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.

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:

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:

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: