Enjoyed the 2 minutes of one of the greatest scenes (and cuts) in film history? The classic of “technology as an extension of human power”…
I have long been interested in the debate about Learning Management Systems (LMS, often called VLE in the UK) and have read several papers and many (ranty) anti-LMS and pro-LMS blog posts and comments (the binarity so misses the point…). Recently, two papers (Lisa M. Lane‘s ‘Insidious CMS – how CMS impact teaching‘ and Ofsted’s (UK) Evaluation of use of VLE - thank you Tim Hunt for the heads up) and a complaint by a frustrated friend using Blackboard at his university made me get on this puny little soapbox of mine.
Some research seems to support a few things that the “VLE-is-dead” voices say. Here is the gist of of the LMS critique, in point format:
- LMS mostly started as submission of assignments and posting of content.
- They reinforce routine work and the predominant instructionist, transmission model of education. In other words, they are a mere translation of the dominant pedagogical style into online environment.
- The way they are deployed and used is mostly content-centric and institution-centric.
- While students use LMS and appreciate creative, innovative use of LMS, they place no great expectations on them to replace face-to-face instruction or become their ‘Facebook’.
- Most teachers using LMS have been top-down drafted into it under, broadly, two fears: of irrelevance (a kind of technological left behind) or of losing their job.
- LMS are not really consistently quality assured. If/when evaluated, they are studied for their ease and frequency of use, not the ways they influence and guide pedagogy.
- Cost of staff development in using LMS is of higher concern than the direct cost of the system.
- LMS have increasing number of features that allow more open, constructionist approaches but these are underused by teachers.
- Despite being rolled out in increasing numbers, the use of LMS at curriculum level is more of a cottage industry relying on enthusiasts rather than a (much touted) revolution.
- The use of LMS is usually not comprehensive across learning areas across organisations. The pockets of activity and exemplary use are regularly linked with overall good teaching and good use of technology by enthusiasts.
- Within LMS, teaching staff mainly use their own developed materials, little sharing and use of external sources occurs
- Novice LMS users (staff) use only the aspects they understand from non-Web context (much like email is the old venerable memo). They use what they are comfortable with to reduce cognitive load. They are generally satisfied with such use more than they are with experimenting with less or un-known features.
Well, firstly, all of these points above are really just an eloquent confirmation of the bunch of anecdotals observed on the ground by many of the above mentioned enthusiasts, myself included. Check the forums at Moodle.org and you will see my point. Talk to Moodle Partners around the world who are training hundreds of teachers every year and observe these things. And more…
So, nothing new. But is that it? No good can come out LMS? Do we just give up and go home to embrace the e-nirvana of the LMS-bashers or perhaps even swing the other way and listen to the ‘traditionalists’ who think such systems and computers in general are the digital hemlock of of quality education.
What do we do? Get rid of LMS? That would be missing the point and a monumental waste.
I can only speak for Moodle, not other LMS which Moodle often gets bagged together with, when I say that it changes for better by the day. Seeing it as a static, monolithic system is simply neither fair nor accurate.
On the design part, with the support of community of users and philosophy of developers, Moodle has been and continues to evolve into something that can incorporate so many of the things critics are pointing out as lacking. Moodle is essentially an immensely versatile and free platform (seen the Lego clips ?) .
We surely can and we are making it easier to grow into something organic, flexible that people (individuals, groups) literally grow, not pay for to be ‘administered’ by the top banana.
But just what can we do on the use(r) part to make LMS like Moodle really go and realise the pedagogical ‘oomph’? (I borrow a couple of points from Dave Cormier’s excellent ‘Buying tech for learning‘ post and Lisa’s paper.
1. When using it, focus on solving problems. Student problems, predominantly. With a little creativity and simplest of tools, Moodle can do that brilliantly. A humble three-click-set-up forum or not much more complex wiki can do that, not to mention other activities teachers and students can set up and run. Sure, they can that using external tools like Google Groups, Wikispaces and hundreds more but a quality, familar platform full of equivalents (highly modifiable, if needed) is kinda hard to beat.
2. Aim for perfect simplicity, complexity is easily added later. Most activities in Moodle run just fine with defaults, but you can always add things and layers of complexity the way you, the user want not how the system is set up. As Lisa points out, unlike Blackboard’s bells and whistles from which you then have to opt-out (but must look mighty impressive in a sales meeting), Moodle in an opt-in system. Start with bare bones then add what you need. Think of it as a toolbelt.
Chances are that solutions on the fly with free, open source system like Moodle (can be run by a single teacher) are also cheaper in money and time than using a very expensive, institutionalised, locked-down systems for which a ‘clear’, yet rigid idea (no matter how misguided) had to be produced before parting with tens of thousands of dollars to buy it then have it justified madly.
3. Now we come to the heart of it…
Pay most attention to the hardest and most rewarding thing to examine and change – pedagogies. I deliberately use plural because the ‘right one’ is only right in the context of a class, a student in front of you. Sometimes it takes a collaborative approach of wikis, sometimes a more ‘traditional’ quiz does the job beautifully.
Good teacher, just like a good parent, can and has to be behaviorist, instructonist, constructivist, connectivist or any other -ist in the given moment for the benefit of the students. Just like a parent, you don’t have to be perfect – just good enough. But just like at home, good enough primarily for the kids, your students, not the principal or the Minister for Education.
As an LMS, Moodle can help support all of these -ists. I don’t quite buy the technologically deterministic argument that certain technology has the power to change pedagogy on its own, that it has certain philosophy embedded into it. A knife, LMS, phone, car, Facebook or lawn mower may lend themselves to perhaps a more common use but they are not precluded to be used in different ways. Does that mean LMS can be used in way we don’t want it to be used? You bet. And it is, often. Yet it isn’t either. Often.
Moodle has and will be built with social constructionist principles in mind but one can hardly make people use it that way.
Unless we adequately provoke, stimulate, and guide novices (still the vast majority of users) to increasingly varied and flexible LMS like Moodle with samples of pedagogical approaches first, we run the risk of these novices slipping into mastery of a couple of tools that will simply allow them doing thins they have always done, just maybe a little faster and more efficiently. They will be happy but hardly stretching in the way the LMS like Moodle affords them to.
Before creating help desk for ‘how and what tools can do’ in an LMS, create a help desk to offer and consider what pedagogical goals can be achieved with it.
“It doesn’t matter what tools are provided if teachers don’t have a suitable philosophy of teaching to exploit fully the tools. An instructor well versed in constructivism can teach in a learner-centred way with an LMS such as Moodle, but a teacher with only a transmissive model of teaching will be lost with Facebook. So without a suitable understanding of pedagogy, it doesn’t really matter what tools you use.” (Tony Bates)
4. Do it as a community, with others. Walk the collaboration talk. Why?
Apart from the world valuing such approach more and more, because it is the easiest and the most lasting way to change the hardest things to change, mentioned above – the pedagogies and their underlying, internalised and normalised assumptions of what should be or happen in class (or not).
But when it comes to talking pedagogies, teachers are a lot more likely to put the walls up and say “don’t you tell me how to teach” (similarities with parenting again).
It’s “all that fuzzy philosophy stuff yet all I want to do is just teach, normally.” Pedagogy goes deep with people and it is best seen at moments of stress, when we reactively fall back probably on the ways we were brought up and familiar with (enter ‘little change’), unless we have the knowledge of alternatives, and the context, opportunity and safety to deploy them. Technology throws up many of such stresses, daily. Yet wise use of technology can also help us relieve them, even thrive on them.
Let’s look at the very useful TPACK model above. Now imagine you work closely in a team together with technological ‘experts’ (eg an experienced and creative Moodle user, let’s not forget students themselves here!!!), content ‘experts’ (eg a great historian with deep knowledge of Russian History you are working on in class) and ‘pedagogical experts’ (eg great at supporting and ‘provoking’ teachers to try a range of approaches and question, examine their philosophical approach to education). The roles here are purely illustrative because they morph constantly.
You are far more likely to change when challenged AND supported this way.
Then, let’s look at just one particular feature of soon to be released Moodle 2.0 – Community Hubs, described by Mark Drechsler. These are designed to support exactly what you see above among Moodle users (32 million registered worldwide and counting..)! Imagine being a part not of a Learning Committee but a Learning Community (more on that another time, have a post ‘in waiting’).
Not to mention the talk of Moodle 3.0 (few years away) that will again transcend this and adapt to be a platform supporting…whatever the trends may be then. I invite you to flick through Hans de Zwart‘s excellent presentation from the recent iMoot on this.
Yes, LMS designed and used in the way that my colleague showed me two days ago (Blackboard at a local university) should be dead.
But uncritically bunching LMS/VLE together and dismissing them as ‘dead’ is naive at best.
By all means, unlock and give teachers the freedom and funk to choose their tools. But no matter how shiny, ‘buzzy’ and ‘bleeding edge’ the tool – if they don’t know what the learning aim is, if they don’t have or see the need for the kinds of pedagogies most valuable to students, or they plainly don’t know what they are talking about, the chances of reaching the ideal, central intersection on the TPACK graphic above is remote.
Moodle ‘Teacher Apps’ anyone? A tool to drool but wasted on a fool?