Who remembers America Online? No, I don’t mean the nondescript media company that’s still barely around today. I’m talking about the dominant player in dial-up Internet way back in the 1990s. Having spent most of that decade at a major research university I had little reason for dial-up, but it’s hard to forget all those discs they used to give out. I also vividly remember my one experience actually watching someone use AOL. I was visiting NYC and helping my friend Jackie sign up since she was letting me crash on her couch. The moment she entered the chat room for newbies, she got hit on.

I finished reading Walter Isaacson’s The Innovators a few days ago and was initially surprised to see AOL as part of his long history of the Internet. But then I think he’s got a point here:

“AOL…was like going online with training wheels. It was unintimidating and easy to use.”

My other exposure to America Online came through my uncle, who stayed in their walled garden from the mid-90s up until he died in 2009. However, he was probably better versed with the online world than the vast majority of people in his generation.

So why would anybody who’s been practically living online for the last twenty years or so need to teach or learn online with training wheels? The answer to that question is, of course, they don’t.

So remind me again why Learning Management Systems (LMSs) are still a thing…

I. Information Just Wants to Be Free.

A couple of months ago, my friends over at e-Literate were blogging about LMSs as walled gardens. [I’m pretty sure that that’s where I came up with my title equation here even if Michael and Phil didn’t mention it.] From what I can tell (and honestly, at least some of this edtech stuff remains Greek to me), both these guys see a completely walled garden as a problem for learning managements systems, at least they see it as a problem these days.

Blogs have been around for what – ten or twelve years now? I remember the old Talking Points Memo, Atrios’ Eschaton and all those other ancient liberal hangouts, but I certainly don’t remember the old e-Literate. So it came as quite a shock that while looking for those garden posts again, I came across this 2006 Michael Feldstein post in the e-Literate archives. [2006! That’s older than cMOOCs! I didn’t even know there was such a thing as edtech in 2006!] It turns out that Michael Feldstein wasn’t always so hostile to walled gardens back in the day:

Teaching is about trust. If you want your students to take risks, you have to create an environment that is safe for them to do so. A student may be willing to share a poem or a controversial position or an off-the-wall hypothesis with a small group of trusted classmates that s/he wouldn’t feel comfortable sharing with the entire internet-browsing population and having indexed by Google. Forever. Are there times when encouraging students to take risks out in the open is good? Of course! But the tools shouldn’t dictate the choice. The teacher should decide. It’s about academic freedom to choose best practices. A good learning environment should enable faculty to password-protect course content but not require it. Further, it should not favor password-protection, encouraging teachers to explore the spectrum between public and private learning experiences.

I actually agree with all of that, but, of course, circumstances on the ground have changed. The Internet is no longer a passing fad. We as teachers have a responsibly to train students to live and work in the real world.

As LMSs have become increasingly complex, it has become harder and harder for faculty who use LMSs to integrate what they want to include from the wider Internet into their classes through that system. Indeed, I know from the experience of one of my publishers that if the providers don’t actually let outside content in, then instructors have to get their students to leave the LMS bubble entirely (if such a thing is even possible).

That’s why it’s time, Mr. Gorbachev, to tear down this wall.

II. You’ve Got Mail!

Let me go back to another AOL feature that you may remember. Here’s Isaacson again:

“A voice-over actor named Elwood Edwards, who was the husband of an early employee of AOL, recorded perky greetings–”Welcome!” and “You’ve got mail!–that made the service seem friendly. So America went online.”

While I haven’t seen the movie in a while, I have this vague memory of Meg Ryan talking about how great it was to hear those greetings in the unvbelievably-dated*, late-1990s romantic comedy “You’ve Got Mail!”

E-mail was (and mostly still is) a metaphor for actual postal mail. Who doesn’t like getting a real letter? [From Meg Ryan, no less!] Not junk mail. Not advertising circulars. This was back before spam was everywhere and e-mail was still fun. A few months ago, Alexis Madrigal argued that e-mail is still the best thing on the Internet because it is:

actually a tremendous, decentralized, open platform on which new, innovative things can and have been built. In that way, email represents a different model from the closed ecosystems we see proliferating across our computers and devices.

Email is a refugee from the open, interoperable, less-controlled “web we lost.” It’s an exciting landscape of freedom amidst the walled gardens of social networking and messaging services.

Yes, email is exciting. Get excited!

I actually am excited about e-mail now because I’ve started doing it differently.

A couple of days ago I got myself a Google Inbox invite, and I think I like it because it forces you to think about what e-mail is and how you use it. While this is not the place or the time for me to try to offer a review, I can at least tell you this: Google is trying to destroy the metaphor of e-mail = postal mail once and for all. Google Inbox is mail, but it’s also a personal organizer, a to-do list, a reminder system and something of an alarm clock all in one. One of the stupidest decisions ever made on my campus was to become an all-Microsoft school. I’m not saying that Google has better politics or business practices than Microsoft does, but Google Inbox certainly proves to me that they have better products, or at least that Google is actually interested in helping its users help themselves.

Can you say the same thing about Blackboard? Blackboard breeds learned helplessness. We didn’t learn about Blackboard in grad school so your LMS is by definition somebody else’s problem. But it won’t stay this way for long. Those generations of faculty that started working with LMSs in grad school aren’t going to sit idly by and let those systems ruin their entire working lives. More importantly, they won’t let the prerogatives that they fought like hell to get by actually obtaining a tenure-track job slip away, and why should they? They understand the advantages of the open web, just like our students do.

III. I want it all.

Do you mind if I repeat myself? Jim Groom and Brian Lamb’s Educause Review article “Reclaiming Innovation” is hands down the best thing I’ve read on the web about the web (or just about anything else for that matter) all year. Here’s the part that still makes me lose sleep I find it so harrowing:

Instead of supporting “learning enhancement environments” on an enterprise level, colleges and universities implement and mandate the use of “learning management systems.” Thus, before we even begin to encounter the software itself, we privilege a mindset that views learning not as a life-affirming adventure but instead as a technological problem, one that requires a “system” to “manage” it. This mindset and its resulting values result in online architectures that prioritize user management, rigidly defined and restricted user roles, automated assessments, and hierarchical, top-down administration.

A well-meaning administrator might tell us that this kind of systematic thinking is the price we pay for a convenient and safe online educational environment, but it’s not 1995 anymore, people. Faculty don’t need training wheels in order to teach online. In fact, I’d argue that the almost universal faculty frustration with LMSs stems precisely from the fact that too many LMS providers (and the IT departments that enable them) think we actually are like third graders when it comes to using computers in our classes. We all want to fly, but the LMS is an anvil tied around our collective ankles. Who wouldn’t be frustrated at that?

The same thing goes for our students. Tressie McMillan Cottom is so cool that she gets invited into MOOCs in order to criticize them. Here’s part of a recent post which tells that whole story:

I suspect there are age and social class hierarchies in how different student groups adopt technology. But common to these two groups — traditional aged students at a selective private university and non-traditional students in online for-profit colleges — there were similar hacking activities. They don’t much like your top-down ed-tech tools. They use the tools they already have in service of what they need and want. They are making spaces that institutions do not provide them. They are adapting those spaces relative to their social locations and I suspect the differences are partially about who and what they trust.

If our students can make spaces that institutions don’t provide them, why can’t we faculty? Of course, in today’s higher education they’re the customers and we’re the hired help, but we’re the skilled hired help. Educators need to make decisions about education or the education that gets provided won’t be worth two free months of America Online.

Phil Hill, in one of the e-Literate posts which I linked to above, suggests a kind of modified, limited hangout strategy for LMS providers to let the web into their walled gardens. But why should faculty be happy with only part of the web? I want it all. I want it all, and I want it now. This doesn’t mean that LMS providers have to be disrupted immediately. Disruption implies that (like virtual Clayton Christensen) somebody has come up with a cheap simulation of the LMS. In fact, the reverse is true. Like AOL, LMSs are the cheap corporate simulations of the entire web experience. What I’m suggesting instead is that in the end, the best product will turn out to be a million different products that meet a million different needs (many at no cost to the users), or perhaps the best product will be no product at all.

* Of course, that movie is dated not just because of AOL. Remember when big chain bookstores could possibly considered evil rather than just more than slightly pathetic?

Jonathan Rees

Professor of History, Colorado State University - Pueblo.

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Doug didier

    Might be of interest to you. Open source Lms middleware..

    >>Check out this video on YouTube:

    Overview of the Tsugi PHP Learning Tool Development Environment


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