LMS Review

So our current contract with our LMS vendor is complete in October 2018. I can’t say what we’ll do, but the landscape has changed somewhat since the last LMS review was done at work, so we’re starting to form a committee to look at our options. Ultimately, we’re doing this so far in advance because you should take at least a year to transition, which would put us at fall 2017 for starting to roll out the new system for users, which means that we’d need to know in the spring of 2017. Maybe the cost of change will scare us into another contract. As I see it, there’s four options available to us.

1. Stay with D2L. This is the easiest answer, and least complicated. We’ve been relatively happy with them as a company so there’s really no need to change, and despite the minor blips (the great outage of 2012) it’s been pretty smooth so far. Maybe continuous delivery will be awesome, and really a review of the LMS will be a mere formality.

2. Move to another hosted LMS. This is the second easiest answer – if the campus decides that D2L isn’t the choice for us, then we choose another vendor, enter into protracted negotiations, and go through the formal process of getting vendors to submit to review, tender offers, and go through the motions with selecting a new partner for the next five years. I’m not sure if the campus will think this is an option at all. Blackboard was our previous LMS, and didn’t work – essentially leaving the campus without a functional LMS for a whole semester. By the time it did start working, the relationship was in trouble, and well, that’s why we have D2L. That’s according to faculty who were here during the time it happened, which was prior to my time. Another seismic shift may not be in the cards. Another factor is that we’ve become a PeopleSoft school for our various systems across campus. That implementation has been rough for the campus. I’m not sure they have the appetite for another system to learn so quickly.

3. Go back to self-hosting LMS software. This allows us to look at open source solutions, and rely on our own IT group to take server maintenance, infrastructure and all the other associated risks back under our roof. It’s unlikely that we would do this due to the human cost of running a mission critical server – and we’d have to look at hiring back expertise that was relocated to other groups on campus or into industry. Those costs, are not insignificant. The complexity of running Moodle or Sakai at scale for 25,000 to 30,000 users, isn’t lost on me. It’d be a great challenge. I don’t know that this will be palatable to the campus either as we’ve had people who were running their own Moodle install come over to use the institution’s provided install of D2L. Maybe that’s the path of least resistance? Maybe it’s the students pushing for one platform? Who knows.

4. Do away with the LMS. This is an entirely radical idea, but what if we just left it up to instructors to do it themselves? I’d be ok in this scenario, despite having this a huge part of my job description, because there’s always going to be technology to use to teach. I’d have to adjust. Would this even fly? Probably not. Imagine the headlines: “first University to do away with the LMS”… would be useful to put on my tombstone after everyone lynches me because they need a secure webpage to link their stuff to.

As a teaching and learning centre, we’ll be interested in finding something flexible to teach not only in the modes that people currently teach in, but also in the pedagogy that people want to teach in. All LMS’s say they can do constructivist style setups, but really they require changes globally to do so. No one gives the instructor the power to turn on or off student control of a slice of content, or a discussion, or even a collaborative space for document sharing. I’ll go out on a limb and suggest that all LMS’s are designed as content delivery tools, not knowledge construction tools. And to that end, the choice of tools that can be used is often controlled by LMS administrators, not the instructors. Now, there’s great reasons for structuring things in such a way; theoretically administrators have subject matter expertise in selecting partners to connect to the LMS and have experience with vetting vendors. Right? I hope so. I know I’ve tried my best to make sure I’ve done right for student’s privacy, intellectual property and general safe digital space. I don’t know what I don’t know though. I guess, through the next three years, I’ll start to find out.

Use What Works.

Use what works. That’s what it always comes down to for me, especially when people are talking about technology. That’s why I got interested in this comparison between iPads and Netbooks in a 1:1 project. This first article in a promised series focuses on cost. Yes, I do admit that cost is always a factor, a concern and a pressing interest from supervisors and those who control the purse-strings. Yes, it’s important to not flush away money (my bank account and pitiful pension contributions can attest to that).  Isn’t there something else to consider though – the experience?

The article concludes with a rousing support for Netbooks, and in the current way education works, it makes sense. Yes, Netbooks are cheaper, provide more bang for the buck, may even be a better tool for the job. Maybe the iPad, or any other tablet if you want to cut costs, works better for collaboration (in fact, I’d suggest based on how I’ve seen it work, it does). Anytime you have a keyboard you inevitably have one controller of the device. With tablets, I’ve seen first hand how people are more willing to share duties on it – searching for something on Google, then passing the tablet to a colleague, then collectively watching a video. I’m not saying that people can’t do that on a Netbook, they absolutely can, but intuitively, they treat them differently. I think people treat different computers, well, differently.

For the purpose of the comparison, they needed students to create media. I’m still not sure on how good a media creation device the iPad is. I think the iPhone has much more capabilities for better media capture out of the box. Certainly the form factor of an iPad is a draw back for media capture.  I’m actually going to be a bit of a snob and say that neither a Netbook nor an iPad are ideal. I’d say buy a fleet of Netbooks, then add a dedicated video/audio multimedia machine with the savings. With all that said, I think the iPad is a much better device, for surfing the web (even with the Flash embargo, most well designed modern sites that use Flash have an alternative available) and for consuming media. I also feel that the iPad despite it’s heftier price tag is a more enjoyable experience rather than a Netbook. Most of my Netbook issues are that the whole device is cramped and poorly laid out. It’s why I didn’t buy a Netbook two years ago and instead bought a larger laptop. Ultimately, that was probably a wrong decision as the laptop is not a great device either. Needless to say, I like the time I’ve spent with the iPad and other Android based tablets, I haven’t liked the time I’ve spent with laptops and Netbooks.

My dad, who’s always been a tradesperson, told me very early on, use the tool that works. In fact it’s been words to live by for me. I grew up using a 386 PC for games and Macs (a IIci that cost me a bundle) because they provided better audio tools at the time. Later I programmed using a PC that I built myself because the integrated programming environments were Windows only (this is pre-OSX). Even more recently I use the tool that works for me in the situation. I am lucky to be able to do that though. I realize that not everyone has the luxury or access to do this. I’m only here as a reminder that a dedicated tool for something is usually better than a multitool. Of course, your mileage may vary.

Whole Language and It’s Relation to Modern Learning

The whole language method of teaching language involves teaching only the relevant piece of language to the student at the time they need it – closely relating it to the method most of us learn to speak. Of course, there’s a difference between the codified rituals of writing to convey meaning and speaking, although in deeper thinking about it, I don’t think there’s that wide a gap between the way we learn to speak and the way we learn to write. Whole language is rooted in constructivist thinking, certainly drawing a parallel to redefining teachers as guides or facilitators. The idea is certainly tied to how we learn when self-directed; for instance if I need to know how to fix a sink and I don’t know anyone to ask, I turn to YouTube and watch videos, look at some web tutorials, use some critical thinking skills and fix a sink.

The problem is that some critics of whole language look at reading and state psychologically that it is a skill that unlike speaking, is something that has no instinctual basis. In other words, reading and writing has to be learned. Which is the parallel for 21st Century Literacies. You can draw the conclusion, but I don’t think anyone has said (outside of perhaps Prensky) that this generation has a second sense of computers and information on computers. I think educators need to be very careful how we assume people learn, and that people learn a holistic and varied foundation of skills which they can then scaffold as they become more familiar with the technology at hand. Much how many people decry the basic literacy skills of many first year students in post secondary, we may be decrying the basic information literacy skills of everyone in the future.