An overexposed icon of a trash can.

Toxic Tech #2: The Learning Management System and the Straitjacket We Bought Ourselves

What is the LMS, Anyway?

A Learning Management System is, at its core, a tool for organizing course materials with the explicit intention of teaching. It has been, and largely remains, the centrepiece learning technology at most institutions. While lots of tools claim to have LMS functionality (like MS Teams, for example), I think there’s a big difference between an enterprise tool being shoe-horned into the teaching and learning space and a space that has been designed for the purposes of teaching and learning.

That said.

LMS developed for education aren’t really about pedagogies. They’re about organization, file management, submission management, and – as we discussed last day – surveillance. Many of us had never really engaged with an LMS in any meaningful capacity until the Covid-19 remote teaching period forced us into those spaces, and then it became clear just what a pedagogical straitjacket the LMS can be. It is designed for one way of teaching, and variation requires… creativity.

I have written elsewhere in these pages about my complicated relationship with Moodle, the LMS we use here at TRU. On the one hand, I think our installation of it is one of the less evil ones going: minimal surveillance, open source, hosted by us and under our control. For a small edtech team like ours, we simply would not have made it through the pandemic closure period without our LMS: we needed a simple, straightforward solution to getting even the most tech-resistant up and running online in a matter of very few days.

But that doesn’t mean I’m thrilled about it.

So, What Is So Toxic About It?

The LMS solves an important problem: getting a lot of content online. But I call it a straitjacket for a reason.

In short, the LMS limits how you can think about the puzzle that is teaching and learning. We talk a lot about putting the pedagogy before technology, and while in general I think that’s a dopey thing to say (we are always circumscribed by technologies, even when it’s just whether or not your student brought pen and paper to class) because it’s all really a lot more entangled than that, the LMS really does put technology first. Assignments look one way. The gradebook functions one way. The uniformity – of learner experience, of faculty assessment – is exactly the point. Everything is tracked and marked and numbered off. And there are good arguments for that uniformity, especially around cognitive load in times of crisis. But there’s no doubt that it limits what you can do.

This limitation really became clear sometime around the Web 2.0 moment (oh wow, did I just write that?) when the web moved from static websites to interactive ones, and where user-generated content began to proliferate. Faculty who were most likely to embrace the open web were also probably most likely to be tech adopters in their teaching, and found quickly that the LMS was not so Web 2.0 in its ethos. There were, and continued to be, and continue to be, huge limitations in interoperability between LMSes and… everything else on the internet.

One example of this from my teaching life: a colleague and I were teaching the same books on the same theme at two different post-secondary institutions in two different provinces. We really, really wanted our learners to be able to chat to each other about what they were learning in class and, because the course was about unpacking nationalism, explore how coming from different provinces might shape perspectives. We asked my institution if their class could have guest access to our LMS: no. We asked his institution if my class could have access to their LMS: also no. Harrumph.

A less tech-engaged faculty member, especially one without institutional supports for exploratory, innovative pedagogies, would probably have to give up there. Ah well. And this is a perfect example of how the technologies we choose limit our choices in the classroom. (As it was, I had just seen this person named Brian Lamb give a talk about a developed-at-TRU tool called SPLOTs that would allow students to co-author a blog without needing accounts or any web savvy. I didn’t even work here yet, I was just a big nerd. I would love to show you the end result, but I lost control of the domain and this much impoverished Wayback Machine version is all that remains. The web is a cruel mistress. But then, I wouldn’t be able to show you an LMS from that time, either, though I can show you my open course spaces.)

The LMS limits us in much subtler ways, too. How you assign bonus marks or whether you even can; resubmissions and how they work; formative assessments versus the LMS assumption that everything is summative. If you try to do something and someone tells you the LMS doesn’t do that… well, I can tell you I spend most of my time trying to work around those limitations. It isn’t easy!

And then there’s the EdTech of it all. Most LMS are for-profit ventures, interested in datafication. And sometimes, they get purchased by private equity firms. When that happens, the valuation is almost certainly not about the LMS technology – which really is a dime-a-dozen, with open source options – but about student and faculty data. It’s always instructive to review privacy assessments for tools like Canvas, Brightspace, Blackboard, or other tools in this space. They might sell or exchange data with third-parties. Managed, for-profit LMS can be convenient for universities, but at what cost?

And is anyone letting learners – and faculty – know?

LMS also make other crappy technologies easier to access. They become a portal through which surveillance technologies like originality checkers, enhanced analytics, and exam proctoring software become accessible to more faculty; they’re also an entry-point for inclusive access textbook plans and homework systems. We will talk about all of these technologies this month, so stay tuned. But in a nutshell: the LMS becomes a one-stop-shop of yikes.

I have known people who can make the LMS sing – they make it beautiful, they wrench it into their desired functionality. But for most of us mere mortals, it’s just a crummy tool that makes bad choices too easy.

Strategies to Detoxify the Tool

Many of us are stuck, by policy or common practice, with the LMS. Here are some ideas for making sure the LMS isn’t in charge.

  1. Consider how the LMS can exist as a classroom hub for assessments but connects the learner to additional resources: the LMS walled garden might have a gate that opens to the open web. My colleague Jamie Drozda and I have talked about this in our Life Beyond Moodle workshop.
  2. Lean on the instructional designers at your institution to help you make the best choices in layout and composition of your LMS space.
  3. Before you decide something isn’t possible or desirable, ask who is the driver’s seat: your pedagogical sense and experience, or the LMS? Don’t be afraid to email your friendly neighbourhood learning technologist for help figuring out a workaround or perhaps a better tool for what you need to do.
  4. Opt out of the add-on services by ignoring analytics, choosing not to use surveillance tools, and selecting OER over bundled etexts.

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