The embedded biases within the LMS and the impact on learning

After almost a decade away in the corporate world, I don’t think I could have picked a better time to return to mainstream academia. Universities are changing — largely because of external pressures it must be said — and I can sense an openness to new thinking about pedagogy that wasn’t in evidence before. A key driver, I think, is the ubiquity of technology.

Whether we are talking about desktops, laptops, tablets or hand-helds, access to ICTs is no longer strictly the realm of the geek. Walk into any classroom in a university these days and its like a technology park. The big question, of course, is the extent to which all this hardware is actually serving to enhance learning.

Perusing a Big Think piece the other day, I got to thinking about how relatively little debate there is in academic circles about the limiting effects of the proprietary learning management system (LMS). This has been a bugbear of mine for some time, but reading about the observations of media theorist Douglas Rushkoff (author of Program or Be Programmed), has provided me with greater clarity on this issue.

Rushkoff notes that people tend to think of technologies as being neutral and it is only their use that determines their impact. For instance, he points out that guns don’t kill people, people do. People can also use pillows to kill people through suffocation. Guns, however, are much more biased toward killing people than pillows. Similarly, educational technologies come with their embedded biases, and some will be more biased towards deeper learning than others.

Herein lies the problem in the way the LMS is typically employed in universities. Far too often, the platform serves as little more than a receptacle for the storage of PowerPoint files, and when there is some capacity for interaction, it takes place within the confines of a clunky threaded discussion forum where the user experience bears little resemblance to that of the popular social media platforms used routinely by learners in their private lives. The net result is that creativity is stifled, engagement is lower, and learning is constrained.

As academics, we are far too accepting of the LMS. It must be OK because the university has just upgraded to the latest version. The reality, however, is that outside the walls of the proprietary system, people are unshackled and free to curate, connect and create. This is what it means to be literate in the digital age, and while individuals will develop these so-called 21st skills despite the rigidities of the formal education system, if there were a genuine commitment to a learner-centric, participatory pedagogy, in which an individual had more control over how they learn, the returns to society on education dollars spent would be much greater.

As Clay Johnson has acknowledged, the role of software developers is becoming increasingly important. In the context of higher education, how this will play out will depend very much on whether universities can free themselves of the lock-in they are experiencing with the likes of Blackboard. Instructure’s Canvas is, without question, a serious challenge to this monopoly power, and its open, outward-facing platform is a very exciting development because, among other things, it effectively allows the student to engage via the social media platform of their choice.