Rise Above The LMS #4C13 [video & transcript]

VIDEO: https://www.dropbox.com/s/jh2bqmv9r28dwr0/RATLMS.mov

TRANSCRIPT: Good morning and welcome to session L.24, Reaching New Publics with Homegrown Learning Management Systems. My name is James Schirmer and I’m presenting in absentia for a very good reason: the birth of my first child. But I want to thank Brian and Quinn for allowing me to present in this manner. Please know that all are welcome to tweet about or at me. My Twitter handle is at the top right corner of most slides; our session and conference hashtags are at the top left. Also, a full transcript of this talk is available at betajames.net (and at betajames.posthaven.com).

Now, in talking about learning management systems, we talk about many things, including access and control. We talk about who has access to what information at which level as well as who controls that access and that information. We also talk about persistent and potential obstacles to access and control. In such discussions, it can be very easy to conflate a course and a learning management system. So, I hereby invite my colleagues on the panel and in the audience to challenge me if I appear to make such a conflation.

In talking about alternatives to learning management systems, I think we talk about access and control, too, but with an acknowledgement of honesty and openness. More of what we do as writing teachers may be exposed in LMS alternatives; things can get messy in having all or some of the construction laid bare. And I think there’s a public-ness to LMS alternatives that standard, traditional platforms like Blackboard lack. I see this as a net positive for alternatives, varied as they are.

New media and Web 2.0 technologies are more accessible and open by nature, sharing a similar degree of public-ness. As writing teachers, we can — and sometimes do — voice our LMS frustrations via social media, but these online spaces are also opportunities for us to connect pedagogical aims and goals in new ways. This is not necessarily a new thing anymore, but I think it’s an idea worth repeating because it is also shared in the do-it-yourself ethos. Open the course, expose the scaffolding, encourage more and varied interaction, get beyond the Blackboard box.

Using a computer keyboard, we can blog about yesterday’s class and tweet course updates, but it is through social media that the work we do may be public in unanticipated ways. Searching Twitter for hashtags like #englishsucks and phrases like “I hate writing” can be very revealing. I mention this, too, because I want to steer clear of triumphalism here. Moving from a standard, traditional LMS like Blackboard to an alternative doesn’t eliminate certain problems; it may only change them.

But we’re talking about such movement this morning for reasons in addition to access, control, messiness, and openness. I think it’s safe to say that we, as writing teachers, value these concepts to varying degrees. I want to extend things a bit, though. If we acknowledge that writing often constitutes public work, if we are interested in enhancing the status of first-year composition, we should rethink housing our courses in learning management systems. Do not mistake this statement for blind adherence to an ideal, though. Often enough, I still find myself singing the following song.

[clip of “I’m Against It” from the Marx Brothers film, Horse Feathers, ]
I don't know what they have to say,
It makes no difference anyway,
Whatever it is, I'm against it.
No matter what it is or who commenced it,
I'm against it.

Your proposition may be good,
But let's have one thing understood,
Whatever it is, I'm against it.
And even when you've changed it or condensed it,
I'm against it.] 

I admit my own resistance to Blackboard and to learning management systems in general. However, I must also admit my reservations about this resistance. Do I dislike Blackboard for what it is or do my frustrations deal with broader concerns about higher education? Are my operating methods and preferences just too different? Do I just need to be more patient, more willing to discover and learn how a particular LMS organizes and values the efforts of students and teachers alike? In an “Authors @ Google” lecture, Douglas Rushkoff explains the Blackboard situation a bit better than I can: 

[clip of "Authors@Google: Douglas Rushkoff," 7:38-9:10]
[From the student or teacher's perspective, Blackboard is terrible. It's just awful. You run up consistently against these terrible obstacles and extremely difficult things, ways you've got to wrap your whole self and brain and course and life around what this program needs needs from you in order to comply with it. And most of us look and say, "Ugh, this is just an awful thing. This software is awful." If you look at it from what I'm calling the programmer's perspective, you see, "Oh no, Blackboard is brilliant." Because Blackboard wasn't written for me. Blackboard wasn't written for me as an educator or for that person as a student. Blackboard was written for the Blackboard company to dominate education in a very particular way. Blackboard was created to help create an equivalence between distance learning and real-life learning so that in your classroom you're actually using this technology as much as you would long distance...It's created not to promote the user's agency, but to decrease the user's agency and increase the institution's dependence on this piece of software.]   

While I agree with Rushkoff, I no longer think of standard, traditional LMS platforms like Blackboard as software. Instead, I think of them as “institutionware.” For as much as Blackboard may be about preserving itself as the top LMS option, it is also about preserving the traditional aspects of higher education. Even more recent social media ‘features’ are about containment; blogs and wikis are stuck in the Blackboard box and mark the introduction of new environments and tools for learning but only serve lectures and exams. It’s all enough to make one rage against the machine.

[clip of "07 - Rage Against the Machine - Freedom (Live)," 4:15-4:45]
[LYRIC: anger is a gift

I agree with Zach de la Rocha that “anger is a gift.” When directing it in a productive way toward an issue or problem, clarity can often follow. I also agree with Matthew Gold’s perspective that the problem with learning management systems ‘lies in the conjunction of three words that should not appear together. Learning is not something that can be “managed” via a “system.”’ Given how we may use Blackboard or another platform, our course banners might as well read “Under Old Management.” Many of the faults of traditional LMS platforms are also the faults of higher education.

Still, the title of this talk isn’t “Rage Against The LMS.” Well, it was, but it isn’t anymore. In fact, my co-panelist Brian McNely has, in his words, “backed away from a militant anti-LMS perspective in everyday practice, in large part because it’s simply not conducive to getting things done with what we have…I don’t have the energy or influence to overturn my university’s LMS policy; I can offer my students interesting workarounds to the limitations of the LMS.” Like him, I’m more interested in how we might rise above the LMS, either through alternatives or by other means. 

[clip of "Henry Rollins/Black Flag 'Rise Above' Live, 0:25-0:55]
Jealous cowards try to control
Rise above
We're gonna rise above
They distort what we say
Rise above
We're gonna rise above
Try and stop what we do
Rise above
When they can't do it themselves

We are tired of your abuse
Try to stop us it's no use

Society's arms of control
Rise above
We're gonna rise above]

Part of rising above the LMS may involve remembering that, as Sean Michael Morris writes in a piece for Hybrid Pedagogy, “the LMS is meant to help us think about teaching, not to do the teaching, or to tell us what teaching needs to occur. The LMS is not the course; it’s the launching pad for the course." In other words, we need to see the LMS as an opportunity to reconsider how and what it is we do as teachers.

This diagram is part of a blog entry by Lisa M. Lane in which she looks at how and where courses begin. According to Lane, starting in an LMS implies a teacher-centric model, closer connection with the college and its structures, greater concern for security and privacy, and emphasis on presentation and content over interactivity and community. Starting on the open web or a social media site implies a learner-centric model, greater connection with the outside world, and emphasis on community over content. 

Lane sees both starting options as doors, with the LMS linking out to social media and social media linking in or to the LMS. Whichever we choose “sets up different kinds of hierarchies, implies differences in pedagogy, and creates different kinds of opportunities for learning” (Lane). Similarly, William Beasley notes “there are good pedagogical reasons both for providing links that take students outside the LMS, and for bringing portions of the outside world into the LMS." 

This diagram is part of a blog entry by D’Arcy Norman in which he sees a role for the LMS in higher education “if for no other reason than the simple reality that most instructors, and many students, aren’t ready, willing, or able to forge their own solutions." Norman also acknowledges that “even a grassroots No-LMS environment eventually grows to resemble an LMS-like space." Through these diagrams, we can come to see the LMS in general as less of a learning management system and more of a learning mediated system. 

Now, in my own courses, I seek to rise above the LMS by incorporating simple, effective tools with a low barrier of entry. Here is one such example: Posterous, a soon-to-be defunct online writing service that allowed students to blog via email. Students and I were able to subscribe to and comment on each other’s blogs as well as personalize our online spaces. Twitter’s “acqui-hire” of the Posterous staff one year ago prefaced the announcement of a full-service shutdown on April 30. 

However, Twitter is (I hope) a more reliable online writing service used in many of my courses. Hashtags and/or specific tweeting times help foster community and that greater connection with the outside world mentioned earlier by Lisa Lane. 

Now, before turning things over to Brian and Quinn for more substantive inquiry, allow me to share a couple other, perhaps more interesting examples before closing with some persistent problems related to rising above the LMS. 

“Part storytelling workshop, part technology training, part critical interrogation of the digital landscape,” DS106 stands among the most unique and successful endeavors to engage students of all kinds in the development of skills for using technology as a tool for networking, sharing, narrating, and creative self-expression. Searching on Twitter for the hashtags #ds106 and#ds106radio will send you down a rabbit’s hole into a wonderland of digital artifacts of all kinds.  

In sharing this screenshot of materials for a web application development course posted on GitHub, it is worth noting that Karl Stolley uses Git, version control software, for just about everything he writes. But, for Stolley, posting his syllabi on GitHub is worth doing so that his materials “are a tad more easy to get ahold of” but it also changes how he writes the source of his materials, whether Markdown or HTML.  

And, as usual, we are at an interesting time in higher education. The MOOC looms over much discussion of academia’s future, but it also stands as another potential LMS alternative. Many MOOCs serve as a combination of approaches and strategies; some are united as much by Twitter hashtags as more traditional methods of instruction. So, with these examples, we’re once again back to the opening concerns of access, control, honesty, messiness, and openness.

As also mentioned earlier, rising above a standard, traditional LMS like Blackboard may not eliminate certain problems, only change them. Our position in a college or university may determine our ability to rise. We may be limited to engaging in the strategy explained by Brian McNely rather than implementing one of the “door” approaches explained by Lisa Lane. Using free online services invite archival, privacy, and reliability issues. Hosting and growing our own spaces requires time and vigilance we may not have. 

While there are among the persistent problems related to rising above the LMS, I want to remain optimistic. When we rise above the LMS, we assert as ourselves as activists as well as writing teachers. We show others what alternatives are possible in particular capacities. And I look forward to what Brian and Quinn are about to show us. So, to close as so many of my students do, here is my references page.

Thank you.