“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.