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Posts Tagged ‘lms

Every now and then I revisit my growing list of thoughts on LMS.

At best, LMS are necessary evils. They house announcements that can automatically be disseminated to students in a variety of ways. This is convenient and effective from an administrative point of view. Whether students actually act on the announcements is separate matter.

Modern LMS often have add-ons that compare student-submitted assignments to a large database (created by generations of students). While touted as anti-plagiarism tools, they are mislabelled. They are comparison and matching tools. Whether someone has plagiarised or not is often a human decision, not a computer-generated number.

So why am I mostly anti-LMS?

Instructors and students will most likely point out the poor usability of most LMS. Navigation is confusing, organisational logic is administrative instead of pedagogical, and it is generally not mobile-friendly.

But I have deeper concerns.

The first is bad experiences. LMS are a function of policies and the people who police them. I have had an account and several years worth of content deleted without notice. Export-import processes between semesters or versions of LMS are inconsistent and unreliable.

My second is research. In my previous work capacity, I conducted studies of how educators used educational technology to enhance or enable learning. One of my findings was how the pedagogically most innovative were not constrained by LMS.

My third concern is how the implementation of LMS might counter institutional missions. One partner I work with has a mission of promoting lifelong learning. However, this is not possible if learners do not have lifelong access to resources and ideas which are either trapped in or removed from LMS.

These are admittedly rushed and brief thoughts on LMS. I only revisit my archived reflections after writing my current thoughts. I try to give LMS providers the benefit of changing for the better. However, I find myself being remarkably consistent over the years. Perhaps I am getting more narrow-minded as I get older. Perhaps LMS are not getting better.


Today I resume facilitating a Masters course that I designed. In the weeks I spent preparing for it, I was reminded why I prefer semi-open online platforms over closed LMS.

The institutional LMS is the default for most instructors, but not for me. Why? LMS are designed by programmers and sanctioned by administrators, neither of whom are likely to empathise with teaching and learning.

LMS also suffer from feature bloat. As parallel, consider just how many Microsoft Word features has versus the ones you actually use. LMS vendors are in an arms race to offer as many services as possible and to charge by subscription. Very few users, if any, take advantage of all the tools. As a result, LMS try to please many and end up satifying none.

The bewildering user interfaces of most LMS are developed mostly by programmers. They seem to not have learnt the three-click rule (perhaps shortened to two clicks now) of finding what you need. The main navigation also tends to run down the old-school side instead of at the top (like most applications) or be “accordioned” behind the newer “burger” or three dot menu.

But my major complaint is that I cannot access the previous semester’s resources. This is because of administrative policy to remove them by default. This means that neither I nor my students have long-term access to learning resources.

I make that last point clear to my students at the start of any course that I facilitate. A university might operate by semesters, but human learning does not. I might be ready to teach you something, but that does not mean you are prepared to learn it at that time or in that short space of time. They need access beyond a semester.

ADL551 Google Site

So I tend to use platforms that run on a wiki engine, e.g., Google Sites. These are free, managed by me, have only features I need, and are visually and cognitively sensible. They even auto-adjust to mobile screens so there is no need to double code.

As sites like these are still linked to university courses, they are semi-open. As I have granular control of who accesses the site, I opt to allow view access by email authorisation. This recreates the LMS walled garden. However, I leave the resources online and do not deny previous batches of students the right to return to the sites when they need a refresher.

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.

I have avoided reading and reviewing this opinion piece Analytics can help universities better support students’ learning. When I scanned the content earlier this month, my edtech Spidey sense got triggered. Why?

Take the oft cited reason for leveraging on the data: They “provide information for faculty members to formulate intervention strategies to support individual students in their learning.”

Nowhere in the op piece was there mention of students giving permission for their data to be used that way. Students are paying for an education and a diploma; they are not paying to be data-mined.

I am not against enhancing better study or enabling individualisation of learning. I am against the unethical or unsanctioned use of student data.

Consider the unfair use of student-generated data. Modern universities rely on learning management systems (LMS) for blended and online learning. These LMS are likely to integrate plagiarism checking add-ons like Turnitin. When students submit their work, Turnitin gets an ever-increasing and improving database. It also charges its partner universities hefty subscription fees for the service.

Now take a step back: Students pay university fees while helping a university partner and the university partner makes money off student-generated data. What do students get back in return?

Students do not necessarily learn how to be more responsible academic writers. They might actually learn to game the system. Is that worth their data?

Back to the article. It highlighted two risks:

First, an overly aggressive use of such techniques can be overbearing for students. Second, there is a danger of adverse predictions/expectations leading to self-fulfilling prophecies.

These are real risks, but they sidestep the more fundamental issues of data permissions and fair use. What is done to protect students when they are not even aware of how and when their data is used?

This is not about having a more stringent version of our PDPA* — perhaps an act that disallows any agency from sharing our data with third parties without our express consent.

It is about not telling students that their data is used for behavioural pattern recognition and to benefit a third party. While not on the scale of what Cambridge Analytica did to manipulate political elections, the principle is the same — unsanctioned and potentially unethical use of a population’s data.

*I wonder why polytechnics are included in the list of agencies (last updated 18 March 2013) responsible for personal data protection but universities are not.

As if I needed more reasons to dislike how LMS are implemented…

The new semester started three weeks ago and I am already grading student work. This would be standard fare for me if not for two things that happened this year.

I discovered that I could no longer log in to the institutional LMS. This was the first time since 2015 that I had been locked out. Why? Someone in IT decided to remove all adjunct accounts without telling those most affected by the move.

So I started the first week of semester without access to the LMS. Fortunately, I do not rely much on the clunky layout and closed nature of the LMS. Instead I maintain almost all content and activities on an alternative platform.

Reminder number 1: Always have an alternative.

Fast forward to Week 3 when the first assignment was due for grading. Despite getting having my login reinstated, I discovered that all my customised Turnitin Feedback Studio (TFS) comments were gone. This meant I lost about eight semesters worth of cumulative work in one fell swoop.

I had taken the precaution of manually copying and pasting my comments to a private Google Doc. At last count six months ago, my collection of comments was nine page long. I am slowly repopulating my comments in TFS as I grade assignments.

Reminder number 2: Backup, backup, backup.

IT and LMS can be a good thing from an administrative and control point of view. But it is also disempowering and frustrating.

I would rather use any platform other than an institutional LMS. Over the years, I have reflected on why. Most recently I mentioned a paradigm shift in edtech.

But here are some simple and pragmatic reasons why I prefer to operate outside an LMS.

Reliability: Platforms likes Google Sites have near-perfect uptime. It would take a catastrophic failure for them to be unavailable over a long stretch of time. They operate over redundant servers so that the end user does not ever see “scheduled maintenance” notices.

Transferability: It is a chore to export courses from one semester to another. Even as LMS providers make this process easier, the fact remains that course resources are not available indefinitely and importing them to a new section can result in accidents. This happens most often when an LMS “upgrades”.

Indefinite access: Nothing lasts forever, but open platforms that stand the test of time have it in their interest to keep users and customers. I have resources from over a decade ago that are still online and occasionally still referred to. How do I know? I get email notifications when this happens.

Mobile responsiveness: Most LMS providers are not mobile responsive. Instead they create feature poor apps for things like notifications, announcements, polling, and attendance-taking. But when I create a course site in Google Sites, content is automatically adjusted for smaller mobile devices.

Flexibility: I can use and embed just about any other edtech tool in an open platform. I do not have to rely on LMS API or be be held back by backward IT policy. The edtech world changes quickly and features come and go, but this also means I learn to be flexible instead of simply relying on LMS inertia or repetitive practice semester over semester.

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Let’s not kid ourselves — learning management systems (LMS) are not designed for student-centred learning.

This is how LMS are typically procured by educational institutions: Administrative and IT staff first attend technology roadshows or the vendor area of conferences. Then the LMS vendors court these staff over meetings at their respective offices.

Rarely, if ever, are academic staff or students involved in such meetings and decision-making. The implementations are thus administratively and delivery oriented.

Optimistically, the LMS set ups are often designed with distant memories of what classes look like. Realistically, they are driven by efficiency instead of effectiveness. Checking all the boxes during an audit matters more than if learning happens or if it matters.

How might the L and LMS be minimally reinstated given these practical realities?

Consider two different institutes of higher education (IHL), A and B.

Both rely on an LMS to host courses for undergraduate and graduate courses. Both have policy that instructors use the LMS as the primary (or only) platform.

IHL A has 240 students taking a course. All students need to access shared resources from a “mother ship” course in the LMS (this mimics lectures). Each student is also assigned to a “baby ship” along with 19 other students within the same LMS (this mimics tutorials). This results in 12 baby ships and one mother ship in the LMS.

The reason for the mother ship is administrative efficiency. It is easier to populate and update one course than to do this 20 times. But a result of this design is that every student sees TWO listings for each course — one mother ship, one baby ship — when they log in to the LMS. Since they take several courses, their course listings get unnecessarily long and potentially confusing.

IHL B also has 240 students taking a course. Like IHL A, all students need shared resources but separate class spaces. However, students from IHL B see only ONE course listing for each course. This is because the class spaces are created within the main umbrella course.

LMS designs.

Rising above, IHL A’s design is like parallel train tracks that run close to one another, but never overlap. IHL B’s design is like an umbrella with spokes. IHL B’s design of courses in LMS is better because students see only one course (the umbrella) while still being able to access their own class space (spokes).

IHL B’s design is also better because it sees how students might be confused with two listings per course. When there is more than one listing, errors like where to submit assignments or hold discussions happen.

IHL A has a less student-centric view of learners and learning. It is driven by a sense of everything-in-place without considering the learner experience. Its IT group might also not know how to create “umbrellas” or be held hostage by the LMS provider because such a feature invokes a subscription cost.

The change in design is matter of financial priorities, empathy for students, and learning about better alternatives. As challenging as this might be, it is no match for the next issue.

Like most IHLs, both A and B remove access to courses from learners after a semester or two. This is the traditional walled garden mindset: Students need credentials to access the courses and their access is limited. Both seem reasonable until you decide to be more learner-centred.

Students do not always learn on a university’s schedule. The need or context for learning might not be real. Just because a course is ready does not mean that the learner is.

More importantly, progressive IHLs wishing to stay relevant will jump on the “lifelong learning” bandwagon. While one approach is to keep offering new courses, this is not possible or sustainable over the long term. Courses take a long time to create and much effort to facilitate and maintain. Access to existing courses is key to promoting lifelong and lifewide learning.

My suggestion to provide indefinite access to courses will fall on deaf ears because of an assortment of reasons, storage constraints being one. This is where IHLs need to learn from YouTube and Amazon. From YouTube they might learn how to leverage on user-generated content and open hosting; from YouTube and Amazon they might learn how algorithms suggest content.

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