Academic Freedom and the LMS

This morning, I delivered this paper in the Academic Freedom session at the West Coast Division of the American Historical Association’s Conference in Las Vegas.  Thanks to my friend Hank Reichman for inviting me to participate.  I don’t usually write out my papers anymore, but I did this time so that I didn’t get tongue-tied by edtech-induced rage.  Being able to post it here on my largely inactive blog is a nice additional benefit.

I just started teaching a new course, filling in for a colleague who has left our university for greener pastures.  It’s a mostly online course, and one of the restrictions I faced when accepting it was that it had to be delivered through Blackboard, the learning management system (or LMS) on our campus.  In my usual online courses, I use the free version of Canvas, a Blackboard competitor.  Nevertheless, I accepted the rationale behind that requirement: that a group of incoming Freshmen needed to get used to the system that they would encounter most often once they started for real in the fall.  That system would definitely be Blackboard. 

I first encountered Blackboard around fifteen years ago.  I decided to go to a couple of training sessions just to see what this new online tool could do for me.  I decided quickly that whatever it offered wasn’t worth the trouble.  It was badly organized, hard to learn and didn’t offer anything besides a grade book that I didn’t use already.  Having used a competing learning management system for a few years now, I’m in a much better position to critique Blackboard than I was back then.  However, unless you too are burdened by having this particular LMS on your campus, that critique would not be very useful.  Instead, I want to offer a broader critique of LMSs in general as a threat to academic freedom because even if you don’t use whatever LMS your campus offers, their misuse is a threat to your freedom to teach your classes however you happen to see fit. 

Learning Management Systems first arrived on the scene during the mid-1990s as a way for universities to speed the offering of online classes. Your faculty can’t program? We’ll set up this shell course for them and teach them how to populate it with no coding necessary. It was kind of an AOL for the academic set, except you couldn’t pick up a disk at your nearest convenience store and your university paid the bill.

Somewhere in the first decade of this century, learning management systems evolved from what was then generally known as “distance ed” into ordinary face-to-face classrooms. Store your syllabus here. Upload your handouts here. Let your students see how they’re doing in the course at any time by uploading your grades into the LMS grade book. For people who wanted to quickly modernize their courses without building their own web sites, this proved tempting. For contingent faculty or faculty at community colleges, the use of the LMS quickly became an expectation for online and face-to-face courses alike. Indeed, as I’ve documented in the pages of the journal Academe, mandatory LMS usage is now fairly common at community colleges across the United States and even in other private and public institutions where faculty do not have the protection of tenure.

The American Association of University Professors has issued many statements concerning the relationship between academic freedom and teaching. For example, the 1999 Statement on Online and Distance Education reads, in part, “Teachers should have the same responsibility for selecting and presenting materials in courses offered through distance-eduction technologies as they have in those offered in traditional classroom settings.” What I want to argue here is that statement should go a little further: Academic freedom should not only include what professors teach, but how they choose to teach it. If you use a learning management system in an online or a face-to-face setting, all sorts of important choices about how you teach are made by actors that exist far outside any one faculty member’s control. No wonder so many faculty with academic freedom resist using their LMS, or at least refuse to do much with beyond employing its online grade book.

Here again I’m sorely tempted to start complaining about Blackboard again, and I will do a little bit of that in what follows. However, before I talk about any LMS mechanics, I need to emphasize that there are a lot more people involved in your campus learning management system than the people who created that system. In my case, it has been difficult to tell between which parts of Blackboard that I don’t like originate with Blackboard and which parts are a function of how our IT Department wanted Blackboard customized for our campus.

For example, when I was first figuring out Blackboard, I called our IT help desk and asked whether there was any other way to message individual students other than their university e-mail accounts, which in my experience very few of them ever check. The answer was no, because someone in our administration building had determined that any other means of communication was a potential FERPA violation. On the other hand, I had heard about how awful Blackboard discussion forums were long before I returned to Blackboard again a few weeks ago. Therefore, I’m almost certain that the fact that the comments there barely nest is entirely Blackboard’s fault. With many other complaints it’s impossible to tell who exactly is responsible because I wasn’t there when the decision got made.

If I’m teaching a face-to-face course I can hand back papers with grades on them, ask a student to visit me in office hours or – and sadly this is the most appropriate analogy to my first complaint above – ask students to give me an e-mail address that they actually check. With respect to class discussions, as long as I’m there to lead I can make sure that nobody’s points get lost in the back and forth of a large class by emphasizing their importance or requesting direct follow up. By teaching with Blackboard at CSU-Pueblo, I’m giving up both these prerogatives.

My usual workaround for the awfulness of all LMS discussion forums is to use Slack, the free office messaging program. Not only do the comments nest well, students can actually message each other without me seeing, which encourages them to be frank with one another, which is especially important if they’re doing group work. We can also use emojis and GIFs in Slack if we are so inclined. Perhaps most importantly for me at least, the smartphone app is really, really good so when I make an announcement it goes right to the notifications on everyone’s phone, so I can be reasonably certain that nobody will miss it.

Unfortunately, if the principle behind the Blackboard installation that only allows e-mail messaging ever gets applied to my class, I am in deep, deep trouble. I recently confessed my heresy to an administrator in the hopes of finding an early solution to the problem and I realized that this kind of inherent conservatism extends well beyond FERPA. His argument was that if our accrediting body ever asked for the documentation from my class and the university couldn’t produce it because they didn’t control it, we might have a problem on our hands. I argued that hundreds of faculty all over this country are using Slack in their classes and so far no university has lost their accreditation as a result. Besides this, that kind of risk aversion will inevitably stifle pedagogical creativity, either by faculty all using the same bad online tools or by eschewing online tools and classes altogether.

At present, I’m working on a happy compromise with which both faculty and my administration can live. While we’re not quite there yet, what I have learned is how important it is that faculty can’t just let key decisions about their online tools be made by other people. If you don’t, expectations will change while you cover your ears and hum loudly. Mandatory LMS usage will come not as a command, but in the name of your students or in the name of “efficiency” at your university and you will be swept up by change nonetheless.

I believe it is far better for faculty to be proactive. Ride the wave to save your prerogatives rather than just hold on for dear life. Technology will set expectations for the classrooms of the future, and if there’s no faculty representation in those discussions everything will change – probably for the worse – because of our lack of input.

The most important standard I would bring to any discussion about what technology should be employed on campus and the faculty role in how it should be employed is that faculty deserve the same prerogatives when they use an online tool as they do when they are teaching in an entirely conventional face-to-face classroom. To suggest anything else defeats the purpose of moving any part of a class online in the first place. I fear that administrations tend to favor contingent faculty for online teaching precisely because they don’t expect them to utilize their traditional prerogatives in any classroom setting because they are too worried about their continuing employment.

The second standard I would bring to any discussion of how technology like the LMS should be employed on campus is that faculty should be offered as many technological choices as possible and that they should be the ones who make the final decision about which ones they use. My co-author Jonathan Poritz and I compare the ideal edtech situation to a buffet in our 2016 book Education is Not an App: The future of university teaching in the Internet age. Everyone eats what they want or perhaps chooses not to eat at all. It is the administration’s job to lay out the table rather than to force the available offerings down anyone’s throat.

The final standard I would bring to a discussion of the LMS is that the result should be as close to the open Internet as humanly possible. That means faculty have to be able to employ tools that exist entirely outside their LMS if they so choose, like Slack or Hypothes.is, the open source web annotation program. The best LMS available will play well with programs like these, as Canvas has tried to do – and I think the most recent versions of Blackboard does too – so that faculty can run them inside their campus shells with no extra logins and little trouble. To do otherwise is to go back to the days of Internet walled gardens, like America Online. And after all, college campuses are the kinds of places that are supposed to be on the cutting edge of technology since they have so many smart people on them. Treat those smart people like the average corporate peon when it comes to how they teach – the action at the center of their job descriptions – and you are going to have a lot of very unhappy smart people on your hands.

Posted by Jonathan Rees

Professor of History, Colorado State University - Pueblo.

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