Another dot in the blogosphere?

Insidious LMS ad

Posted on: May 14, 2020

One of the reading methods I adopted from my days as a graduate student and then an academic were to read the synopsis, introduction, and conclusion of an article first.

I practice this particularly with opinion pieces in the press. I modify the method by examining who wrote the article and I try to unpack why. Take this “commentary” that proclaims that “It is time to rethink how we do online education”.

You need only to scroll to the end of the article to find that the author is the regional director of a learning management system (LMS) provider. Scroll to the middle and the largest chunk of the article is about (surprise, surprise) the the virtues of adopting an LMS.

An institutional LMS has its uses. But it also has its abuses, so I counter some claims (copied from the article and pasted in italics). At this point, I should mention that I am making some assumptions based on my professional experience of working with such vendors. I need to make assumptions because the statements in the article are either so general as to be vague or are claims without cited and linked evidence.

LMSs are used to create and deliver curriculums that students can follow both online and offline.

Offline? An LMS is online. The whole point is to access it anywhere you have a reliable Internet connection. Some tools have an offline mode, but you need to periodically go online to get updates.

An offline service that delivers material might look like the postal service. But even that has online components, e.g., tracking packages. So I do not know how an “offline” LMS is supposed to create and deliver curricula without strategically going online.

It is secure, easily accessible and allows for student-teacher interaction.

Claims of security should always be questioned. An LMS is only as “secure” as the log-in system of an institution and the user behaviours.

The ease of accessibility might rest on the platform each user has. Internet access being equal, LMS tend to be more “accessible” on laptops and desktops than on smaller mobile devices, e.g., phones. The latter typically require specific apps because LMS tend to not be built with mobile-first principles. Such apps are lite versions of full LMS, so users can forget about, say, submitting essays for plagiarism checks before revising and resubmitting on mobile.

As for “student-teacher” interaction, don’t get me started. Correspondence courses of old were secure as the postal service, accessible to anyone with an address, and allowed student-teacher interaction.

For starters, all users are authenticated before they are granted access.

Yes, with a standard username and password combo, preferably linked to a school’s or university’s single sign-on (SSO) system. I do not know of any SSO that requires two-factor authentication that is tied to a person’s identity. This means that a student can share log-in information with someone else to access materials or to take a quiz.

Authentication is not the same as identity confirmation. The latter is what is required for strict access to materials or the taking of critical tests or exams. Is our PSLE or GCE assessments online? No, because while authentication is possible, identity confirmation is not.

A reliable LMS uses cryptographic protocols and encryption to ensure the confidentiality and security of user data.

Good news, right? At no point did the author say where the data is stored (the company’s servers) or what happens to that data (it should be in Terms and Conditions; data could be anonymised and repackaged for the company or third parties to use).

With standard compliance regulations for data integrity and confidentiality in place, institutions can opt for certified LMS service providers for maximum security.

See my comment on anonymisation of data. Providers use student and teacher data. There are legitimate uses like improving services, but there are less clear cut uses too.

Data integrity, confidentiality, and security are important, but they should not be conflated. For example, if data is kept purely intact, it cannot be anonymised for confidentiality. If it cannot be anonymised, it should be used for other purposes.

Some LMSs integrate live streaming capability in a seamless manner.

As do other platforms, mobile or desktop. YouTube and Twitch can also do this more efficiently and effectively than university lecture capture systems. But such systems are not in walled gardens like LMS (which could be a plus) and such capture systems tend to be fire-and-forget for lecturers (another plus).

All that said, the seamlessness might be convenient, but this also means that teachers and lecturers do not learn the skills of how to do such work themselves. This has been and continues to be evident whenever e-learning days or a lockdown like the current one places pressure on content delivery.

The LMS market is already booming.

So is the market for fast foods. This does not mean that they have products that are good for their consumers/users, or processes that are good for the environment/education system.

The regional market here might be “booming”, but that does not mean the same is happening elsewhere. Anyone thinking of buying into an LMS should investigate why it might be waning elsewhere before subscribing to a service that creates dependence.

According to a report by Market Research, the Asia-Pacific region is expected to be the fastest-growing LMS market in the coming years…

This might be true depending on your sources. It is a trend that might last a while. Why? Decisions to buy into LMS are made my policymakers and administrators, not educators and students. The latter groups are rarely consulted, if at all. If they were, I bet on the trend bucking.

Increasing computing power and rich features on these devices make for a dynamic and holistic learning experience.

This was in reference to mobile devices like phones. Despite their increased power, they still deliver subpar experiences compared to devices with larger screens and multitasking.

The one size fits all approach that has dominated education for so long does not work anymore.

How ironic. An LMS is designed to fit many tools into one container.

The diversification of tools and platforms based on context and need should drive adoption and innovation. When you buy into an LMS, you get a walled-off area but you trade it with practices that are constrained by tools that might not suit your needs.

Consider the oft dreaded threaded discussion forum. It is the go-to tool for interaction because thoughts are externalised, captured, and sometimes graded. Discussion threads can get so long and confusing that they put off discussion to all but the most persistent.

Users need to be taught new and more disciplined ways to discuss online. This is not a bad thing, but the structure can be off-putting or unnatural. Instead, users might prefer to share their thoughts on Twitter, Instragram, or some other social platform. However, an LMS cannot integrate every possible tool, be it designed for education or for general use.

I called the article an insidious LMS advertisement (and titled my reflection so) because a respectable news agency saw it fit to pass a long advertisement off as an article. It was a piece that was not challenged for evidence or subject to critique. Caveat emptor.

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