Reading the LMS against the Backdrop of Critical Pedagogy, Part Two

This is the second part of a two-part article about critical pedagogy and the learning management system. You can find part one here.

“The pupil is thereby ‘schooled’ to confuse teaching with learning, grade advancement with education, a diploma with competence, and fluency with the ability to say something new.” ~Ivan Illich

There is an essential difference between the ‘science’ of education, positivism, evidence-based teaching, and behaviorism (which I see as coterminous within the LMS) and the ideas of education forwarded by critical pedagogy. The two are, in effect, almost impossible to engage in a dialogue because their aims for and perspectives on learning are fundamentally different. Whereas the LMS (and all that the technology implies) provides a data-driven means of controlling student behavior—modifying it through methods of reward and punishment—critical pedagogy’s primary aim is the liberation of students from systems that oppress them. To achieve this, critical pedagogy engages in operations of analysis and inquiry focused on structures like the LMS—but also grading, assessment, and more—that are normally assumed quantities in the equation of education.

But more than that, critical pedagogy is pedagogical precisely because its efforts are not solely trained on school. Rather, school becomes the site where students’ critical apparatuses can be explored and applied. The classroom becomes a lab for critical pedagogy, where, in discussion with a teacher, learners come to recognize the shape and content of the means of oppression—both at the school and in society at large. Henry Giroux writes in On Critical Pedagogy,

I expand the meaning and theory of pedagogy as part of an ongoing individual and collective struggle over knowledge, desire, values, social relations, and, most important, modes of political agency …

For me, pedagogy is part of an always unfinished project intent on developing a meaningful life for all students. Such a project becomes relevant to the degree that it provides the pedagogical conditions for students to appropriate the knowledge and skills necessary to address the limits of justice in democratic societies. (Loc. 92 & 103)

In other words, becoming critical in a classroom is preparation for remaining critical when students enter the mainstream of work, consumerism, politics, and, increasingly important, the digital society of social media, entertainment, news media, and more.

The LMS was not designed to, as Giroux puts it, “address the limits of justice in democratic societies.” In some of my talks with leadership at Instructure in the early days of their Canvas LMS, they seemed very much in agreement with me about ideas like student agency, identity, empowerment, student-centered classrooms, and the like. They hoped that their LMS made room for teachers to adopt all kinds of pedagogies, including critical pedagogy. These were exciting discussions, and the first I’d heard of an educational technology company that was truly interested in education and not just technology.

However, in those discussions we were skipping upon the surface of the water. In order for an LMS to function, it must assume itself integral to the learning process, must operate as a determinant in education. The makers of Canvas couldn’t look at their product as optional, couldn’t market it as a by-product of a philosophy that reduces students to “rats and pigeons,” nor could they build a container for learning that invited students to question the notion that learning can be contained.

At all levels, the LMS is a capitalist structure that participates in the idea that education is about production. The LMS must, as Illich says in the epigraph above, “confuse teaching with learning, grade advancement with education.” If it fails in that project, it fails to be saleable. And in the end, the LMS is for sale. As with anything that’s for sale, the user (in this case, the institution, then the teacher, then the student) must be convinced that the product is essential.

Critical pedagogy never assumes any product is essential. It assumes that human agency is essential, identity formation is essential, justice is essential, and the human will and capacity to resist and create change are essential. Paulo Freire writes, in Pedagogy of Indignation:

To the extent that we accept that the economy, or technology, or science, it doesn’t matter what, exerts inescapable power over us, there is nothing left for us to do other than renounce our ability to think, to conjecture, to compare, to choose, to decide, to envision, to dream. (33)

By choosing to inspect a product—in our case, the LMS, but this can apply to any educational technology or teaching practice touted by ed tech makers (e.g., the Google certified educator whose practice is supplanted by product placement)—we enter into a critical relationship with our tools and practices, stripping them of their mystique and unassailability, and can come to conclusions about them that are not foregone, not written by an advertiser.

All of that said, the ubiquity of the LMS must be dealt with. We cannot simply wish it away, nor wish it to be different. It’s not the approach of critical pedagogy to ignore the tools and systems that oppress, nor to engage in wishful thinking. Rather, critical pedagogy focuses on the way things are in order to construct an understanding of the way things can or should be. Giroux writes “education has a responsibility not only to search for the truth regardless of where it may lead but also to educate students to make authority politically and morally accountable” (Loc. 261). We cannot see our way clear to justice if we don’t see clearly the systems that obscure justice.

Yet, one of the objections I encounter often when talking about critiquing and confronting the LMS and other educational technology is that it is mandated for use by an institution. Especially for adjunct teachers—an academic population that’s persistently increasing and whose continued employment is precarious—butting heads with the LMS and the administration that supports it is too risky. Similarly, teachers whose authority in the classroom is less immediately visible because they are not straight, white, cisgender men are understandably cautious to engage the work of critical pedagogy when simply asserting presence can be a challenge.

So, how do we face off with the LMS in ways both critical and which might yet allow us to cooperate with our institutions and reasonably succeed as instructors? Is it necessary to stop using the LMS? Or are there ways to invite students into an inspection and critique of this tool even while they are asked to use it?

For example, in many online courses the designer or teacher will ask students to complete a “syllabus quiz,” an over-architected assessment of a student’s willingness and ability to uncover the requirements of a class. What if instead, students were invited to talk about their assumptions about the LMS—about discussions, about how assignments are submitted, about grading—and to say openly both what they like and find problematic about the platform? What if students were asked to research the LMS itself, the company that created it, the politics behind it, its pedagogical assumptions? Or, what if a teacher confided in students the ways in which their teaching philosophy aligned or did not align with the pedagogies baked into the LMS?

When I enter a physical classroom, the first thing I look for is the arrangement of chairs. I want moveable chairs, seats that can be formed into a circle, that don’t necessarily situate learners in rows in front of a podium. Podiums have their use at times, but I want options. Perhaps inviting students (and teacher) into an inspection of the LMS right at the start of the term is a way of “rearranging” the chairs by calling out the architecture of the digital room we find ourselves in.

A step beyond this initial inspection might find us offering students the opportunity to participate in digital education in new ways. Do they want to “meet” somewhere besides the LMS? Twitter? Slack? Facebook? What are the affordances and problems with those platforms? What happens to grading when we leave the LMS (and what role does grading play in learning)? Is there a desire for more synchronous interaction, and how can that be facilitated; similarly, what are the affordances of asynchronous interaction?

While this sort of exploration and inquiry may seem to interfere with the curriculum of a course (the learning objectives, required materials, mastery), I argue that they could be the first, most important steps when teaching online or in a digitally mediated environment. This is critical thinking—divorced of assessment, divorced of learning objectives—that aligns with the goals of a critical pedagogy. Giroux provides that

Critical pedagogy asserts that students can engage their own learning from a position of agency and in so doing can actively participate in narrating their identities through a culture of questioning that opens up a space of translation between the private and the public while changing the forms of self-and social recognition. (Loc. 287)

In fact, in a classroom where success will be measured by the mastery of specific material, a critical inspection of the learning environment may be students’ only opportunity to “actively participate in narrating their identities.” As well, as Audrey Watters writes, “Education technology and its influencers must be viewed through the lens of social justice … otherwise we will continue to ignore how ed-tech serves to exacerbate inequality and re-inscribe whiteness, affluence, and the conspicuous consumption of gadgetry as signs of ‘innovation.'”

It’s possible that the single most important action we can take as digital educators and critical instructional designers is to ensure that learners have laid before them the capability to both know how the LMS exerts control over their learning, and to intervene upon that control to change it.

Put simply, I do not believe that the LMS is a useful or productive tool for learning. Its structure and infrastructure are too deeply biased by a “scientific” approach to teaching. It is built upon research and best practices, and its aim is the collection of data, the control of student behavior, and the production of narratives of power. Freire offers:

Our testimony … if we dream of a less aggressive, less unjust, less violent, more human society, must be that of saying ‘no’ to any impossibility determined by the ‘facts’ and that of defending a human being’s capacity for evaluating, comparing, choosing, deciding, and finally intervening in the world. (37)

I would like to imagine a less aggressive, more human digital learning, even if that seems impossible.


Photo by Mike Erskine on Unsplash

Sean Morris

One Response to “Reading the LMS against the Backdrop of Critical Pedagogy, Part Two

  • Hi Sean.

    Not sure if you’re aware, but there is a group of high school teachers asking these types of questions and we would love to learn, grow, and make change with you and those like you.

    I’ve been using Canvas for five years now. I too enjoyed their open and easy access to the people running the show and their stated optimism about what Canvas could become. About four years ago they visited our district regularly as they worked to secure our district signing up for the paid version. At the time I told them the following: when I ask my students what Canvas is- they say- it’s where we go to get assignments and see our grades.”

    I don’t think that’s what they laid out when we shared a dinner at ISTE 2012 in San Diego.

    As a district we chose Canvas because our teachers were spread all over the internet in spaces such as Google Sites, Edmodo, Schoology, Personal Sites, Facebook etc… this was a mess for students and parents. And while things are more organized, my online class space is nothing like my real life class space. This is a problem. I’ve struggled creating community in my Canvas “classroom” and options like YellowDig and Flipgrid act like nothing more than frosting on a tasteless cake.

    I feel like there is a disconnect between the philosophers and change agents of colleges and universities and the high school teachers who question the same idea. I wish there was some way to bring the two worlds together. If you have an solution for this problem, I’d love to hear it. I mean we can continue to buy University level books like “English Composition As A Happening” or “Remixing Composition” but it would be nice if I didn’t always feel like high school teachers are sitting at the kid’s table while the grown-ups are having adult conversations.

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