(Spare) Change

This post may only be worth a defunct penny, but it’s all I’ve got on a sunny, near-Spring, Friday afternoon. With the accelerated rate we accept change in our devices, software, computers, media consumption habits – it’s shocking how glacial Learning Management Systems move. It’s as if they don’t think anyone would want something different. Even the new upstart, Canvas, does the same sort of thing (albeit under a nice shiny coat of paint). Every system’s sales pitch is about giving students (or learners) the power to do stuff, but ultimately, the administrators of the system disallow that for many good and some bad reasons.

Good reasons? Privacy is a huge one, although maybe becoming less and less important as time moves on. Security is another – for instance, while administrators can give student roles the power to create content, it would also reveal content that was due to come up later in the course. First Class was always a great tool that gave control over users to differing levels – so if you had a group, a student could have full capability to delete, add, create or remove anything in that group. If that group lived in a course (a conference in First Class terms) the student could traverse higher into the course level and only access certain functions.

Bad reasons? Convenience is one of them. “Everyone gives students this permission set, so we suggest that you do too”.

What it often means is that we have a pre-conceived notion of how a student should behave in an online space, and by hook or by crook, we’re going to make them fit in. Pounding square pegs into round holes doesn’t make sense in life, why do we insist on it in our online course delivery vehicles? Why can’t modern systems allow for a level of complexity that respects people. In some cases, you do want content to be protected, but it’d be awesome if students could add their own content as well. Students present in your course? Wouldn’t it be great to have them able to access an area to share their presentations with each other?

This isn’t such a startlingly new idea. The criticisms that are laid out in 2004 are the same as they are now. Why? The Learning Management System is solving a problem based on a narrow definition of what a classroom is, rather than what learning is. Learning in 2015 is a much more nuanced, complex thing that it was even a decade ago. More students, larger classes, more dynamic mix of genders, races, classes and sexualities – never mind learning preferences and personal history. How can a monolithic system solve that problem? By getting more complex. Is that solving the problem though? Based on my experience, no.

So where does that leave us? Well, I suspect at the tip of the iceberg. Maybe experiments like DS106 are part of the answer. Maybe some of the interesting analytics work will help us define who students are, and how to teach to them. Maybe it’s the abolishment of the course and implementation of a much more agile, holistic package delivering real learning based on individual need.And that’s where my thoughts circle back to student empowerment. I’m sure you can piece together where this might be going, but maybe getting rid of the moronic, capitalist structure (yes a course is a capitalist invention to assign a monetary value for a period of time with instruction) is the first step. A first step that won’t happen, but a good first step. Then we need to get real about student empowerment. Not talking about  it, but actually doing it.

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