Digital Detox #2: The LMS, Tech-Driven Pedagogy, and Making Bad Choices Too Easy

Reading Time: 9 minutes

It’s common discourse in teaching and learning circles to hear the comment that we can’t let technology drive our pedagogy. But is it true? If I walk into a classroom and the chairs are fixed rather than movable, it changes how I approach the lesson plan; if there’s no whiteboard or no surface to write on, it changes how I approach content delivery; if the students don’t have writing surfaces or forgot to bring supplies, it changes how they learn. Everything we do is mediated by the technology we have access to. Always. This isn’t necessarily good or bad it just… is.

Of course, that’s not really what we mean when we say technology shouldn’t drive pedagogy. We mean the bad kind of technology: edtech, computers, the internet. You know, the sullying stuff. Prior to the Covid-19 pivot, we saw this language frequently used to delineate the people who support teaching from the people who support technology: one is pedagogy, the other is button pushing. Moving our campus experiences online has functionally collapsed any distinction between the two, but sometimes old habits, attitudes, and responses die hard. So when we say technology shouldn’t drive pedagogy, sometimes what we’re really saying is we don’t want to think about the ways in which technology always already drives pedagogy, the ways in which our world is circumscribed by our technologies — and also that we don’t want to learn how the sausage is made.

The fact that technology drives pedagogy isn’t some revelation and it isn’t a condemnation. What it is instead is an ethical call to arms: if we know, if we acknowledge, that technology drives pedagogy in myriad ways, then our responsibility to select technologies carefully, and with an eye to the pedagogies we hope to use, is heightened. How often do faculty complain about a tool or a resource being provided for teaching and learning without appropriate input — never mind student input. These tools feel imposed upon us because we aren’t empowered in their selection, and because they do shape what we can and cannot do in our (virtual) classroom. Of course they do.

This brings me to today’s topic: the LMS, or the learning management system, or for our colleagues outside North America, the virtual learning environment (VLE). You might know it as Moodle, or Blackboard, or Canvas, or D2L, or Brightspace, or if you’re as old as me, WebCT. Maybe you just know it as “that f@#king thing.” It’s a constant source of frustration to some instructors, a comfort to others. It streamlines, smoothes, and refines our learning experiences — and those aren’t necessarily good things. It is content delivery and quizzing and assignment dropboxes and a marking interface. It delivers a mostly unifying user experience, and in order to achieve that it sands off difference.

And sometimes, to a greater or lesser extent depending on the institution, it’s a repository of what I have come to call “cop sh!t”: surveillance tools that range from learner analytics to plagiarism detectors to e-proctoring services. We’ll get to that before too much longer, I promise.

But first: my life with the LMS, for better or for worse.


When the LMS and I first went Facebook-official (language the kids most certainly no longer use), we tagged ourselves, “It’s Complicated.” Which is to say I have something of a love-hate history with this particular class of educational technologies — or, like, a tolerate-hate, a grudgingly accept-hate, a feels like a hypocrite-hate relationship. Because for a long time, I was a stalwart holdout against the LMS. I worked at a Blackboard school and I used it only when I absolutely had to (namely for fully online courses, where the college didn’t want to risk my WordPress sites in the what-if-she’s-hit-by-a-bus-and-we-have-to-teach-her-courses hypothetical that never feels quite hypothetical enough). Otherwise, I worked entirely out of WordPress, building a customized site for every class that did exactly what I needed that class to do. I am no web designer or WordPress maven but I felt such satisfaction in the simplest sites I built that served my needs elegantly. My students and I worked out in the open and I loved teaching them what the web could be. Why, I scoffed, would I ever use the LMS?

And then I took a job as an educational technologist, a job that I love and that most days I think I’m pretty okay at. And part of my job is to support faculty use of the LMS (full disclosure, I don’t think I understood quite how much of my job would be involved in the LMS, but I digress). And most days, I was still really annoyed by it. I found it clunky and unresponsive, bloated and tedious. And for most applications, I wondered why people were bothering.

And then March of 2020 happened and I, like overworked educational technologists the world over, herded my faculty into the LMS like it was that door in Titanic and they were all Rose (not Jack, he dies). Or, I dunno, a lifeboat would be the more “normal” analogy here, sure. So what changed?

Well, frankly, scale. Time and competencies too, for sure, but mostly scale. We were (and continue to be) a tiny team and the problem was so vast. At least half our faculty had never used any kind of web-based or digital tool for their teaching. We had to get the courses of 500 faculty fully online in one week. I couldn’t help them craft the perfect open web project and I couldn’t have my eyes on every course all the time. I was, from the moment the pandemic hit, terrified about folks using unsupported tools in case students needed assistance, in case critical data went missing, in case privacy compliance was poor. I needed a streamlined solution. My colleagues and I stripped back our explanations of the LMS to the bare minimum and we got to work building hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of courses. We worked nearly constantly for that “prep” week we had, and even then we wouldn’t have made it without our Moodle installation.

Because here’s the thing: for all I loathe about the way the LMS sands off difference and forces a uniform experience, that was exactly what our cognitively overloaded, panicked, and exhausted faculty and students needed. They needed the most simplified experience we could provide, and they needed it to be the same for everyone. They needed to be able to coach and support each other. They needed to be able to take over each other’s courses in an emergency and they needed the students to be able to email us for help. I still don’t really believe we had any other choice.

And yet, I will probably for the rest of my time as an educational technologist — and I figure I’m about thirty years away from retirement, unless there’s another pivot to digital, in which case I am out of here like a shot — wonder if we, in making the only decision we could have made, made a terrible mistake. Because a unified campus on a single platform makes a lot of sense in a pandemic, but courses aren’t sugar cookies: they shouldn’t all look alike.

And more urgently, because I worry that in getting everyone acculturated to the LMS in record time, we made ourselves an easier target for vendors bearing shady LTIs.


It’s worth reflecting, I think, on how the LMS normalizes teaching and learning practices by streamlining them. When something is integrated into the learning management system, it becomes a part of the campus workflow, and it has an implicit seal of approval: it wouldn’t be there if we shouldn’t use it, right? Making things easier in the LMS makes them easier, so when tools are integrated there they become a more obvious choice. But when we integrate other tools or functionality into our learning management systems, we’re creating vulnerabilities (the more people who have access to our student data, the more readily data gets breached) and, more importantly, ethical ramifications (what do private companies who get access to our student data do with it in the end?). I don’t think the LMS has to be dangerous — I think the best it can usually hope for is “not in the way” — but I see the following applications and integrations as troubling trends in the way the LMS is used.

Homework Systems (Courseware): The first worst place I see the LMS enabling what I think of as frankly bad institutional behaviour is the way it enables the seamless use of homework systems at many institutions. These were the subject of much Detox discourse last year, but in short: students pay extra on top of their textbook fees to use canned lecture materials, pre-written quizzes and assignments, and other textbook add-ons. They can be expensive, they can be an enormous source of frustration for students, and the content is almost certainly already on CourseHero. Expense and pointlessness aside, makers of homework systems thrive on student data, and they use it to build cradle-to-grave learning “solutions” for students. Forget about a right to be forgotten if you’re trapped in a Pearson ecosystem — which is not an unbreachable hull. And all over our sector, we hand the student data in our LMS to these companies.

Inclusive Access Textbooks: This is something I didn’t even know I needed to be mad about last year when I wrote the Digital Detox! It’s cool how the world of edtech finds new and innovative ways to disappoint me. Inclusive access is a model of negative option textbook billing where students pay for ebooks in their student fees, and then are rented the books on a proprietary platform (that seems to have no end of complaints!). It’s up to individual students to opt out, even if their instructors aren’t using the tool, and even if every textbook they have been asked to use is in fact an OER. I think these systems are bad for faculty academic freedom (to choose texts without platform restrictions) and student choice and campus uptake of OER, and I fear the integration into the LMS that makes resisting them seem pointless for faculty and students. And then again… what are they doing with our data?

Analytics: Our open-source Moodle installation offers faculty pretty limited learning analytics — you can basically keep tabs on who hasn’t checked into your course in a while, and see who clicked what and how many words they typed into the discussion forums — but even then I always encourage faculty to have honest conversations with students about what they can see, so that students aren’t assuming privacy where they don’t actually have it. But some LMS analytics are wild, tracking how long students watched videos for or had a PDF open, and faculty rarely receive training on how to read this data. I think normalizing this kind of view of students — as being in need of surveillance — changes classroom dynamics for the worse and dissolves trust between students and faculty.

Plagiarism Detectors: Everyone who knows me knows I loathe plagiarism detection software, tools with some of the most heinous business models in edtech: institutions sign off the intellectual property of their students to a for-profit database that is being used to create AI marking software to put faculty out of work. It’s wildly dystopian! Many LMS installations now have these tools as a built-in component of the assignment tool right out of the box, making it almost impossible to make meaningful progress on resisting this predatory tech.

E-Proctoring Services: We’re going to talk a lot more about this next week, so please stay tuned. But just know for now that the integration of surveillance proctoring into the LMS is something that has me deeply worried, because this really is a tool that I hope we abandon after the pandemic (or now, or even better, yesterday) — but if we allow it integration into our LMS, we will never get rid of it.


Many of you have probably read enough of my writing to know that I loathe all of these things that the LMS is perfectly positioned to normalize. I really believe that this is the most dangerous aspect of the learning management system: it makes a part of normal workflow things that should be subject to careful and critical consideration every single time they are used (or, more often, should never be used at all). I don’t want you to use Turnitin because it came with your Canvas install. I want you to think carefully about why your institution is mandating its use and whether your students have given informed consent. And those thinking processes disappear as uptake becomes more automatic.

And that’s why I think we need to be thinking critically about whether something — the LMS — that was a useful stopgap measure should really be the primary mode of course and assessment delivery going forward, and if so, is the current form good enough? And if not, what are our options, how do we scale them, and — a question I am increasingly obsessed with — who supports it? The majority of our institutions didn’t meaningfully support the initial pivot to digital. We made do, and continue to make do, with existing resources and the goodwill of people who care deeply about their students. But that can’t last forever. Or at least, it’s not the mechanism by which we innovate.

You can’t remake a university off the side of your desk.

I have come to appreciate certain aspects of the LMS in the last year — I couldn’t have done my job without it — but that doesn’t mean I want the LMS to be the centrepiece of the post-pandemic university. Where it serves us, I think it can be used as a decent tool; where it becomes the hub of a surveillance state masquerading as a university, I think it’s wildly dangerous, because it appears on the surface to be innocuous. It’s just the way we do things.

Let’s demand a more conscious and critical relationship to the way we do things. Technology drives pedagogy: of course it does. So let’s make sure that we’re driving in the right direction.


I think a cool 2500 words. is just about enough out of me this week. Remember, if you haven’t subscribed, please do! No spam, just a weekly link to the post when it goes live on Fridays. In the meantime, let’s chat — join me in the comments here this week, where I’m asking:

  1. What are your experiences with the learning management system?
  2. What works for you, and what gives you pause?
  3. What’s your better solution?

19 Responses

  • A wise person once said of the education system, “Everybody is a Genius. But If You Judge a Fish by Its Ability to Climb a Tree, It Will Live Its Whole Life Believing that It is Stupid”.

  • I hope in vain a comment does not end up longer than the post. I appreciate so much your critical and more than skin deep at “the” LMs. The quotes are that, as often we tend to do, we describe complex systems and entities as if they are one, and ones that are mostly extensions of our own experiences.

    (1) I knew the LMS as an infant. Not me, it. I had dreamy hopes in the beginning of the web, that because one could create hyperlinked, media encrusted content at locations that anyone, one any platform, could click to, that I could convince educators to hand craft web content in HTML (http://mcli.cogdogblog.com/tut/). There was nothing else.

    But I saw that for most people, it was too complex. Looking at code. Dealing with ftp. And I could understand the appeal of the first systems to put a more human interface on the experience, and yes, one of the first ones out there was “Web Course in a Box”. I saw what Murray did with webCT at UBC. As one who preferred not being limited by templates and platforms, I did acknowledge that most faculty are not going to have the gumption to hand craft sites, and also that there was some benefit for students.

    Those early systems were just as clunky ugly as ever. But they did enable features that were not easy for hand crafted sites- discussion forums, document sharing. Gradebooks. As unsexy as they are, they have great value.

    My work at the time was a central faculty development center at a large distributed community college system in Phoenix, AZ, Maricopa Community Colleges. Our office had no authority, just persuasion and budget to support faculty projects. The system was 10 colleges, and each made its independent choices then on platforms. So by the late 1980s, we saw them independently using, supporting, paying for WebCT, Blackboard, and some third one I cannot even remember.

    Our office did get conversations going, we even had an event where we had the CEOs of all 3 LMSes in use do a panel session. Eventually (after I left or it went more to a systems level) they did centralize (I am fuzzy here). And hah, now they are on Canvas.

    2. What works for you, and what gives you pause? I might steal Jim Groom’s phrase (and I heard it first at a Maricopa event he spoke at) “I don’t mind the LMS I just like it better when I am not around it” My own experiences have been scattered, a few courses I taught through my own sites that required having a presence (a few in Blackboard, once Canvas). It worked well to send announcements, and manage communications with students. Canvas worked great for students to choose groups for projects. I also worked on a project converting an open faculty development program (Ontario ExTend) into a mOOC version in EdX. I also have done some trouble shooting for some folks using Moodle.

    These systems present inordinate challenges, no matter how great the support materials, for casual users like me or new users. Familiarity with how they “think” (were things are, what’s a feature setting vs a course option). And since I rarely use them, I am generally fumbling by intuition or googling answers in vain. The feature load on all of them is overly complex, but that’s the price of trying to build something to work for so many people.

    We tend to overlook not just be familiar with a system but the value of using it on a regular basis.

    I have used MS Word for decades, and I still am challenged by how the ***** to format tabs. Does this mean the whole platform “sucks”?

    There is some kind of diagram like the software design question Good, Cheap, or Fast? And you can only choose two. For LMS I think we are looking at the simplicity of using it vs the range of things we can do as teachers vs the lock/control/surveillance of the platform. It’s not a simple choice, but we are plotted somewhere between those nodes.

    As you have written so much better it is not as simple as LMS vs not LMS. I can show you a raft of really bad WordPress sites that look like poop next to some LMS courses. It’s not the platform itself. So I have always felt like, if I *had* to use an LMS (and this has been once for me), what are the things I can bring to it that I can subvert, or overcome? This is from the stuff I put into it, the personality I try to pour into it. A long time ago I suggested there be a “Secret Revolution” http://secretrevolution.us where some people just went under the radar and did things outside of the “rules” and others worked from within rigid systems to make them work.

    Fortunately, I am not having to work in an LMS now, but if I did, I would relish making it do what I wanted it to. And that means not just relying on what it provides me, it means bringing in things to the mix, maybe from outside, maybe just from some good writing and design.

    (3) Better solution? Got none. Except do not shrug and accept what’s handed to you. Learn how to Inspect Source. Bring your personality to the game. Understand the power of the humble hyperlink.

    And for **** sake, don’t make it boring.

    • “Don’t make it boring” is an important life aesthetic.

      I appreciated this view, Alan, and I think it’s important to remember that idea of familiarity — it’s amazing how little time away it takes to lose it, too, as my January of tickets suggests. But “thinking like” the LMS is simultaneously critical and troubling. I think a lot about what circumscribes our choices and how.

      It isn’t really an argument against, of course… just an argument.

    • I really resonated with the Good, Cheap, and Fast comment. As an instructor who uses the LMS, I understand it is kind of like the “training wheels” of teaching online. It helps keep you upright while you pedal for your life. It is a solution to help me get my course online cheap and fast, but without thoughtful use and/or additional tools it definitely won’t be good.

      I am really familiar with my LMS, and I still struggle with the monthly updates and changes, so I also hear the point on the issues for more casual users. Just when you get your head around the thing, the assignment interface changes and you break your Grades. It SUCKS. But, getting that resolved is probably faster in an LMS then if I had built something more custom in another tool.

      The lack of control is definitely the trade-off to standardization. I go back and forth on the amount of weight I give that. Right now, I don’t have capacity to customize so I appreciate the standardization and pour my energy into my synchronous time with my students. If I was fully asynchronous I would probably feel very differently about it though.

  • I used Moodle before the pivot mainly to have a one stop for any handouts and grades. I prefer to do my teaching in person for most courses; however, feedback from students for the courses that I teach software has been quite positive for online. Every student can see what I am doing, recordings can be viewed again, and uploads to Moodle lets me keep track of assignments and grades.

    The upside is that this works great for 2nd year students who are familiar with the basics. The downside is that this is really hard for new/first year students to get a good handle on the software that they are trying to learn. I know that I could fix some of their issues just by standing behind them and watching what they are doing but they don’t like to share their screen or are using one computer to work on and one to be in the class. And they have to install the software themselves which creates issues that I can’t fix from afar.

    I try not to use the analytics except to make sure that students have logged in for tests or quizzes. I don’t have time to track how long they looked at videos. But I

    • The issue of familiarity is a huge and critical one for students. I worried a lot during the pivot and into the fall about how much of the assessment happening was really assessing the student capacity to adapt, and their comfort in the LMS, as opposed to course content. It is always thus, of course — we need to work hard to make sure our assessments in any context aren’t just measuring how good students are at schooliness — but I think about it a lot.

  • Woof. I have all the thoughts. Apologies in advance for the essay I’m about to drop here.

    I’ve been teaching for 4 years with Academic and Career Preparation at Vancouver Island University, and so most of my experience is with students who are very non-traditional. Before I was able to get a position teaching, I worked in our teaching and learning center for about 7 years. I was considered the “tech side” of the office, primarily involved in supporting the LMS (Brightspace), Kaltura, WordPress, and BlackBoard Collaborate (later replaced by Zoom).

    I was hired on to help us transition from Moodle to Brightspace and my role grew into faculty and student support for that tool, and later into low-level administration of the LMS. I supported and then later ran our student orientation to Brightspace. I helped facilitate what feels like an untold number of LMS workshops and intensives for faculty. I wrote out flow charts on how the LMS talked to our other institutional systems, and what data got passed back and forth.

    I truly believe an LMS can be a good thing, but I also absolutely believe there is a slippery slope there that requires folks to engage with the choices that are being made.

    The Good / What Works:
    The structure and consistency. VIU’s course shells all have the same navigation menu and same layout of the course home page (there is no structure for Content or any other activities however). *Many* faculty hate this imposed structure, but it means that once a student figures out where the button is to email their instructor for one course, it is in the same place for their other courses. One thing that the pivot showed VIU is that when faculty adopt shadow systems, students get overwhelmed quickly. Taking 5 courses in 3 different systems and the requirement to sign up for 6 different social media / web tools? That level of cognitive load just to participate in classes is absolutely unsustainable for many of our students.

    FIPPA compliance. At least at VIU, our supported ed tech tools, including the LMS, have gone through FIPPA review and what data we pass (and how) to these tools has all been looked at. So, I’m relatively confident when using these tools I’m not asking my students to do anything that requires informed consent.
    Personally, I like having a place to build up my courses that I can rely on the teaching and learning centre and IT service to support. As I am still early-career and often teaching courses for the first time, that level of “sameness” is comforting and helps me get started faster. I *loath* reviewing Terms of Service and Privacy Policies to craft informed consent agreements, so having tools to use as a base takes a load off of course prep.

    A colleague of mine recently made the jump to WordPress and built-up a *beautiful* site there for her course. Perhaps when I am more confident with my teaching, I will want that flexibility as well. Right now, it isn’t something I have capacity for.

    The Middle Ground:
    “Light” Analytics. I tell my students on the first day I can see the last time they logged into the course and whether they have opened certain files. Then I tell them I use that information to help me understand who might need help, because that is all I use it for. If a student hasn’t signed in for a week, I send a personal email to see how they are doing, not use it as some sort of vague “participation” measure. I *know* from my time as support that some faculty use that information to grade, but our teaching and learning centre has always discouraged that and let faculty know how those analytics made be misleading.

    The Bad / What Gives Me Pause:
    Companies, Publishers, and LTIs. Very close to the end of my time at the teaching and learning centre a publisher of medical texts changed their delivery model to *require* an LTI integration to access materials. They told our faculty that the LMS admins “just needed to set this up for you” and it would be fine. Long story short, 9 months later we still had not set up the LTI. VIU has a strict interpretation of FIPPA, and we have only allowed a few LTI integrations because of it. This particular LTI demanded a huge amount of access to our LMS and student data (even if the students were not registered in classes using that publisher’s books), and after trying to work with the company for a long time we eventually had to just say no. That was followed by a number of meetings with our Nursing faculty about why that had happened. The good news with this story is a number of other institutions said the same thing, and eventually the publisher backed off and offered other methods to access their materials.

    Although that is a good thing (our centre was able to stand up and say no to bad tech), I recognize that different institutional pressures could have meant we were forced to put in that LTI, or any number of other ones. I was similarly horrified when the news of the “inclusive access textbook model” hit Twitter and we started to get faculty questions about it, but I also knew VIU was really unlikely to ever go down that road. Publishers and companies are becoming more and more insidious however, and it really worries me what tactics they will use in future.

    Student-Generated Groups and Collaborative Spaces. Our LMS is really bad for being teacher driven. It is a huge pain point for me that students cannot self-organize into groups, message each other, or start meetings easily. This pushes a lot of our students to Facebook Messenger or Instagram chat (which I didn’t know was a thing until last semester … *ahem*). We are just getting MSTeams off the ground, but my first crack at it fizzled very quickly. There also isn’t an easy way for students to write collaboratively. The LMS definitely holds up the “sage on the stage” idea in this case, which isn’t how I like to run my classes. I do get to see my students synchronously, so we do a lot of our group discussions and collaborative work there, but I really would like to see more of that asynchronously in the LMS.

    My Better Solution:
    *Insert emoji of a shrug* I don’t have one, sadly. I think LMSs have a place in online learning. Especially with the pivot, students and faculty needed structure and consistency. After this is all over, many faculty will probably move away from the LMS again or, like my colleague, take what they built there and move it to a better space for them. Luckily, VIU does not mandate, but strongly encourages, the use of the supported ed tech tools.

    Challenges with the structure and student communication are hard to resolve – just like desks fixed on the floor. Instructors work around these challenges in physical spaces, and we are learning to work around these challenges in the digital ones as well. An ideal LMS doesn’t exist, the same way there isn’t a way to build a classroom that will suit all methods of teaching.

    For me, the “solution” to the LMS problems with surveillance and publishers is governance. There needs to be a strong voice and leadership at an institution to prevent an LMS from becoming the place publishers go to vacuum out your student data. I have confidence, at least right now, that my institution gets that to some degree. We have a blanket “no proctoring software” statement, and our teaching and learning centre has a history of putting FIPPA before LTIs. Could that change in the future? Certainly. If it does, I would feel much differently about our LMS for sure.

  • Ah, the eternal question, as long as the LMS has been around, we have been wondering about it.

    I have worked in many LMS’s, having been an instructional designer in e-learning like units for almost 30 years. I have always wanted to explore more open options, and am moving more into that myself (with my tutorials and workshops) through the amazing OpenETC community, but the truth is for most faculty, creating and maintaining and supporting something themselves is just too much for them. And often too much for support units as well. For a small unit, with limited resources, the LMS provides the best solution for supporting online, blended, and face to face enhanced options – and as you note, certainly was a godsend last March.

    But, yes, as an instructional designer I do have those conversations with faculty around what tool is best for what they want to do, and if it is something open (WP, H5P, etc.) we take them there.

    With regards to integrations, we do very little of them at my college. We have a pretty tight rein on what we allow to be integrated with our LMS, and no publishers are allowed in. As well as very little in the way of proctoring (Respondus Lockdown Browser is about it). Anything that is requested by way of an integration has to be assessed at many levels, and usually gets turned down because of limited applicability or privacy or accessibility or support concerns. But the analytics and data side does bother me, not knowing where whatever is collected goes…

    Anyway, thanks for the post and discussion! I have said this before: I think the LMS is here to stay, although what form it will take in 5, 10 or more years, who knows?

    • We also do very few integrations here, but I have to confess that brings me no comfort. I feel like it’s so capricious; one administrative turn and the LMS is suddenly a very different beast indeed, and this is where my anxiety about a “single learning story,” so to speak, really takes me. I worry that in doing the only thing I could do under the circumstances, I’ve built an easily co-optable system.

      I like to go easy on myself and take a really gentle hand.

    • Hi Emily! I think the point about small units is well-made. The “tech” side of learning support back in my day at CIEL ranged from as many as 6 to as few as 2 – for both faculty and students. While we did have the IT department to deal with servers and updates, all front-line support and design questions were directed at a small team.

      Standardization of supports in that regard is really the only way to give you time to do more interesting work. If every instructor needed to learn WordPress, there would be more coaching needed and less time to engage with more transformative initiatives and out-of-the-box course projects.

  • “You can’t remake a university off the side of your desk.”

    !!!

    I think we all feel this when we consider what we want to change, how much effort that will take, and how much we are already doing. I hope more and more people are thinking about what will be needed to make the university what we want it to be.

  • Woof. I have all the thoughts. Apologies in advance for the essay I’m about to drop here.

    I’ve been teaching for 4 years with Academic and Career Preparation at Vancouver Island University, and so most of my experience is with students who are very non-traditional. Before I was able to get a position teaching, I worked in our teaching and learning center for about 7 years. I was considered the “tech side” of the office, primarily involved in supporting the LMS (Brightspace), Kaltura, WordPress, and BlackBoard Collaborate (later replaced by Zoom).

    I was hired on to help us transition from Moodle to Brightspace and my role grew into faculty and student support for that tool, and later into low-level administration of the LMS. I supported and then later ran our student orientation to Brightspace. I helped facilitate what feels like an untold number of LMS workshops and intensives for faculty. I wrote out flow charts on how the LMS talked to our other institutional systems, and what data got passed back and forth.

    I truly believe an LMS can be a good thing, but I also absolutely believe there is a slippery slope there that requires folks to engage with the choices that are being made.

    The Good / What Works:
    The structure and consistency. VIU’s course shells all have the same navigation menu and same layout of the course home page (there is no structure for Content or any other activities however). *Many* faculty hate this imposed structure, but it means that once a student figures out where the button is to email their instructor for one course, it is in the same place for their other courses. One thing that the pivot showed VIU is that when faculty adopt shadow systems, students get overwhelmed quickly. Taking 5 courses in 3 different systems and the requirement to sign up for 6 different social media / web tools? That level of cognitive load just to participate in classes is absolutely unsustainable for many of our students.

    FIPPA compliance. At least at VIU, our supported ed tech tools, including the LMS, have gone through FIPPA review and what data we pass (and how) to these tools has all been looked at. So, I’m relatively confident when using these tools I’m not asking my students to do anything that requires informed consent.
    Personally, I like having a place to build up my courses that I can rely on the teaching and learning centre and IT service to support. As I am still early-career and often teaching courses for the first time, that level of “sameness” is comforting and helps me get started faster. I *loath* reviewing Terms of Service and Privacy Policies to craft informed consent agreements, so having tools to use as a base takes a load off of course prep.

    A colleague of mine recently made the jump to WordPress and built-up a *beautiful* site there for her course. Perhaps when I am more confident with my teaching, I will want that flexibility as well. Right now, it isn’t something I have capacity for.

    The Middle Ground:
    “Light” Analytics. I tell my students on the first day I can see the last time they logged into the course and whether they have opened certain files. Then I tell them I use that information to help me understand who might need help, because that is all I use it for. If a student hasn’t signed in for a week, I send a personal email to see how they are doing, not use it as some sort of vague “participation” measure. I *know* from my time as support that some faculty use that information to grade, but our teaching and learning centre has always discouraged that and let faculty know how those analytics made be misleading.

    The Bad / What Gives Me Pause:
    Companies, Publishers, and LTIs. Very close to the end of my time at the teaching and learning centre a publisher of medical texts changed their delivery model to *require* an LTI integration to access materials. They told our faculty that the LMS admins “just needed to set this up for you” and it would be fine. Long story short, 9 months later we still had not set up the LTI. VIU has a strict interpretation of FIPPA, and we have only allowed a few LTI integrations because of it. This particular LTI demanded a huge amount of access to our LMS and student data (even if the students were not registered in classes using that publisher’s books), and after trying to work with the company for a long time we eventually had to just say no. That was followed by a number of meetings with our Nursing faculty about why that had happened. The good news with this story is a number of other institutions said the same thing, and eventually the publisher backed off and offered other methods to access their materials.

    Although that is a good thing (our centre was able to stand up and say no to bad tech), I recognize that different institutional pressures could have meant we were forced to put in that LTI, or any number of other ones. I was similarly horrified when the news of the “inclusive access textbook model” hit Twitter and we started to get faculty questions about it, but I also knew VIU was really unlikely to ever go down that road. Publishers and companies are becoming more and more insidious however, and it really worries me what tactics they will use in future.

    Student-Generated Groups and Collaborative Spaces. Our LMS is really bad for being teacher driven. It is a huge pain point for me that students cannot self-organize into groups, message each other, or start meetings easily. This pushes a lot of our students to Facebook Messenger or Instagram chat (which I didn’t know was a thing until last semester … *ahem*). We are just getting MSTeams off the ground, but my first crack at it fizzled very quickly. There also isn’t an easy way for students to write collaboratively. The LMS definitely holds up the “sage on the stage” idea in this case, which isn’t how I like to run my classes. I do get to see my students synchronously, so we do a lot of our group discussions and collaborative work there, but I really would like to see more of that asynchronously in the LMS.

    My Better Solution:
    *Insert emoji of a shrug* I don’t have one, sadly. I think LMSs have a place in online learning. Especially with the pivot, students and faculty needed structure and consistency. After this is all over, many faculty will probably move away from the LMS again or, like my colleague, take what they built there and move it to a better space for them. Luckily, VIU does not mandate, but strongly encourages, the use of the supported ed tech tools.

    Challenges with the structure and student communication are hard to resolve – just like desks fixed on the floor. Instructors work around these challenges in physical spaces, and we are learning to work around these challenges in the digital ones as well. An ideal LMS doesn’t exist, the same way there isn’t a way to build a classroom that will suit all methods of teaching.

    For me, the “solution” to the LMS problems with surveillance and publishers is governance. There needs to be a strong voice and leadership at an institution to prevent an LMS from becoming the place publishers go to vacuum out your student data. I have confidence, at least right now, that my institution gets that to some degree. We have a blanket “no proctoring software” statement, and our teaching and learning centre has a history of putting FIPPA before LTIs. Could that change in the future? Certainly. If it does, I would feel much differently about our LMS for sure.

    • I agree with your comment about “the “solution” to the LMS problems with surveillance and publishers is governance” — this is actually what keeps me up at night these days. I think governance is in the process of failing across the province, and the sector, and it worries me. Folks are so tired. Justifiably so. And I’m seeing things coming down the pipe that worry me. The relaxation of FIPPA is a first piece of that, and I worry that as it becomes increasingly clear that this version of our new normal is the way it’s going to be, we don’t have that structure to lean against as EdTechs anymore. I am trying not to be the beacon of doom but I wonder what this will all look like in a year.

      • I definitely hear you on the idea that this may all look different in a year. I definitely couched my response at the end for that reason. I’m not as plugged in as I used to be since I started teaching, and honestly I think that has been great for my mental healthy during … all this.

        I (very idealistically) believe that EdTechs have a lot of power to shift perceptions and create change, which is why I stayed too long in my old position. The 1/3 of your users who are with you all the way and the other 1/3 who can be convinced to come along are so powerful within the university structure if they can be supported, which is absolutely the hardest part. But, if you can capture and support them then it isn’t just on the EdTechs to push on governance, the faculty unions and curriculum committees and all those other groups have voices to speak up when senior admin says something about what “new normal” looks like.

        It is too much of a burden for a single department or group, and it is also impossible to convince everyone. But if we can get a critical mass of folks cultures of departments can shift, and that can start shifting and changing higher levels.

  • Perhaps a stupid idea: be explicit about the links between course goals, learning experiences, and tech widgets.

    I teach programming and such. A while back, I started studying pedagogy, to support the goal of helping students learn problem-solving skills (like programming). I started with the goals, like:

    * About 120 hours of study time per course
    * Business students with little programming background
    * Free or low cost stuff
    * Help students learn problem-solving
    * Other stuff…

    Then I chose learning experiences that, according to what I read, would help achieve the goals. Such as:

    * Focus on core skills only
    * Many small stakes exercises
    * Individual formative feedback
    * Allowing resubmission
    * Personal 1-on-1 help as needed
    * … much else

    Next, I made the tech widgets to do those things within a particular course design (flipped, blended).

    * Authoring s/w to make lessons, exercises, schemas, etc.
    * Reusable quiz questions for spaced practice, and activating prior knowledge.
    * A rubric spec system for making exercises.
    * A feedback system for letting casual workers give individual formative feedback.
    * An exercise calendar system to help students keep up with the work (including an emoji implying how they should feel about their progress – a little weird)
    * Much else…

    Yes, I know my work is idiosyncratic. But that’s not the point.

    The key point: the links in the course-goals-to-learning-experiences-to-widgets chain were fairly explicit.

    Imagine:

    * Taking the goals of ten “types” of courses (I don’t know what the taxonomy is).
    * Asking delphi groups, or something, to come up with experience designs to meet the goals for each type.
    * Spec’ing widgets to meet the goals.
    * Joining the widget lists into a superset.
    * Make the widgets.
    * Publish guides on how to use the widgets to make courses of each type.

    We’d have a flexible, scalable, pedagogically-driven LMS (or whatever it would be called).

    The LMS-like-thing could be made from scratch, or widgets added to something like PressBooks (a WordPress-based OER making package).

    I don’t know how to make something like this come about. I’m a geek, Jim, not a community organizer. Still, maybe it’s a dream-worthy thought.

    Regards to Groot.

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