The LMS is a Wild-West Conglomeration in a Box

So I guess the new debate is whether to love or hate the Learning Management System. My feeling son the LMS have been abundantly clear in the past, but I also get why some people like them. However, I’m not sure if the defenders of the LMS are fully taking the entire complex picture into account. Most people that I talk to dislike the LMS because they use it all the time AND they are told by campus administrators “You Shall Not Use Any Other Tools.” That is actually in writing at many institutions, and I can’t count the number of times I know of specific instances of faculty being forced to stop using tools just because they are not inside an LMS.

I unashamedly dislike the LMS and have read nothing to change my mind. Most of the posts recently seem to oversimplify the reality of what is happening in the world of Ed Tech. Each person’s experience with an LMS is different, and your reasons for loving it might actually be another person’s reason for hating it. So I want to bring in the perspective of an instructional designer that has worked with many, many courses inside an LMS to highlight how one person’s “pros” might be another person’s “cons.” First, I want to take a look at a few of the main points in the recent D’Arcy Norman article:

“Use the LMS for the basics, and do other things where needed.”

Great idea, but sorry, not allowed in most cases. I just don’t run into many schools that allow this. But, where I work we have found that you can integrate student rosters with a WordPress blog with the same technology you use with Blackboard. Someone somewhere has to connect technologies to student rosters, even with an LMS – and I think that process is much more complex than many end users realize.

“Lazy teachers will teach poorly, no matter what tools they have access to.”

Except for research has begun to indicate that the LMS does affect the quality of education.  And historically, Moodle was based on the research that found that WebCT forced instructors to teach in certain ways. If you are a social constructivist at heart, the behaviorist paradigms behind most LMS designs will cause you to force a round peg in a square hole, resulting in bad teaching. But ultimately, I think it is unfair to paint teachers with such broad strokes. Laziness tends to lead to less effort putting courses together, not more. Teachers are like any other human beings – some days they are lazy, other days they aren’t, but often times they get lazy when they run into something too complex and decide to take the path of least resistance. So is teacher laziness a problem of teachers or of the bad design of the tool? After all, they can’t do anything with an LMS that it doesn’t allow them to do in the first place.

“We have a responsibility to provide a high quality environment to every single instructor and student, and the LMS is still the best way to do that.”

I agree with that, but most students I talk to consider the LMS to be low quality, hard to figure out, clunky, and the least effective way to accomplish this. Most instructional designers agree with this. Many instructors do, also. The real problem is that there is no consensus on what really is the best way.

Next I want to look at specific points that Ted Curran made in his blog post in defense of the LMS:

The LMS “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.”

Except for the thousands of hours I have spent trying to help instructors figure out the Blackboard system, and then explain to others how the way they set it up violates FERPA. But this is the first time I have ever heard someone refer to Blackboard’s process for this as “simplified” – and I have spoken to a large number of users about it.

“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.”

Except for the 90% of courses that cobble together content in the Blackboard/Canvas/etc course in a manner that is more chaotic than any DIY class I have seen. Chaotic cobbling can happen in any tool, but the more unnecessary options you give (looking at you Blackboard) the greater the chaos.

“The LMS gives students a centralized place to submit work”

Centralized as in one URL, but then finding the class you want to go to in a wall of text on the landing page, and then navigating through the labyrinth of folders and links that most instructors cobble together inside of that class, and then reading another wall of text of submission instructions… yeah, not an improvement over the DIY method for the most part, at least in my experience.

“gives teachers tools to analyze submissions to identify students who need more targeted interventions”

The tools that I still can’t figure out after two years of cracking away at them? But, a vastly improved experience is coming in 2012, errr… 2013, wait, 2014!

“Lastly, the LMS provides a standard framework within which you can embed other tools.”

Welcome to WordPress circa 2005! Wait, how is something that every DIY solution has been doing for years now a pro for the LMS?

“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.”

Wait – so a DIY WordPress blog is not as good as an LMS because Canvas finally caught up with a WordPress blog in functionality? I’m confused again. But if your institution is not allowed to use Canvas, so what? How can tools that are present in one variation of an LMS at the bottom of the pile be a reason for everyone in Blackboard to change their mind and love the LMS?

The issue I am highlighting is that each person’s experience with an LMS is different, and your reasons for loving it might actually be another person’s reason for hating it. All of the pros Norman and Curran point out about the LMS I find to be cons in actual daily usage based on nearly 10 years of designing in various LMS tools. Additionally, interacting with instructional designers from around the state and even nation, I find they see the same problems. Having the ability to do something with a tool does not translate into that tool being easy to figure out. Blackboard and even Canvas are notorious for being difficult to figure out (I figured them out easily, but many can’t). Even when one does figure them out, designing courses in a way that doesn’t turn them into a “Wild-West Conglomeration in a Box” is next to impossible for many with the time constraints they are given. And even if you take time to design them well, students end up getting lost because the whole LMS paradigm is pretty complex by default.

Each person has to choose which “Wild-West Conglomeration” they want – in a box where you can’t get your data or have ownership over your content, or in the open where you do. The fundamental problem with the LMS is ultimately not ease of use or design, but power issues. You could design the easiest and coolest LMS in the world, but if it is closed… it still loses out. The “Walled Garden” argument still applies, all these years later.

Dealing With The F Word in Education: FERPA.

One of the FAQs I deal with in presentations on the future of education usually goes like this: “how can we do this and not get in trouble with FERPA?” I know that somehow the question is looking in the wrong direction, but I don’t always know exactly how to point that out.

Jim Groom gives an excellent response to the question in his post “You Can’t Spell FERPA without FEAR.” You need to read it if you have ever had to deal with the dreaded F word:

I think it is time to reclaim the FUD around FERPA and reinterpret it as it was intended: an act that encourages universities to give students more control over their own data, and by extension their own teaching and learning.

Proof That Many “Experts” Still Don’t Get Online Learning

The New York Times has an interesting article on some of the new non-traditional routes to earn a college degree. Most of the ideas presented in the article are not new to readers of this blog.  But one statement stuck out to me:

“Taking a course online, by yourself, is not the same as being in a classroom with a professor who can respond to you, present different viewpoints and push you to work a problem,” Professor Neem said.

Sadly, this shows how little this professor knows about online learning. Professors can respond to you in online learning – sometimes even more often than they can in the limited time that face-to-face courses afford. Professors can present different viewpoints online (or anywhere they want for that matter), and they can push you to work a problem.

There are many benefits to face-to-face learning that online learning can’t accomplish, but unfortunately none of them are touched on this article. Fairly typical.

Of course, many of my face to face classes had professors that couldn’t be bothered to respond to me, present different viewpoints, or push me to work a problem. These are personality traits of individual instructors, not characteristics of online learning.

No wonder online learning is still in an uphill battle. Many of the “experts” that the media find have no business being interviewed in the first place.

“There is No Such Thing as an Attention Span”

If you were to believe Bing, using the Internet is making us a bunch of babbling idiots that spew random words out of our mouths.  And you wonder why they aren’t making headway against Google? Last I checked, accusing your target audience of being dimwits wasn’t the best way to win them over as customers.

But it is just not us morons that use Google. Children are also being adversly affected, as attention spans are constantly being withered by each new tech toy we inflict on them.

Or are they?  Virginia Heffernan raises some interesting points in her New York Times article “The Attention-Span Myth“:

But the fact that the attention-span theory makes news of what was once considered ordinary or artistic behavior is not what’s wrong with it…. Instead, the problem with the attention-span discourse is that it’s founded on the phantom idea of an attention span. A healthy “attention span” becomes just another ineffable quality to remember having, to believe you’ve lost, to worry about your kids lacking, to blame the culture for destroying.

Heffernan doesn’t make a slam-dunk case – probably because it is obvious that she doesn’t set out to make one. The goal of the article is to make one think.  That last part of what I quoted is what really grabbed me.  I wonder if all the education-revolution advocates out there realize that once they get their revolution, that education will still end up being just as bad as it is now.  We accuse universities of not changing with times, when they obviously are.  Headlines tell us that people don’t find degrees as valuable as they used to, when in fact research proves that record numbers of people actually do think they have great value. We believe every asinine headline that comes along, even going to the point of holding conferences around half-baked theories of the “failure” of higher education.  I’m beginning to believe that the real problem in education is not the universities themselves, but the so-called reformers that steal headlines by flapping their jaws about things that just aren’t true.

I Am The Gate Keeper Of The Internet!

This video was created by EduGeek Darren.  If you have ever been an instructional designer, you have had this conversation before.

I think my university needs to enact this Internet membership fee thing, also….

And The Second Life Exodus Begins

When I first heard that Second Life was ending their educator discount program, I knew that there would eventually be some talk about schools leaving. I just didn’t think it would come so swiftly and decisively. Apparently, there was even a session discussing which alternative to move to at Educause this week (Academics Discuss Mass Migration From Second Life).

I find it funny that people keep referring to the discount as “generous.”  Look, Second Life has always been cool but overpriced.  Even the half off discount was a stretch for most educational institutions.  At least half of the institutions that I knew of that considered going in to Second Life didn’t because even with half-off there was no way they could budget it.

The corporate world already turned its back on land in Second Life. The gaming sector never cared.  Individuals mostly couldn’t afford it, since it was really set-up for corporations.  The government sector never has any extra money for innovation.  The only group that had interest and at least a bit of money was the educational sector.  And some have said that was the only thing keeping Linden Labs afloat.

Nice knowin’ ya, Second Life.  Say “hi” to Google Wave, Jaiku, Lively, and Netscape in the virtual after world…

Is Second Life Shooting Itself In the Foot?

By now you have possibly heard the news that Second Life is going to end its educator discount.  That discount was a whopping half off land prices.  Is this going to signal the end of Second Life?

I can’t count the number of people I have talked to through the years that cited cost as a reason why their educational institution wasn’t getting in to Second Life – even with the discount.  I get that Second Life usage is really dropping and they need to make more money.  But I am also sure a large number of colleges are just going to close shop rather than double expenses.  I have heard that many college SL projects are already on the edge of elimination as it it is.

So one has to wonder – will the net gain of those that stay and pay double make up for the huge loss of everyone that will leave?  Right now, I doubt it.  Personally, I think Second Life is going to lose more than they think they will gain.

As interest in Second Life wanes in many places, some have speculated that the educational sector is the main thing keeping it a float.  Why shoot one of your only good legs in the foot?

Will 2011 be remembered as the year virtual worlds died? I hope not – but they are life support and need better thinking than this to survive.

Higher Education: Guardian of Knowledge

I am glad to see that I am not the only one feeling a bit… uneasy?… about how ed tech is going.  Brian Lamb and Jim Groom do a good job of articulating some of my concerns and growing fears in this article: Never Mind the Edupunks; or, The Great Web 2.0 Swindle:

We dream of higher education that embraces its role as a guardian of knowledge, that energetically creates and zealously protects publicly-minded spaces promoting enlightenment and the exchange of ideas. We need green spaces for conviviality on the web.

Been Slugged Lately Online? Do You Even Know What That Means?

I was a little shocked to see how little I could find about “slugging” in online learning when I searched recently.  Maybe I was doing a bad search.  Slugging is basically a way students can cheat by extending their deadline.  All you do is take a non-text file… an image, flash file, whatever… and change the extension from .jpg or whatever to .doc (or whatever format your assignment is due in).  You name the file (the “slug”) whatever the instructor requires, and upload it.  The instructor will usually be busy and they will wait a few days beyond deadline to download every one’s files.  They will try to open your Word doc and get a notice that the file is corrupted.  They will then email the you and ask for a better copy.  It is the modern equivalent to “the dog ate my homework.”  Even if a teacher is really on top of things and starts grading immediately after deadline, students can still claim they didn’t check their email, aren’t near the computer the file is on, etc – and buy themselves a few days.

Some people are even apparently making money off of this now.

One way to clamp down on this is to revise your late policy to include any technical glitches:

“all assignments must be submitted by the due date and time listed in the syllabus. Assignments must be in the format required in the syllabus, and must open with out any glitches or corruption on the my computer, or they will be considered late.  If you aren’t sure, please submit early and have me check to make sure it opens on my computer.  Any slugging (changing a document’s extension) is also considered cheating.”

Of course, an even better way to fight this is to go EduPunk and have your students do group work on blogs, Twitter, etc – that way, there is no way they are tempted to slug :)

(HT to Chris Duke who Tweeted the link above and reminded me that I have been meaning to blog on this for a while).