Bean Bags in the LMS
Recently, I spoke with an English teacher at the University of Dayton who despaired over the cold, sterile environment the LMS creates for students and teachers alike. She asked why should she not be able to create a comfortable space for dialogue in her course? “I want my LMS to have bean bags in it, so that students can have a comfortable place to talk, to study, to engage.”
The LMS doesn’t come with bean bags, unfortunately. And while Canvas, Middlebury’s new learning management solution, provides a level of ease in both design and function, it isn’t necessarily cozy. Or beautiful. The LMS isn’t a place where we want to hang out.
Education and learning are tied in our imaginations to the aesthetic. We’ve all been exposed to the dream of a beautiful classroom. High windows, old wooden desks, a chalkboard, creaking hardwood floors, contemplative little dust motes floating through the filtered sunshine lazily spread upon it all. In counterpoint to this, we have an innate understanding of the dorm room, the well-ordered mess of papers and books and posters—and yes, bean bags—where studying happens right alongside conversation, video games, and hanging out.
The most compassionate instructional designers will say they love students, and they will talk about designing for student-centeredness. Or they’ll talk about creating authentic learning experiences. Hearts in the right places, these instructional designers really truly do work hard to make space for students inside the courses they create.
But it’s very hard to escape the pedagogies baked into any learning management system—and here I use that term broadly, to refer to any of the processes, methods, or approaches we use to manage learning, online or off—pedagogies that have at their center a desire for efficiency, and which sterilize difference, intersectionality, and diversity in the name of standardized, replicable instruction.
One of the primary influences on instructional design (and online learning as a consequence) is educational psychology. One of the founding fathers, B. F. Skinner, made an argument for the utility of teaching machines in educational settings. While he believed that learning happens outside of formal institutions, he held firmly to the notion that formal education could be (perhaps should be) systematized.
In his chapter “The Technology of Teaching“, B. F. Skinner asserts that:
The application of operant conditioning to education is simple and direct. Teaching is the arrangement of contingencies of reinforcement under which students learn. They learn without teaching in their natural environments, but teachers arrange special contingencies which expedite learning, hastening the appearance of behaviour which would otherwise be acquired slowly or making sure of the appearance of behaviour which might otherwise never occur (429-430).
Traditional instructional design relies heavily on this idea, and on Skinner’s ideas of the utility of teaching machines (the precursor to the modern LMS). Operant conditioning and the manipulation of response to stimuli (stimuli which today we call content) are at the heart of theories that support instructional design, from Bloom’s Taxonomy to competency-based learning.
The problem with taxonomical (and economical) educational models is that, in their construction, they purport to offer a model for the way learning happens consistently; in other words, taxonomical approaches don’t leave much to the imagination, they delimit possibility, and in fact make imagination and possibility unnecessary.
As Amy Collier has observed, that aiming to make learning efficient
has had the effect of 1) narrowing our views of what learning is, thus ignoring more humanistic, holistic, critical, and speculative approaches to learning; and 2) narrowing our views of what learning looks like and what counts as valid research on learning, thus ignoring more humanistic, holistic, critical, and speculative approaches.
The LMS and Instructional Design
Tools are not neutral, but neither are we. The LMS, in its structure and crude politeness, can be a place where we allow ourselves a certain kind of rambunctiousness. But to get to that rambunctiousness, we need to recognize our own agency, and the pedagogy “baked into” the LMS. Elsewhere, I assert that:
“the LMS convinced us that teaching online was not only possible, it was easy — that digital pedagogy was a mere work of relocation. Take your lectures and your assignments, create a slideshow or a video or a piece of audio, load it all up, and there you have it: online learning.”
When we enter the LMS as a designer or a teacher (or, hopefully, as a student), we may well need to recognize it as an opportunity for resistance. And if not resistance, then invention. We cannot let ourselves be cowed or convinced by learning management systems and their built-in pedagogies, but rather must recognize our own ability to utilize their affordances and hack their limitations.
And this goes for all digital tools.
Instructional design is, or should be, nothing less than pedagogy intelligent about the medium within which learning happens. If you teach in an LMS, you are an instructional designer. If you teach in a room, you are an instructional designer. At our institutions, instructional designers or engineers or technologists should be as filled in about pedagogy as teachers are. They should not content themselves to be carriers of content from one format to the next. They should be experts in digital delivery, and consultants to collaborate with.
We should expect more from design than right-justified images. We should expect more from design than alignment of outcomes to content to assessment to rubrics to grades. Everything doesn’t have to end with grades. In fact, nothing should end with grades.
We should expect more from our online courses. We should expect more from digital learning.
Been Dune Okay? image by JD Hancock licensed CC BY 2.0.