Cut the professor a check and walk away.

It’s awesome that even though I’m down to something like a once-a-week posting schedule on this blog, people still tweet articles at me that are right up my alley.  Saves me the trouble of fishing around for material.  So thanks to my well-known hatred of learning management systems, I had this in my mentions when I woke up on Monday:

The next-generation learning management system shouldn’t be a system at all, but a “digital learning environment” where individual components — from grade books to analytics to support for competency-based education — fit together like Lego bricks, a new white paper recommends.

Is that a good thing or a bad thing?  Well, that’s certainly better than a one-size-fits all learning management system, but then again just about anything would be better than Blackboard.

Should we at least be happy, though, if commercial LMS providers actually evolve in the right direction?  Let’s compare this development to the gold standard for professor-centered online idealism, Jim Groom and Brian Lamb’s “Reclaiming Innovation”:

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. Yes, creative and engaging learning can happen almost anywhere. But environments matter, and disturbingly often these systems promote formulaic and rigid instruction.

So the authors of that white paper used the word “environment” rather than the word “system” Score one for them. Unfortunately, only so many Legos fit in a Lego box.  And what happens, for instance, if you don’t want to play Lego at all?  I, for one, might prefer Lincoln Logs and you can’t attach a Lego and a Lincoln Log since the notches aren’t the same size.

In other words, I’m afraid even the next-generation learning management system will still be hierarchical and top-down.  But why exactly does this matter?

Your Online Course Is Not Yours Alone:

In no way do I mean this as an “I told you so,” but since Jen Ebbeler decided to blog about what happened to the Online Rome course she designed, I want to spread her lesson around as a faculty education tool.  Take it away, Jen:

From the beginning, I designed and built the course to be instructed by others.  I also made a strong effort to work with the course instructor to ensure that there was a qualified and experienced instructor positioned to take over the project and manage its transition to the Classics Department…. I was stunned to learn yesterday, indirectly and in passing, that the Classics Chair had opted not to implement the “succession plan” that I had carefully and thoughtfully crafted.  As well, different instructors were appointed for the summer session and fall semester–and, though both are skilled classroom instructors, they are either unqualified or under-qualified for the specific tasks that the successful instruction of Online Rome requires.

Yes, you have to make some sacrifices when working inside a university environment with limited resources, but why this one?  As Jen notes:

Besides the apparent personal politics at play in this decision, it also reflects a surprising ignorance about the crucial role of the instructor in an online class.  As any (good) educator knows, the most important requirement for a successful course is the instructor’s pedagogical skill, experience, and knowledge of course content.  This does not change when the classroom is replaced by a computer.

If anything, it become more important because online teaching skills are anything but instinctual.  First, you have to understand the platform.  Then you have to implement the pedagogy. Kevin Carey likes to dismiss today’s professors by informing them that they never learned anything about teaching in graduate school. While that’s not true for a whole slew of us faculty, I think it is true for most of us with respect to teaching online.

That may explain why disrespecting the instructor in an online environment seems incredibly common from where I sit.  For example, Phil Hill picked this part out of a very long IHE article from an anonymous 25-year adjunct:

I have taught many online courses. We have tapped about 10 percent of the potential of online courses for teaching. But rather than exploring the untapped 90 percent, the college where I taught online wanted to standardize every course with a template designed by tech people with no input from instructors.

What do they get as a result of this kind of interference?  Well, at the very least, online courses that aren’t built with the best pedagogy possible when too many other non-pedagogical considerations enter the mix.


Things don’t have to be this way. It is possible to use online tools outside the direct control of your campus administration in order to create good online classes (or to enhance face-to-face classes too, for that matter). Lucky for me, my main inspiration for exactly this sort of thing has started sharing her strategies in other places besides Google+. Ladies and Gentlemen, Laura Gibbs. This is from the summary of her recent interview with Howard Rheingold:

Gibbs doesn’t lecture — at all. She does provide resources, a course aggregator, and an assignment to blog, comment, and remix. The learning, reflection, and discourse all happens on the open web, and her learners publish “Storybook” websites in which “they retell traditional stories in fantastic new ways.” She found, qualified, and aggregated free online mythology and folklore resources for her students, publishing an “untextbook” of folktales and myths, from which “each student makes their own textbook” from the trillions of possible combinations of tales.

In case you don’t have time to watch the whole interview (at the link above), let me transcribe what I think is the most answer that Laura gave:

“I was frustrated as a teacher in a classroom, but going online gave me all this freedom, gave my students all kinds of freedom, so I’m kind of baffled sometimes when I hear people talk about online learning being impersonal, or online classes being impersonal. For me, it has just been the opposite.”

Laura, in other words, has no interference from an LMS, constantly mediating her interactions with her students and forcing her to upgrade every six months or so so that the provider has a new selling point for unconverted campuses.  She also has no interference from higher-ups at the University of Oklahoma, who have let her teach the way see she fits for something like thirteen years now.

But how many other online instructors get this kind of freedom?  Seriously, I’d like to know. The anonymous adjunct mentioned above doesn’t but which situation is more typical?

Regardless of the answer to that question, it is worth considering how long anybody who currently has this kind of freedom is going to be able to keep it. As the transition from face-to-face to online learning accelerates in more places, I believe there will inevitably be more ass deans trying to justify their existences by taking control of people’s online classrooms. This is why I’ve been so obsessed with mandatory LMS usage for some time now. To me this smells of being just the beginning. And even having a Lego box full of many brightly-colored pieces is not worth the heartache that this kind of interference with our traditional professorial prerogatives will bring.

Cut the Professor a Check and Walk Away:

The last time I blogged at any length about LMSs, I got slapped around by the vastly-better-informed-about-this-subject-than-I-am Michael Feldstein.  Here’s the only part of that ordeal that actually bothered me:

Here’s the hard truth: While Jonathan wants to think of the LMS as “training wheels” for the internet (like AOL was), there is overwhelming evidence that lots of faculty want those training wheels. They ask for them. And when given a chance to take the training wheels off, they usually don’t.

The reason that hurt so much is that he may be right. I’ve never done a poll.  If Jim Groom spoke to every faculty member in America, I’m certain he wouldn’t be (but that hasn’t happened…yet).

Here’s what I do know, though. If you actually trained faculty in how to teach online effectively, they wouldn’t choose a corporate LMS because they would no longer be afraid of the wide open Internet.  Unfortunately, training – and I’m talking real professional development here, not a one-day corporate retreat catered with bad pizza brought in by Sysco, Aramark or whichever soulless corporation has a monopoly on food service at your campus – costs money. More importantly, if online education appeals to your administration precisely because they want more control over the teaching side of the university, then they WANT you to stay ignorant.

I’m not really alleging an evil conspiracy here. I’ve used this quote from Mike Caulfield before and I’m gonna do it again here because I think it captures the utter banality (rather than villainy) of the modern administrative mindset so well:

And I think a lot of administrators are frankly relieved about this, because as more and more education moves online, the idea is that we can bulldoze our strip-mall exburban eyesore and replace it with something centrally managed and controlled.  And courses will be delivered as these closed, feature complete products, designed by the experts — us, the instructional designers.

Standardization over variety.  Order over chaos.  Anonymous adjunct’s experience over Laura Gibbs’ – not necessarily because it will save money (although it will), but because it allows administrators to exercise control over how courses get taught, which in turn will greatly increase executive power.

If administrators really wanted to improve the quality of any particular online course, they would cut the professor a check and walk away.  No, I’m not talking free money here.  There’d be a call for proposals, and reports at the end to demonstrate that the professors who got the money did what they said they’d do.  All the usual accountability measures.  If the professor needs help making this happen, then they can call the instructional designers rather than the other way around.  If administrators wanted to find a place to fund these checks, they could just cut out all the money going to for-profit Silicon Valley startups rather than the actual educational experience and give it to faculty instead.

In a nutshell, what I’m really saying here is to trust faculty to do online education right.  Anything less is a threat to your academic freedom.

Jonathan Rees

Professor of History, Colorado State University - Pueblo.

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