Sunday, July 9, 2017

It's Not You, It’s Me: Our Love/Hate Relationship with Learning Management Systems

I know LinkedIn has gotten its fair share of deserved criticism, but like so many other social networking tools, the experience is what you make it. In general, I’ve found some pretty insightful articles and webinars that others have posted, and with Lynda and the new Jobs feature, LinkedIn seems to be adapting and evolving to meet the needs of its members. So this week, after I joined our class group, I spent a few minutes checking out some of the recent posts. As is normally the case, I found something interesting: Josh Bersin's "The Disruption of Digital Learning."

Bersin’s article is thoughtful and detailed, but what grabbed my attention was his discussion of the rise and possible fall of the almighty LMS. Bersin is focused mainly on the use of LMSs in corporate environments, but some of his points could easily be understood in terms of education. In the past ten years, I have been involved with the changing of LMSs at every university with which I’ve ever been affiliated, from the perspective of a student, a faculty member, a trainer, and an administrator. From eCollege to Blackboard to LearningStudio (RIP) to D2L to Canvas and the countless others that I have so sadly forgotten – it seems like we’re all in search of something better, more engaging, and cheaper. With the insane amount of pressure that goes into rolling out a new LMS at a university-wide level, I sincerely believe that when those decisions are made, they are done so with the expectation that all the headaches will be worth it. But, as Bersin suggests, maybe LMSs are slowly become artifacts used more for their cataloging abilities than anything directly connected with learning.

A few weeks back, I was at a teaching conference and one of the speakers made the statement that learning in the 21st Century is much more about being able to find the answers than it is about knowing the answers. From a theoretical perspective, I struggle with this a little. Isn’t part of knowledge knowing things? But as someone who is dedicated to understanding teaching and learning, I see the value and truth in this statement. After all, memorizing facts doesn’t equate to knowledge. It makes sense that I’m a bit torn because, as I learned this week, I’m part of a micro generation that falls snuggly between Gen Xers and Millennials known as Xennials - those of us with analogue childhoods and digital adulthoods. And all of this is relevant because it impacts the way I understand Bersin’s argument.

He makes the statement that learning is all about meeting learners where they are and that’s where LMSs fall short. And I tend to agree with him. So I started thinking about the way I’ve always, no matter what names they went by, used LMSs. I’d like to think that my courses were built as dynamic, interactive sites that allowed users to learn and engage with the materials and their classmates, but in reality, I’ve been using them mostly as storage. Ugh, that’s not Web 2.0 at all. But what about the cool, interactive things I’ve incorporated like wikis and adaptive learning technologies? Oh, no, I don’t think those count either. They are linked under the LMS, but they live outside under different platforms. Maybe Bersin’s right, maybe “today’s LMS is much more of a compliance management system, serving as a platform for record-keeping."

So where do we, in education, go from here? Bersin presents several options, but in the world of state budgets, accreditation, and FERPA, we’re not quite ready for those options yet – a discussion similar to the one we had in the data analytics class. 

His argument, though, is solid. Ongoing, continuous macro-learning isn’t really possible though the use of LMSs. Some of us place a great deal of value on Web 2. 0 for learning, and rightfully so, but the problems and complications we have with that mindset go far beyond the limitations of our LMS. We’re beginning to see the importance of meeting learners where they are, engaging in active learning, and applying interdisciplinary skills across students' academic experiences, but, in the simplest terms, that’s because that’s what we do. Those styles of teaching aren’t the norm yet, and sometimes I think we forget that. It's not a matter of changing LMSs, it's a matter of shifting the paradigm. 

Bersin is right, but for us, there’s a lot more on trial here than the features of our LMS. Our universities are at crossroads far beyond simple teaching styles and technologies. As institutions, we’ve learned so much about learning in the past 30 years that we haven’t been able to (or in some cases haven’t wanted to) keep up. Maybe that’s why as I read Bersin’s article I kept thinking, well, that wouldn’t work in education. But why wouldn’t it?

In the opening of this post I mentioned that social networking is what you make of it, but I don’t think we’re there yet in education. We still hold pretty closely to the idea that our jobs are to provide information and give answers. But maybe that’s where we could learn something from Web 2.0. Maybe we should place more value on the students and their abilities to find solutions (and our abilities to guide rather than give) and engage with their communities instead of limiting them to the confines of the physical walls of the classroom or, in this case, the password protected walls of the LMS. 

In reality, and with all education theory aside, if LMS providers are giving institutions what they want, then their abilities say a lot more about us than they do about them.

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