Walled in on the web? Limits of the LMS.

I’ve been thinking for some time about the pedagogical implications of teaching within a Learning Management System. Mostly I’ve been thinking about how limiting the walls of LMS are, and how they keep learners apart. Though we in the K-12 sector often talk about online learning’s promise as allowing us to “tear down the walls”, I’m concerned that when we build our courses inside an LMS, we find we’re just as locked inside four walls as when we’re stuck in our brick-and-mortar rooms.

http://www.onteachingonline.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/elearning-logos.jpg

Some years ago, I was charged with leading introductory workshops for faculty on how to use our school’s new LMS. Teachers reacted as you would have expected – about a third were eager to play with the shiny new tool, another third were skeptical but willing to try, and a third probably thought I was just another technology snake oil salesman. In all the feedback from those sessions, what I never heard, interestingly, was how limiting the LMS was, though that’s what I was thinking the whole time I was teaching teachers how to use the new platform. I think because so few teachers were already connecting their students to other learners outside their rooms, the idea that they were just moving into another walled space, albeit online, never occurred to them.

The pedagogical decisions we make to connect learners have historically been informed by physical room design and ideas about class size. If the room could hold 30, and the school was open to classes of that size, teachers fashioned their teaching around connecting 30 learners. The same went for classes of 16 or 40. This is no different in the online LMS – as many students as have accounts and are enrolled in a “course” can be connected and the teaching model is built for this. These connections are often homogenous, as learners are almost always the same age, from the same place, with similar cultural and educational backgrounds. Though different perspectives exist, the value of these connections is quite limited.

The promise of the web is the ability to connect many people to share ideas. One of the best vision statements I’ve seen recently suggests education should connect people, ideas, and cultures to advance knowledge, create solutions, and enhance meaning. For this, would it work to put students behind walls in a homogenous grouping? Of course not. To really connect people in ways that are transformative, they must be able to interact with people, ideas, and cultures not enrolled in the course, and not in the LMS.

Stephen Downes today posted an excellent video, in which he explains the differences between LMS and Personal Learning Environments (PLE). There are many important differences between the two, but the element I’d like to highlight is the openness of PLE. When teachers empower students to establish their own learning networks, the walls of the classroom do in fact come down.

With PLE, students work with a variety of Web 2.0 tools, as Downes points out in the video:

screenshot from: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zDwcCJncyiw&feature=colike

Because students are using tools that are open on the web, they can connect with other learners outside their institution. In this diagram, you can see how this could work for students from schools, and autonomous individuals on the web:

screenshot from: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zDwcCJncyiw&feature=colike

For this reason, and others which I haven’t gone into in this post, the decision to adopt a LMS is one that should be made thoughtfully. From the perspective of connecting learners, a school might be better served by educating the faculty to support the development of student Personal Learning Environments.

I encourage you to watch Stephen’s video:

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Comments
  1. Molly Smith    

    Thanks for this post. You have helped me clarify my thinking about this, LMS extend the time but not necessarily the activities of our classrooms. They recreate the classrooms in asynchronous ways. Reaching beyond our schools to connect our students with others is really important. That is where I hope we can go with our collaboration this year.

    1. Mike Gwaltney    

      You’re welcome, Molly, and thanks for reading. I agree that getting outside our rooms is key, and I’m looking forward to our collaboration this year!

  2. Shawn McCusker    

    Thanks Mike. I have spent the summer weighing whether to adopt an LMS or go a different way. I have been working to get beyond the four walls of the classroom. This have given me few few things to consider.

  3. Shawn McCusker    

    An LMS is a big part of the tech discussion happening at my school. thank you for giving me some things to consider. I have been trying to tear down the limits of the four walls. I need to consider the other Walsh that might be waiting just beyond them.

    1. Mike Gwaltney    

      Shawn, undoubtedly a LMS is a favorite for administrators and IT managers because it is central and is therefore easily managed (besides, much of the tech management work is done by the LMS staff). If you have the time and willingness to manage a more open system, and your admin let you do it, combining social networks with wikis with blogs gives you much of what you might want out of a LMS.

      I’m building a kind of “open LMS” on a WordPress platform this summer and I’d be happy to share it with you if you’re interested. It’s probably going to be the subject of a few blog posts anyway.

      Thanks for commenting. Cheers.

      Mike

  4. Leah Terry    

    I am just starting out with Edmodo and am excited to be pushing students in a new yet safe learning environment via that LMS. Do you think it is different for different age groups? I teach 4th grade reading in a lower SES environment where only about half the students even have a computer with Internet access. Even using Edmodo and flipping some instruction is going to be a huge step towards the 21st Century for them. You have certainly given me something to think about…in terms of broadening their (and my) horizon even more.

    1. Mike Gwaltney    

      Leah, you should be excited to be starting out on the web, with Edmodo. I think there’s lots of good to getting 4th graders at work within Edmodo. Certainly, there are sensible arguments to be made that kids of that age need to have more protections, whether on field trips to local destinations, or onto the internet.

      I’m impressed though by the ‘KidBlogs’ I read from the #comments4kids hashtag on Twitter. I’ve seen some really cool work being done by kids as young as 5! I’ve left them feedback, and have occasionally gotten some back from them. Maybe the trick is to use Edmodo, but choose some opportunities to step outside?

      Thanks for joining the conversation here, Leah. I appreciate you taking the time to read and comment.

      Mike

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Mike Gwaltney