“I want to break free.”

So apparently I’ve driven Michael Feldstein to drink. I, for one, think the quality of his post is worth the cost (but then again it’s not my liver that’s involved). Since I got pinged, I had the chance to lay down the first comment on that post, so here it is reproduced in full (and it begins with me quoting Michael):

“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.”

I think that’s true, Michael, but not because faculty like riding tricycles. It’s because the faculty development necessary in order to make use of the whole, wide Internet through whatever system they want to use isn’t there and I don’t think that’s a coincidence. The Internet must look like anarchy to the average college administrator because it is. By systematizing that anarchy, universities can control both faculty and curriculum at the same time. Indeed, while I think the LMS SHOULD go the way of the dodo the day before yesterday (since I’m on team anarchy as it makes teaching and learning more fun), I would argue that this is precisely why it hasn’t.

In the great scheme of things, Michael and I aren’t really disagreeing on very much. There’s an LMS. It makes life easier. Many faculty use it. The difference of opinion we have involves – WARNING: Humanities jargon alert!!! – agency.

If you go to work every day does it prove that you like your job? It certainly proves that you like being paid, but the fact that you haven’t quit is not evidence that you’re happy between nine and five every weekday. Similarly, if you chose to use the Learning Management System I don’t think that proves that you necessarily like what your administration has provided you. It simply proves that you are willing to take the path of least resistance to performing the requirements of your employment, and I think that’s sad.

Please don’t get me wrong here: I’m not blaming anyone for making the choice to use an LMS. I agree with Laura Gibbs here:

When a faculty member uses some permutation of lecture-quiz-discuss in the closed environment of D2L because that is the only option they have, they do not even have the opportunity to experience the different kinds of learning that can happen in more open environments. So, when I show faculty members what I am doing with student web publishing in my classes, powered by some great aggregation and syndication tools, they like what they see, but when I tell them that D2L does not provide any of the needed tools, they shrug and move on. Would they like to do things better and differently? Sure, I think so; I am not so pessimistic as to say that faculty don’t care or cannot tell the difference, especially when you show them some impressive student learning outcomes. But if the only tool the university offers them is completely inadequate to the task, it’s understandable that they would just carry on with the same-old same-old.

I’m blaming the people who’ve decided that the lack of a single online system is a problem that somehow needs to be fixed – as if having a hundred professors teaching the same subject a hundred different ways was a problem that they ever would have thought of fixing during the pre-Internet age.

Well, I want to break free, and I think that it’s best for education if as many other faculty members as possible break free with me. Indeed, I think the relative success of the digital humanities demonstrates that lots of faculty members are interested in learning lots about lots of different, sometimes-complicated tools that will make their classes better. I would argue that the key reason for that is that they control vertical. They control the horizontal. Every learning management system that I’ve ever encountered controls you. Even if it’s just an aggregator – and even if YOU set the parameters of what’s being aggregated – that’s one more thing about your job that’s being automated, which therefore makes a lot of people feel a little less human.

The great Nick Carr has a new book out, The Glass Cage: Automation and Us. I keep meaning to write about it here, so I think I’ll use this opportunity to at least use a quotation from the very last page of text in the book:

“To resist invention is not to reject invention. It’s to humble invention, to bring progress down to earth. “Resistance is futile,” goes the glib Star Trek cliche beloved by techies. But that’s the opposite of the truth. Resistance is never futile. If the source of our vitality is, as Emerson taught us, “the active soul,” then our highest obligation is to resist any force, whether institutional or commercial or technological, that would enfeeble or enervate the soul.”

I would argue that technology doesn’t get much more soul-enfeebling than the LMS – both for the professors running classes through the system and for the students at the receiving end of this kind of education. Just because a class is online, doesn’t mean it has to be cookie cutter. It doesn’t mean that it has to have bounds. The fact that such systems get (tacitly) imposed upon professors everywhere demonstrates more than anything else I can think of at the moment that education has become a commodity, which isn’t just sad. It’s a waste of so much technological potential.

Jonathan Rees

Professor of History, Colorado State University - Pueblo.

This Post Has 10 Comments

  1. Alan Levine (@cogdog)

    That “soul-enfeebling” phrase belongs on t-shirts and motivational posters (and mocks thereof).

    But having spent 20+ years in the area of working with faculty, staff, and students, I cannot say that just more “development” and training would turn the tide. It’s hard work, it’s messy, it changes, it breaks (sometimes your heart), it’s not easy. There is a lot of learned helplessness out there- across the board, not just faculty “I’m no good at technology” “It’s too hard” “I just want to teach not program”. It’s a human condition of averting what is perceived as an obstacle.

    Yet… People who hate running manage to finish marathons (hand raised). People who have told themselves they cannot swim go across lakes. People who have been told they are not artists just draw and build.

    Yet… there is the reward of going beyond the “easy button” (please watch my colleague Todd’s brilliant video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IAJjg99Wvq8) But like a chemical reaction to happen, there is a resistance barrier that requires activation energy to put in motion. Otherwise, people, like objects subject to Newton’s laws. tend to remain at rest.

    But its way more than workshops and PD. It takes commitment on both sides of the development process (and likely incentives).

    One at a time, we might set ’em free. One at a time.

    Of course many of us only have 15 years before it all goes kaput, according to The Oracle.

  2. Paul-Olivier Dehaye

    Since Alan mentions the Oracle and thus MOOCs, it might be good to think of the difference between an LMS (hosting decision mostly taken by the university) and a MOOC platform (hosting decision generally beyond the decision power of individual university).

    The internet is changing. A long time ago, people needed the training wheels of AOL. Now they don’t really need them anymore, but the Web is losing ground compared to mobile apps and other walled platforms. It might very well be that in a not-so-distant future the MOOC platforms partner up with Facebook, Google or Musk when they start offering their proprietary version of the internet. It seems to me that MOOCs would be very desirable content to have to portray such initiatives in purely positive tones. On top, it would have been made very cheap by then.

  3. Brian Whitmer

    I agree with Paul’s sentiment. It’s not clear to me how we ever, at scale, break away from some administrative control. If the university is hosting the system, they’re going to want it to talk to their backend systems, but Facebook and Google will shape things to their own systems as well. I think it’s great for individuals to rip themselves out and find something new, because it hopefully adds pressure for the rest of us to follow, but any administrative organization is going to want a degree of consistency and control — and that isn’t inherently evil. The problem comes when people (I don’t know if it’s better to accuse faculty or admins) don’t have time to raise their heads and look around. It’d be great to get some more advocacy and communication, because I’m not sure that “screw this, I’m just going to do my own thing and not bother telling anyone” is very product (to be clear, I’m not accusing you of that Jonathan :-), I just think it’s something that generally needs to be worked on).

    1. Jonathan Rees

      “If the university is hosting the system, they’re going to want it to talk to their backend systems, but Facebook and Google will shape things to their own systems as well.”

      I think that’s right, Brian, but it shouldn’t be. My university “hosts” my face-to-face classes, but they don’t demand that I adhere to any standard. At least with Facebook or Google we can always opt-out if their corporate control becomes too onerous.

      1. Brian Whitmer

        …until things reach critical mass, and then you get a user backlash for making their lives harder. Of course, maybe that’s healthy :-).

        Good point about face-to-face freedoms, too. If we could build software that was as intuitive/flexible as a face-to-face classroom I think a lot of these problems would go away.

  4. Kate Bowles

    I also commented on Michael’s post, so to elaborate here a bit — I think Brian’s right that there are critical issues relating to the charmingly named back end of things.

    And one of these is analytics. My university is going through a laborious and potentially very unsuccessful change management process to require the submission and management of all assignments through the LMS. The most obvious institutional advantage of this is a far more complete data set of student assessment practices than is currently the case, because we have just created a Business and Learning Analytics unit, and analysts gotta analyse.

    The problem here is the argument used to persuade faculty consistently promotes the idea that submitting an assignment through an online dropbox is in itself a form of digital learning, when really it’s a reasonably good preparation for submitting an online job application. So faculty find the argument quite unpersuasive, as they should.

    I would take a different approach. One huge and rarely discussed advantage of the LMS is its capacity to reduce the way we use both paper and (in Australia) fossil fuel getting students to drive to campus to submit paper assignments. So let’s make an environmental argument, or a business analytics argument–either has merit. But let’s not try to make a weak pedagogy argument in front of smart folks who really care about teaching.

  5. Michael Feldstein

    Kate, Brian, and Alan are all getting at points that I wish I had articulated better in my post. I think that faculty should have a lot more flexibility than they do now to create a virtual learning environment that works for what they are trying to accomplish. That includes some simple aggregation and integration capabilities that would make working with disparate tools on the open web a little easier and less time-consuming for faculty and students alike. I also think that there should be ways to satisfy the back end needs of the administration without causing substantial harm to the choices faculty and students need to make. I will add, specifically in response to Kate’s point about the need for a better argument, that the best argument I can think of for such accommodations is that we are, in fact, discovering that we can support students better and increase their odds of degree completion by gathering data across courses.

    The main point of my post is that there are ways to design these systems so that they are a lot less intrusive than today’s LMS and actually provide utility across a much wider range of needs. It should be possible, for example, to register any old WordPress site with the system that can then keep track of student posting activity in order to keep an eye out for students who may have stopped participating in all her courses for the past couple of weeks (and therefore may need her advisor to check in with her) and then have the students and teacher otherwise ignore the system. Or, alternatively, maybe they want a class aggregator similar to the one that Alan built for ds106. Or maybe they want to blend the blogging with some other activities that are all gathered in one site for ease-of-use purposes. Those choices would be made by the teacher and students, largely independently of the back end needs.

    But we don’t get there unless faculty decide that they want to ask for something like this, and that would take some education and some campus conversations that go way beyond just “here are 17 things you can do with an LMS, and here are the differences between LMS A and LMS B.”

    1. Jonathan Rees


      Agree, agree and agree. There is one extra point that I want to make, though: Educating faculty is expensive, and it’s time consuming and it’s just so much easier to impose a systemic solution on everybody (and as a bonus administrations get more power this way!). That’s why the initiative has to come from the bottom up rather than the top down.

      1. Michael Feldstein

        Yup, I’m with you on that, which is why I wrote the blog post in the first place. Faculty need to demand more and better professional development.

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