You do not need an LMS in order to teach with technology.

28 06 2014

“…Silicon Valley’s reigning assumption: Anything that can be automated should be automated. If it’s possible to program a computer to do something a person can do, then the computer should do it. That way, the person will be “freed up” to do something “more valuable.” Completely absent from this view is any sense of what it actually means to be a human being.”

– Nick Carr, “An android dreams of automation,” Rough Type, June 26, 2014.

Who dropped the ball? It certainly wasn’t me. Was it you?

When I stopped taking graduate classes in 1993, people had barely heard of the Internet, let alone any kind of learning management system (or LMS). I had never even taken a class that used the Internet, let alone an LMS. I didn’t start teaching with any kind of technology until I got some professional development when I was working at what is now Missouri State University. My department chairman there mandated that all syllabi must be posted online (a really good idea that I still don’t think most universities bother to do). As a result, I learned what I think was then called Microsoft FrontPage and haven’t handed out a piece of paper in class since.

I also remember attending the first time my current employer offered BlackBoard classes. I thought it was mostly bells and whistles and refused to use it. In the same way I hated Moby Dick the first time I read it (actually, I still hate Moby Dick, but that’s the subject for a whole different blog), I gave Blackboard another chance a couple of years later. I came to the same conclusion and haven’t touched any LMS since

Yet while I was learning what technologies for teaching I like and eschewing others, a sea change was taking place in higher education. Learning Management Systems were quickly (if you call fifteen years or so quickly) going from a novelty to being the norm. At first, I was simply annoyed because my students kept asking me what their grade was during the semester (since they could always see it for most other classes in the LMS) and I had to keep telling them that I hadn’t done the calculations yet. Over time, however, LMSs have become a way for administrations and edtech companies to control the manner in which professors teach. Yes, you can still pick your content – I think – but many of the other decisions that professors used to be able to make by themselves (whether to tell students how they’re doing at every point during the semester, for example*) have been determined by the capabilities of learning management systems to process and present information.

What I’m wondering now is how this happened. I wasn’t really paying attention at the time and I haven’t done the research into this little piece of edtech history, but I do have some theories that I was hoping people better informed than I am might kick around:

1. It was the online instructors. They did it!!!

OK, maybe not the online instructors, but certainly online instruction is possibly to blame here. Imagine it’s the late-1990s. All these universities want to go into online instruction on the cheap so like IBM with the Windows, they outsource the operating system to companies that are dying to serve them. The universities themselves are so pleased with the ability to monitor classroom interactions, that they then go and encourage every other faculty member to use the LMS too. Pretty soon, scads of us can’t live without one.

2. Faculty were sold a bill of goods with respect to convenience.

Why would anybody first pick up the LMS habit? Time would be a great incentive. I still remember how amazed I was when I first learned Excel so that I could compute my grades on them. It literally saved me at least eight hours each semester at exactly the time of year when my time was most important! Gradebooks in any LMS would do the same thing. Such conveniences may have convinced lots of people to invite a guest to the party who decided to monetize the punchbowl. Pretty soon, who has time to learn any other system?

3. It started with the adjunct faculty.

The same way that adjunct faculty can’t pick their textbooks in many cases, perhaps they were the natural beta testers for learning management systems – particularly in online settings where the regular tenure track faculty was likely not paying attention. Once they became hooked on doing things through an intermediary, regular faculty joined along because that seemed like the right thing to do. I don’t know exactly how LMS contracts are structured, but imagine them all being on campus-wide licensing systems. Even if it costs more the more users you have, the later users are always cheaper than the earlier users and pretty soon the whole thing would have just snowballed.

Whether it’s all these things or none of these things, there’s still time to remember three very important points and begin to act upon them:

1. You do not need an LMS in order to teach.
2. You do not need an LMS in order to teach with technology.
3. The selection of educational technologies you can use outside the LMS are only getting better.**

If we forget these simple facts, we will all likely become victims of the reigning assumption of Silicon Valley sooner or later once the LMS takes over most of our jobs entirely. At least this will free us up to spend more time looking for better-paying work, while our students suffer from a chronic substandard education which just happens to be delivered with a few elements based upon the use of modern technology.

* I strongly suspect that those of you who actually teach with LMSs can come up with a better example than that one. Please do so and explain it in the comments below.

** Who remembers what happened to AOL? I certainly do.




11 responses

28 06 2014
Maha Bali

Hey Jonathan, glad to know one more anti-LMS person! Have you seen the Jim Groom/Brian Lamb piece on Educause? Great one.
But re: who dropped the ball… Or how did LMS become so central? I think it was when someone decided that a non-educator (administrator interested in management or IT person with some other interest) knew more about what educators needed than the teachers themselves. And the IT companies jumped on it. Now univs have invested so much in LMSs it is painful to them when people decide not to use them. Soooo for the wrong reasons

28 06 2014
Jonathan Rees

I did read that. It’s very, very good. If Jim Groom had his own religion, I’d be a follower. Perhaps I already am.

28 06 2014
Maha Bali

That’s a good way of putting it 🙂 I know there is a certain group of “us” (whether leaders or followers) who “see” ed tech differently than the dominant (corporatized? traditional?) discourse (like the people at Hybrid Pedagogy as well). Immersing yourself in this group of people, you’ll find the “dominant” sub-discourse is clearly anti-LMS (Jim’s keynote at #et4online was an anti-LMS presentation).
It is interesting, though, that Educause which is traditionally not of “that” group published Jim and Brian’s critical article.

29 06 2014
tom abeles

hi Jonathan

Let’s go back in time when the computers were Osbornes, Apple II’s and home brews. There was no “internet but we did have the telco’s and 300 baud modems. Out of that rose what were called BBS’s or community bulletin boards, telnet and a variety of systems for exchanging info at the local and larger area.

Some of the systems became sophisticated and generated what one might consider an LMS but without the “M”. Caucus was/is one of these that did not have the link to the admin system and hence was not considered usable at a university w/out being linked to the registrar and other components needed for student registration, payment of fees, etc. What ties universities to the modern LMS’s is this link to the bureaucracy, first, and pedagogy last.

29 06 2014
CASA weekly news 17/14 | CASA

[…] This week he has a powerful post up about how higher education came to believe that the campus-wide LMS was an essential aide to institutional efficiency, which proved to be a bit like inviting a guest to the party “who decided to monetize the […]

30 06 2014

The one useful thing on my campus is that the Library is linked the the LMS, which allows them to post articles through our electronic reserve system. (And yes, I know there is a solution for this.). Otherwise, it’s for the convenience of the registrar, because both the class roster comes to you through the LMS and you submit grades through it. Moving away from the LMS takes time to learn a new tool.

30 06 2014
Pat Lockley

Pedant mode on

You do need an LMS to teach, you just don’t need what current LMS do. The no LMS mob, of which I have some affiliation use an LMS, it just isn’t blackboard and so on.

To me an LMS is just a tool a teacher uses to save a bit of time, or do something better. I assume most teachers use some form of tech to help teach – if only word or powerpoint?

I’d worry more about DoD spending on intelligent agents.

1 07 2014
Reading, Reliability and Research | sxpmaths – the PROcrastinator

[…] about online learning platforms? LMSs are unnecessary. Or a more balanced discussion. And 10 good reasons for using a […]

2 07 2014
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2 07 2014

We have no choice. The university requires that all modules are on the LMS, and sets a minimum content list. The students like it – because they’re already used to such systems from school, because it means they don’t have to keep track of their own bits of paper and notes, because (with the library system integrated) they don’t even have to use a search engine to find any reading. And if the students like it, we have to do it, whether we think it’s actually good for them or for the pedagogies we want to use or not. We have even switched to all work being submitted and marked through the LMS, unless we use a multi-committee approvals route to get an exemption…
And despite that, my university is using a largely free system, several years out of date, and won’t even pay the very reasonable fee for the bug fixes which are available because “we’re going to switch to a new system in 1-2 years time”.

2 07 2014
Jonathan Rees

Ah, my nightmare scenario. Buckle up folks because I’m pretty sure that’s the future.

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