Walled Garden or Safe Space?

I’ve been to several, if not hundreds of community gatherings, discussion groups or encuentro (as the Zapatista’s put it) where there was always a safe space for members who wanted to engage but felt marginalized. The idea of the safe space is for those that feel marginalized could be empowered by taking some of the space of the gathering and discuss and bring forth issues that are of importance to that group (and eventually bring those forth to the larger group).

I often wonder if the traditional LMS could be a safe space for students. Not to knock the decentralized approach of DS106, because I too value the idea of putting an idea out into the open, seeing if it resonates with anyone else, and building on it. But I often think there’s a value to having everything together in one spot, to help students learn. The decentralized approach clearly works, because you can see where and when DS106 is successful. The arguments against LMS’s are fairly well trodden, they are locked down and unable to share externally – which is true in their unadulterated stated. However, you can easily embed a wiki, or other community based site (like YouTube) bringing the community in, and partially exposing the real world (as much as the Internet reflects the real world). At times in higher education, I think there’s a value in providing a space where one can experiment with ideas without having the pressure of the real world to bear on them. That should be what education is about.

I have a vested interest in keeping the LMS at the University I work at, because frankly, that’s my job (with that said, if it ever were to be decentralized, I’d be nimble enough to support blogs, wikis and other web 2.0/3.0 tools as well). I often say that there’s value in having a central location to reside in. Of course, there’s too few reasons to go to most courses – no sense of community, no value placed in a discussion online, no reward for student engagement… the list goes on and on. I can’t see great advancement in the use of LMS’s in general until faculty are looking for ways to connect their classrooms with the world.

Quick Thought About Bringing External Websites into the LMS

Many modern LMS’s allow instructors and designers to bring external websites wholly into the learning environment, either by embedding them in an iframe or a windowed frame. I often wonder if doing this works for students, or is a hindrance. Should I link out and be explicit about where the student is going, or bring the content to the learning environment. The benefits of both are obvious to me.

An explicit statement of where students are going gives them a resource to draw on later – if they no longer are allowed to login to the LMS, they still have access to the learning resource. They can bookmark it and share it. Serendipity allows students to find new and different perspectives. The downfall is that it can be chaotic – too many open windows, too fragmented a learning experience, too much content can overwhelm. It doesn’t provide context, or context isn’t as immediate. Meaning can be fragmented.

Keeping links internal to the LMS provides a better guided road. Some students will be comforted with the idea that they don’t have to go all over the web to get information. The context of the information is a stronger connection. The user experience is more uniform, leading to less cognitive load. The downfall is that it can be too restrictive, too constraining and too much like school. Also, what happens when you can’t login? You’ve lost all your resources.

I think the way one works will put forth the way they design courses, and how the LMS is used. I’m fighting through this issue, and will struggle on as always.