Less is more in technology and in education

LMS failure points

These past months have been a stress test for academic technologies. Videoconferencing tools and LMS systems have had to do the maximum, especially for remote or hybrid learning, but across the board as things that might have been done face to face were offloaded to technology. Both in my own teaching and in watching my kids' experience in K-12, there are some common threads of failure.

Unclear guidelines for best practices: One area where teachers have been let down (I suspect) by the guidance they've been given has been in the area of technological best practices. And I should say, I think this is simply one of those things that easily falls to the side when other matters press; I am not suggesting fault or blame, simply that this is something that needs to be done better. It's a perennial information technology problem. No one uses technology the way it was intended, despite lots of training; and there often aren't significant incentives to level up with technological tools. My own students have long complained about the way that their instructors use the shared LMS (Canvas in this case) in wildly different ways. So they have a range of expectations to meet depending on the instructor. They have expectations of finding material in one place but then find it elsewhere; some faculty post due dates for when they should be started rather than completed (utterly strange). For my own kids (using Schoology) some teachers put assignments in the calendar, others post things via announcements, still others post pages in their main area. It is bewildering where to find things.

The key thing here is that it isn't just choice. It's a failure of the software (which is opinionated but not nearly opinionated enough) and lack of guidance as to why one might use one method over the other. Consequently it's a patchwork.

This is a familiar tech phenomenon. Everyone is reduced to the lowest common denominator when using an app or a platform as part of a team by either the highest status individual's use habits or by the team member who can only use the platform in one particular way. It happens with email chains when a member of the team can't use other tools to, for example, schedule meetings. It happens when working with shared documents. One person wants it in email and doesn't want to edit online and thus the whole team is forced to use that method. And it happens when organizations go looking for new tech tools to improve their workflow or some other process. How often is the existing software perfectly capable if only everyone would use it fully and expertly?

The other issue here is that these practices are often formulated ad hoc. As things come up teachers are forced to find a place for a review sheet or a practice test or something like that and suddenly the well-manicured course site grows weeds in unexpected places.

In theory the fix is simple: a) have an information plan from the beginning and b) put everything into assignments with due dates (because that's how most LMS-es expect content). Putting everything into assignments gives you fixed places for things and can easily be linked to static pages of content. So you can still have, for example, an exam review page that sits out there. But then when you put the assignment that says “Exam” (and it should be an assignment, not just a calendar notice), link the materials there. There are other solutions certainly and other ways to be consistent; it may just help to get outliers into one of a few obvious patterns of posting content.

On the other hand, I'd love to see an LMS that doesn't take it for granted that everyone just gets the structure of a class. What would it look like if an LMS was a bit more self-aware and verbose about how instructors have laid out material? I do this myself with a landing page that I create as the entry point for the class. It's a map of sorts to where all the content is kept in the LMS. It's easy to create and students always comment on how useful it is.

Young students don't automatically know how to navigate an LMS: This is largely a K-5 issue, but has some applicability at all levels. While in theory the structure of an LMS is simple, in practice it is a mess of classes and activities and special activities. Younger students, no matter how facile with technology for their age, don't spend their days working with office technologies. “Simple” things like retrieving a document from a specific place in the LMS are not obvious; printing documents is not obvious; and saving a document as a pdf to email back to a teacher is most certainly not obvious. (Let's not even get into the whole issue of access to technology. One of the things I've found most striking in my own teaching is the number of apparently well-off undergraduate students whose only “computer” is a smartphone. At the K-12 level, expecting even access to a smartphone is, as has been clear across the country this Fall, most certainly not to be taken for granted.)

There are tools that work with this, but the Fall has, I think, exposed major failings of most LMS platforms for young students. Solutions might involve (and have involved) valiant efforts to teach students how to use these technologies, but that seems a waste of precious time. Perhaps simplifying what gets sent and how it gets sent is a possible improvement. The LMS in this case invites sloppy practice. Young students who need simple and clear structure get in an LMS a menu of options and places to get lost. Ditch it.

Parental oversight of all scores all the time is not a good thing: I have never liked the helicopter aspect of LMS systems. There's something powerful about periodic review of things like grades. Beyond the fact that LMS systems burden teachers with the expectation of giving constantly-accessible feedback, for K-12 students in particular the way that the LMS robs them of agency and makes them constantly accountable to parental oversight or questioning runs counter to a pedagogical need to foster the freedom required for learning. Learning requires mistakes and it usually requires failures. The twist this term is that for remote learning parents have had an even more invasive window into the minute by minute drama of the actual classroom, supported and fostered by parental access to the LMS where we too as parents can view, download, and explore all the class materials.

I know some parents like this access. Parents can help their kids and intervene as they think necessary. But I see no good in this. It stresses teachers who now have another audience and have to talk, in a way, both to students and parents at the same time. It can stress students and make them dependent where they otherwise might have had to be responsible themselves. It is dis-empowering at every level.

Do you need an LMS?

I am probably an outlier. But I wonder constantly nowadays about whom the LMS serves. Is it for teachers? For students? The primary beneficiaries seem to me to be administrators and, for K-12, parents who need the salve of constant access to their students' records. I might (grudgingly) admit that the selling point of an LMS is in bringing together materials from multiple classes at one access point.

But is it worth all that hassle? If the purpose is to make materials available remotely, then you need two things: secure storage and, perhaps, some version of “posting” assignments. In that sense, strictly speaking for straightforward functional needs of teachers and students, is a password-protected dropbox/pcloud/cloud storage drive enough?

But... “Security! Analytics! We need to track these things! FERPA!” one might hear.

Bullshit. It's about goals. If your goal is to teach, then an LMS is a lot of extra hassle that you don't need to do that job. If you are a student and your goal is to learn, then an LMS is a bunch of infrastructure and clicking in between you and the content and communication you want.

#lms #k12 #highered #minimaledtech