Learning Management systems, or LMSs, are one of those things, like politics or religion, about which everyone has an opinion. A strongly held opinion, usually, and if you’re the poor sod who dares to defend an LMS in the presence of a technically proficient renegade, well, yes, that can be unpleasant.
Calmer discussions are possible, however. This past summer, Tony Bates, a Research Associate at Contact North, took LMSs to task for not being able to support his style of teaching. He wondered whether there were any redeeming features, but in the end couldn’t find many.
His recap of the common criticisms got me thinking about my own reasons for using an LMS (in my case, D2L’s Brightspace).
Bates’s main criticism is simple: “With an LMS, I am given a tool then required to fit my teaching within the boundaries of that tool. . . . I want software solutions that fit the way I want to teach.” Since the internet has created an information explosion, he no longer sees as much value in teaching students a set curriculum of texts or ideas. Rather, he’d like them to develop the skill of finding, analyzing, and incorporating knowledge in a modern, digital manner. He doubts that a proprietary LMS (think Blackboard, D2L, even Moodle) can serve his needs:
I run into problems with proprietary or legacy LMSs all the time. Not because they don’t work - they usually function quite well - but because they’re stuck in a very rigid framework that perpetuates traditional notions of teaching and learning whereby teaching is about content transfer and learning is about quizzes and essays. I’ll save you some reading time by being blunt: LMSs just don’t take into account the variety of educational experiences that can be offered today.
This despite the fact that LMSs offer a couple of positive features. Bates argues that these good things - for example, centralized and efficient record keeping, a modest learning curve to get up and running, a secure and private learning environment - don’t have much to do with student learning; the instructors, not the students, benefit. That’s only partially true, however, since efficient housekeeping reduces stress and anxiety for both instructors and students.
Moreover, there’s an argument to be made for creating a cohesive course experience. LMSs can provide that for institutions, and many instructors wouldn’t have the ability to produce something similar on their own (the way Bates appears willing to do).
Let’s think about that for a second. What kind of learning environment do we want institutions to provide? For me it’s all about a central space for students and professors to come together in a shared space to study and learn. That sounds like a good classroom - or a good LMS.
And let’s be frank: I don’t want to have to build either a classroom or an LMS myself. Instead, I want to put those spaces to good use for teaching and learning.
The fact of the matter, however, is that we’ll always be disappointed by LMSs if the companies making them continue to be bound by traditional approaches to learning. What we need is a tool that facilitates a collaborative working environment, something like Slack or programs like it. This really struck me when I had a guest lecturer in my class last week. I sat next to two students who were using separate laptops to take notes on a shared Google doc. They were correcting each other, questioning each other, building a common summary of their shared learning experience. LMSs today are too set in their ways to foster that kind of collaboration or reflection. The ideal LMS would trade rigidity for flexibility in order to accommodate diverse teaching and learning preferences, and be a space where both instructor and students would be enthusiastic about sharing.
This is the second of my nine contributions to the eCampusOntario 9x9x25 challenge.
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