Be warned, I’m about to torture an analogy. You might want to look away if you’re squeamish.
Growing up in Yorkshire in the 70s and 80s I went to a local high school along with 1800 other kids. To cope with the numbers the local education authority had installed some ‘temporary’ classrooms. They were used long before my 7 years at that school and long after, so it was clearly a new definition of word temporary.
They were cold in winter, hot in summer and damp all year. Nevertheless the teachers made the best of them and they were decorated with student work and made as comfortable as possible.
Now let’s imagine a university in the 21st century decides, as a matter of choice, to make all of its students attend classes in these sorts of learning spaces. But more than this, they decide to black out all of the windows so that no one can see in and they say that there can be no displays of student work within the room. They provide a standard overhead projector in each room and they insist that teaching consists of a 5 minute introductory presentation from the teacher followed by a question, followed by another 5 minute video and so on. Students are only allowed to talk to each other if they go to a corner of the room that has been walled off from everything else. This method of teaching will be the same for every degree program so the artists and sculptors will use a space like this as well as the engineers and physicists. Learning about modern dance and nursing will all occur in these spaces.
This may sound far fetched but that’s often what happens often in university learning management systems. Over the years I’ve seen administrators at several universities attempt to mainstream the use of the LMS through the use of things like minimum online presence policies in which every course has to have an online space in the LMS and, increasingly through ever more restrictions on the configurability of individual learning spaces. The aim is to improve the student experience through mandated standardisation. In fact what happens is that educators already have minimal agency in the LMS (students have almost no agency at all) and they are being given less and less agency as more standardisation is implemented. By agency I mean the capacity of a person to act in any given environment.
There are many reasons why the use of learning management systems is resisted by many university educators even after 16 years of implementation. I would propose that a lack of agency is one of the main reasons. I believe firmly that we should empower both educators and learners to be able to create, share, communicate and learn. That’s not to say that I believe that having a consistent learning experience is not important. I do, but I also believe that this is only important at the program level. Not across all students in the institution. We never expect the experience of nursing undergraduates to be the same as architecture undergraduates so why should we attempt that in online spaces?
I actually believe that we need domain specific online learning environments that cater to the pedagogies appropriate to different disciplines. We can build such spaces quite cost effectively and with much more agency. We’ve just built one for the School of Architecture and Design at RMIT University. It’s for the Creative Practice Research program. It’s built from open source software and is custom designed for the discipline. It’s the online equivalent of a high end interactive learning space like the one below:
Because at the end of the day the way we use online learning environments is actually largely a human problem not a technical problem
All of this requires thinking beyond the LMS. We describe the space that we’ve built not as an LMS but as a way of thinking. Because at the end of the day the way we use online learning environments is actually largely a human problem not a technical problem. What we need to do is think of the experiences that we want as learners and educators. As Kate Bowles observed in a comment on a blog post by Frances Bell “LMS vendors sell on the basis of institutional affordance, not user experience“. Universities need to focus on improving the learner experience and making learners work in the modern equivalent of temporary classrooms is not the best way to do that.