The Open Web and the LMS

Before the start of almost every semester, I find myself taking inventory of the various tools I use to do my job and asking whether there’s something better. I feel a bit like a contractor preparing his truck for a job — I want to make sure I have everything I need, because I don’t want to waste time focusing on the wrong things once I get to the job site. How should I provide updates and information to my students? Where should I post notes, outlines, slides, assignments? Should these things be on the open web, or tucked safely behind a learning management system (LMS)? Do students want to take quizzes and submit assignments online? Should I have them email those to me, should I do that within a LMS, or should I use something offered by the textbook publisher?

For most of these questions, one answer is to use Blackboard. It does most, if not all, of the tasks listed above, integrates with our campus registration system (unless you happen to teach cross-listed courses, but I digress), works reasonably well, is familiar to the students, and the university is already paying for it. Why wouldn’t I use it? When colleagues ask that question, my reply usually includes something about how difficult I find it to do the various tasks I want to do, how many clicks it takes to do something. For instance, how do I decide where to put the stuff so that students will find it? Is this an assignment, or content, or a file, or an announcement, or what? But it’s beginning to dawn on me that my hesitation to use a LMS goes deeper than usability — my own or that of my students.

Building with borrowed tools

To return to the contractor analogy, using an LMS feels a lot like building with someone else’s tools. Sure, it’s probably going to do the job, but things just don’t quite feel the same as using your own. In addition to the issue of feel, there is a sense when I’m using a LMS that everything I post has to fit in one of the categories defined by the system. The answer to this problem in particular seems to be for the software designers to create a whole lot of nooks and crannies to file things in hopes that at least something will seem like the right place for the instructor to add that content. This always leaves the users (both instructor and student) in want, though, because it feels like the order is backward: the information shouldn’t be organized in service of a system, but rather the system should support the information by getting out of the way. I always feel like I’m fighting against the system when I add information and try to make it discoverable and linked where appropriate. I suppose the other approach, which many professors apparently follow, is to dump absolutely everything into a single bucket and let the students hash out the germs of value from the chaff. (This happens all the time, from what I hear.)

Building on someone else’s land

If my problem were just a matter of borrowing tools, I might be able to get over it, but it’s not. In January, as I prepared for another semester and spent several hours setting up my courses in a LMS, it became clear to me that I’m not just borrowing tools, I’m also building my course on land that is not my own. In fact, if I’m really using the capabilities of the system, I’m spending hours and hours loading information into this system that is a shadow of the web, a sandboxed web, walled off from the real thing. If and when I stop using it, that information (and the time it took to produce it) is most likely lost. Maybe the system provides a way to download my course if I want to, but what useful thing could I do with it then? I’d have to write my own software to parse that file and make any sense of it, let alone to make use of it in some other system.

Redeeming Qualities

My feelings toward the LMS are not all negative, though. One of the best things about a closed LMS is just that — it is closed to the outside, allowing instructors to keep certain material off the public web. If I were to post all of my slides online for my students, I’d have to remove all the copyrighted figures I use from the textbook, which would be a big bummer. I don’t make the posting of slides a habit, but an LMS with authentication sidesteps this issue. Ideally, I would design my own figures and could share them as freely as I chose, but I haven’t done that yet. Another important use of a system with authentication is for posting grades, which students seem to expect. I know of no way around this other than to use some kind of closed system to keep this information confidential. A third feature of an LMS is handling work submitted by students. I have tried to collect student writing by email, and it sucks. A good LMS at least has the potential to make this suck less, and could actually save me time if designed well. For example, I just graded a short assignment in Instructure Canvas using their SpeedGrader feature, and I have to confess, it was slick. I’m looking forward to using it again later in the semester, and might even use the peer review feature rather than managing all that on my own.

Conclusion/Compromises

So for now, I see a role for both the open web and a closed LMS occupying different parts of my toolkit for teaching. The trick for me is to keep as much as possible in my own web space, and use the LMS for things for which it is essential (copyrighted material, grades, student submissions). It’s schizophrenic, and some students don’t like having to look in more than one place. What I’m finding is that I tend to use the LMS for some classes, and the open web for other classes, and this minimizes student consternation over where to look for class materials. Making a goal of posting more on the open web has also motivated me to go back and create more of my own materials, too, which has been a great side-effect.

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3 thoughts on “The Open Web and the LMS”

  1. Chris, I found this post to be especially thought-provoking, esp. the sustainability issues you raise.

    RE: “Building on someone else’s land,” are you familiar with SCORM and the platform portability it (ideally) enables? Supposedly, Blackboard Learn 9.1 implemented a SCORM-compliant engine as part of SP6.

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