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:
- What are your experiences with the learning management system?
- What works for you, and what gives you pause?
- What’s your better solution?