to empower our staff and students – to show them whats possible but also to give them the literacy and language to articulate their needs and desires so they can offer the best experiences. They shouldn’t have to build the technology – but they need to be able to tell those that do what it is they really want.
It’s in this space though there is so much potential! The avant-grade gives us a tangible vision of the kinds of experiences possible and the alternative technologies available. This is vital because it provides a way for people to begin to articulate the kinds of experiences they too would like to create. They can point and say “I want that” rather than delve in to the technical details. (I’m thinking of Mike Caulfield’s work on Smallest Federated Wiki – technically difficult to explain, easier to show). Bringing the qualities of opportunity and access to the kinds of experiences the avant-garde are demonstrating is where we should be heading. There is no technology binary we need to choose from – to LMS or not to LMS – get them working together. There’s enough space to coexist and learn from one another.
The LMS is still relevant and it could actually form a pivotal component because, whether we like it or not, management is still part of modern education. What the LMS needs to do is to become porous. The experience of learning can simply pass through it. In many ways it needs to be of and for the web – not the “black box” we are used to. Part of this is on vendors to produce products that allow this to happen, the other is on institutions and administrators to recognise their role in this and part of this is on staff to join the conversation and articulate their needs.
There’s opportunities for symbiosis and collaboration between the avant-garde and the LMS. In a modern institution quality assurance actually requires they work together rather than go it alone.