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The context for this slide: It was 2013 and I was presenting to an audience more used to US English spelling (hence the spelling of “decentralizing”). More importantly, I was on the same mission of advising people to not make the same unnecessary mistakes that others had already made.

Fear Factor: e-Learning Edition Part 3

The advice I gave was simple. A teaching solution that is often presented before considering the learning problem is a vendor-provided learning management system (LMS). This creates lock-ins of platforms and tools, pedagogy, and finances.

All three lock-ins can have hidden elements. For example, you might already be invested a particular tool but that same tool is not compatible with the LMS. If you wish to get the equivalent tool or a new one, this is likely to come with additional cost. In any case, the likely end result is teaching to the whims of the tool instead of letting good pedagogy lead.

Today, that same advice might be recontextualised to not relying almost solely on a content management system (CMS) like our Student Learning System (SLS) or a video conferencing platform like Zoom.

One fear of having multiple platforms and tools is the loss of administrative and IT systems control. This is the top-down approach which is largely non-consultative and does not create ownership or empowerment among its users.

To be fair, you can rationalise the need for such an approach because users might not know what to use in a situation like COVID-19 lockdowns and home-based learning (or more accurately, emergency remote teaching). Having just one (or very few) tools and platforms also allows for system managers to provide more focused support.

However, this presumes that teachers and student have no idea what to do and use. This is not the case. Practically any system has its technology leaders, laggards, and those somewhere in between. The first group is likely to already be using some technology tools without sanctioned support. This can be a boon or a bane depending on how it is planned and managed.

The recent phenomenon of zoom-bombing — trolls joining and disrupting Zoom-based video conference calls — could be used as evidence of why the command-and-control approach works. If people try different tools and managers know that some tools are better and safer than others, why let those people use inferior and unsafe tools?

However, that question is a flawed premise because a small group of administrators and IT folk do not and cannot know as much as a large group of users trying and testing different tools. If just a small portion of active users manages to identify flaws with a platform like Zoom (and there are many), they are a valuable source of testing and information. They could — and have — advised on NOT using Zoom in the first place.

Why rely on actual users instead of administrators and IT folk for testing, analysis, and critique? They are actual users who will use and “abuse” the tools for teaching, learning, and unanticipated ways. They will not think and operate along the lines of spreadsheets, policy, security, etc. They will use the tools authentically.

So the issue is not the loss of control in decentralising technology initiatives. It is the coordinated planning, evaluation, and sharing of such tools and their practices. The fear of losing control is misplaced and misguided. The energy that is wasted here could be channeled to coordinated decentralisation.

We have all probably experienced this and our reaction might be similar. But the effect and impact of clicking on a paywalled article is not that simple.

The experience and reaction is shared if you consider only your perspective and what is immediately obvious.

It is not if you consider the possible metrics for the newspaper, e.g., clicks (successful or not; which headlines work better), insidious ads (e.g., those running in the background or whitelisted by your adblocker), records of paying and non-paying visits, cookies that track what grabs your attention (e.g., op pieces over fluff), etc.

In the longer term, the newspaper gets something out of you — data about your habits and preferences and maybe even some ad revenue — even if you do not get what you want from a click.

That is why one of my concerns of late is our digital rights and privacy [1] [2]. I am even more concerned when the target audience is school-aged kids and young adult learners in institutes of higher education. They are tracked as they access content and learning management systems.

Some of the tracking is necessary, e.g., to take note of where the learners were last at and where they might need to go next. But some tracking is not, e.g., if data is mined by third parties without the knowledge of the learners or their parents.

Clicking on a link to get what you want (or to be denied access) might seem like a simple transaction. However, there are insidious transactions that we might not know or care about. This is like throwing plastic bags away and not knowing or caring where they end up.

We need to know and act better. We need to be more digitally and information literate. If the agencies that guide us do not have compasses that point north [example], we need to teach and police ourselves.

If you cannot help the few, how do you expect to help the many? Are you actually helping anyone at all?

I ask these questions of local schools that subscribe to LMS (learning management systems) or CMS (content) and teachers who use it only sporadically or superficially.

Parents must pay for each child’s access to CMS/LMS. We do not feel the pinch because subsidies make annual subscriptions very low [example 1] [example 2]. CMS and LMS companies have it on easy street because there is guaranteed clientele and lock-in.

Since parents are not financially burdened, there is no harm done, right? No. Not when you realize how such systems are underused or misused.

Schools rarely use these systems for actual learning. To this day, e-learning is relegated to e-learning days or a week while mainstream teaching still happens face to face the rest of the time.

The “e” in e-learning is still associated with “emergency” or “extra” instead of enabling learning. Challenge schools to completely replace face time with screen and computer/phone-mediated social interaction for an extended period and they will likely fail.

How much confidence do school administrators and teachers have in their LMS or CMS? Very little.

I know of schools that require teachers to “stand by” in schools while students stay at home. Other schools conduct e-learning days or weeks in batches so that their LMS or CMS is not overloaded. Even the confidence for emergency learning is not there.

That is how such systems are underused.

Now consider what happens when a teacher goes off on reservist duties or maternity leave. There is no confidence in e-learning as one or more relief teachers must step in (much to their not relief).

When the original teachers return, they might find that they have to re-teach or undo damage. They typically offer extra classes before and/or after school to make up for their absence.
 

 
I know of a Secondary school student who has to undergo psychiatric treatment at a local hospital. He has a curfew: He has to make his way to hospital and stay there after school. His single mother quit her job to pick him up from the hospital early every morning to escort him to school. This student’s mother was the sole bread-winner of the family and also supports the student’s sibling.

Teachers have to bend over backwards to accommodate the needs to this one student. You have wonder why an e-learning system is not utilized as an option.

If you think about it, these exceptional cases are becoming more common. Consider absences from school due to long term illness, family problems, juvenile crime, etc. Why should these children and their families suffer further by not having access to school?

CMS and LMS should be readied and positioned to provide experiences equivalent to that of school so that they are not put at a disadvantage. Schools and CMS/LMS providers have this social responsibility since such systems are being paid for and maintained ultimately by public or donated funds.

On the surface, a subscription to CMS or LMS seems to help many because schools can claim that every teacher and student has an account. But this does not mean CMS or LMS address the authentic needs of students such as learning when they legitimately cannot attend school.

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[image source, used under CC licence]

Jane Hart asks “What is the future of the LMS?

I’ll say that if it remains as is, it has none. That’s my short answer. I’ve said enough before [1] [2].

For a longer answer, see Jane’s blog.

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[image source, used under CC licence]

I have mixed thoughts on this article, Insidious pedagogy: How course management systems impact teaching by Lisa Lane.

The article is based on the premise that course management systems (CMS) like Blackboard have an inherent pedagogy, which is limited to traditional forms of teaching, and this in turn impacts instructors. I do not agree fully with the premise, but I agree with much of the rest of the article even though it is built on that premise. It is an insidious article!

I think that the premise is technologically deterministic, that is, the outcomes of using a tool are defined by its design. But as I wrote earlier, there are technological, social and pedagogical affordances of modern technologies. Affordances are not guarantees of use. The pedagogical affordances of a CMS are but one aspect that influence its use. How they are used socially can make a difference.

Technology is largely neutral even if it is designed to harm. Let us take an ammunition round for example. It is designed to kill. It can be used in a mindless mall shooting. It can also be used to hunt in order to feed a family.

There are limits to a CMS but it is still neutral. It allows the pedagogy of the instructor to take centre stage. If you only know a delivery-oriented model, you will use a CMS that way. If you have constructivist leanings, you will use a CMS to that end. So while I agree with Lane that a CMS limits users, I think it does not determine how they teach.

I agree with her that novice instructors may know no other way of teaching than to attempt to deliver content. I also agree that CMS tend to support that model of teaching and that learning how to use a CMS might be a barrier to developing your own teaching style. So I agree with her advice to novices to ask themselves what they want to do first, rather than do what a CMS demands of them.

[image source, used under CC licence]

If you do, you might abandon an institute-sanctioned CMS like me. The CMS is Blackboard here in NIE. I stopped using it after one semester in 2006 and have been using blogs, wikis and other Web 2.0 tools in my courses since 2007. Why? I started blogging and using wikis in 2004 and began to see their potential for learning.

BlackBoard did include some of these tools as add-ons (in a desperate bid to stay relevant I might add), but they are closed off to the rest of the world. Worse still, my trainees would not have indefinite access to them. Worst of all, my trainees would be put only in the shoes of students, unable to administer, customize and add to the tool itself. I did not realize it then, but I was trying to get them to use what all of us already have access to: Get your own blog, your own wiki, your own online mindmap, your own VoiceThread, your own Google Docs, etc.

A technology learning curve is expected of any tool. It would help if the curve was shallow and short and if pedagogy took centre stage. Bringing in tools that students or teachers-to-be are already using is logical and necessary. (Think about Facebook as an example.) First, the tools are relatively easy to learn. Second, the learning and tinkering is already done outside of class. Third, you can focus on formal learning processes and content with your students or trainees. Finally, the learners expect to be able to use them at work and at play. This way learning becomes naturally seamless instead of just constrained to a time and place.

It’s about killing a few birds with one stone. A stone that has an expected use, but if used innovatively, might redefine how we teach.


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