A Learning Management Soapbox

Technology is not neutral. It embodies and enacts (though sometimes in “invisible” or obscured ways) human biases, assumptions, and preferences.

Awareness of the non-neutrality of technology is important. It helps us to recognize that the tools we use for instructional purposes inherently privilege certain people, behaviors, and/or theories of learning. Some of this is implicit when we discuss operant conditioning and behaviorism, especially when we consider the ways in which a learning management system reinforces certain responses to stimuli. Many technologies are less clear, however, in what they privilege and what they assume about learning and learners.

How much do the tools we use matter? In 1979, feminist theorist and civil rights activist Audre Lorde wrote an essay titled “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” in which she wrote:

It is learning how to stand alone, unpopular and sometimes reviled, and how to make common cause with those others identified as outside the structures in order to define and seek a world in which we can all flourish. It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support.

The activism implicit in Lorde’s statement ask us to consider what tools we will use to create change. Her words echo perfectly the tenets not only of feminism, but also of critical pedagogy: they are a call for inspection, agency, and action.

Like technology, like critical pedagogy, Critical Instructional Design is not neutral. But at their best, any technology or learning theory can offer a new perspective, one that will hopefully either stir your own perspective, give you a new lens to look through, or affirm what you believe (or all of the above).

With that, let’s look at the LMS.

L: Learning.

From the Old English leornian, “to get knowledge, be cultivated, study, read, think about,” which is from Proto-Germanic *liznojan, “to follow or find the track.” Key here, I think, are the active verbs “get” and “find.” Each of these implies a skill on the part of the learner to discover, acquire, seek, research. There’s something deeply agential about getting and finding (even, following, in this sense is agential, as the track followed is one the learner comes upon or works to uncover). The learner as tracker. The learner in the open wild.

M: Management.

Probably from Italian maneggiare “to handle,” especially “to control a horse.” Influenced by French manège “horsemanship.” Explicit in this term is the idea of control, especially control of an animal known for its willfulness. Dropping management in right after learning, we can imply that it is learning (or learners) which needs controlling. In a single turn, the learner in the open wild has become domesticated, bridled, broken.

S: System.

From Greek systema “organized whole, a whole compounded of parts,” from stem of synistanai“to place together, organize, form in order,” from syn- “together” (see syn-) + root of histanai “cause to stand” from PIE root *stā- “to stand.” A system is a manufactured organizational model that causes the parts to stand together as a whole. The idea of seeing learning as a whole is reassuring; but we cannot consider what this “whole” is without considering how it’s been divided into component “parts”. We are now so far from the idea of a learner in the wild that we’ve arrived upon a simulacrum of a learner in the wild. A mimicry of learning, in containment. Wild horses at the zoo.

All Snark Aside

Speaking with a bit more neutrality, it’s true that the LMS can be an excellent “container” for a course or a community. It can form a home room of sorts for people to gather. But within that container, there need not be any kind of obedience to it. Tools are not neutral, but neither are we. The LMS, in its structure and crude politeness, can be a place where we allow ourselves a certain kind of rambunctiousness. But to get to that rambunctiousness, we need to recognize our own agency, and the pedagogy “baked into” the LMS.

In “Decoding Digital Pedagogy, Pt. 1: Beyond the LMS,” I wrote that

“the LMS convinced us that teaching online was not only possible, it was easy — that digital pedagogy was a mere work of relocation. Take your lectures and your assignments, create a slideshow or a video or a piece of audio, load it all up, and there you have it: online learning.”

But using the LMS as a repository for content, or as a surrogate for the teacher-student relationship, can have real consequences. Pete Rorabaugh reports in his article, “Hack the LMS: Getting Progressive“:

  • Usage of the LMS and its close coupling with the university’s student information databases build a fence around the students in the classroom, dividing them both from the web users outside the course and from each other (many courses do not easily permit student-to-student contact).
  • The course calendar and assignments generated inside the LMS also suffer a boundary. Student interaction with the course material increases steadily throughout the semester, and drops to zero afterward. Courses are commonly reset at the adminstrative level, and course materials that students accessed throughout the semester via the LMS close once the course is finished.
  • From school to school, the LMS usually varies, thus students who transfer from one school to another must frequently learn to navigate new systems, when the culture on the web at large orbits a collection of familiar tools that remain consistent (Wiley/Mott cite YouTube, Flickr, and Google Docs as examples).
  • Communities built within a course and facilitated by the LMS dissolve at the close of the semester. Rather than encouraging collaboration and the perpetual dialog of an educational community, the gate that closes on the LMS at the end of the semester prevents the community from continuing to expand.

How can we encourage interaction between students that is unhindered by the LMS? How can we avoid the sometimes tacit assumption of the LMS that the knowledge valued in the course is exclusive to the course? How can we use the LMS to boost learning activities onto the open web, which better represents the culture in which students will find themselves after graduation? How can the LMS become a diving board into projects and authentic learning experiences rather than a Byzantine collection of folders to which they must submit identical responses.

When we enter the LMS as a designer or a teacher (or, hopefully, as a student), we may well need to recognize it as an opportunity for resistance. And if not resistance, then invention. We cannot let ourselves be cowed or convinced by learning management systems and their built-in pedagogy, but rather must recognize our own ability to utilize its affordances and hack its limitations.

And this goes for all digital tools.

Parts of this post were written in collaboration with Amy Collier.