Parsing the box

My friend Matt blogged this morning about how the concept of the Learning Management System is misguided. I agree with the gist of what he says there, but there are some ways in which I think that the anti-LMS rhetoric can be easily overgeneralized. The metaphor of the LMS as a “box” is telling: quite unpleasant indeed, but somewhat ambiguous in just what the problems of the LMS really are. From my point of view, there are different ways in which LMSs function like boxes, and not all of them are equally bad, or at least not bad in the same way.

First, there is the sense in which LMSs fossilize a certain teacher-centered model of learning, preventing both the instructor and the student from pursuing a different kind of learning model. In this sense, the box keeps people enclosed, and this does indeed seem like a bad thing.

Second, the box keeps other people out – this is the box’s tendency away from openness. LMSs are by and large closed to people not directly involved in the class. Generally speaking, openness is a worthwhile thing to aspire to, but surely it must be granted (by anyone who takes seriously the idea of teaching our students the intricacies of identifying and reacting to audience) that there are some classroom scenarios in which pedagogical goals can only be met in a closed space. Aside from this pedagogical consideration, there are more legalistic reasons for wanting a walled garden – the reproduction of copyrighted materials for educational purposes, for example. Now, I realize that there are ways to replicate this feature of the LMS outside of the LMS proper, ways that make closedness optional. Moreover, I think there’s a tendency on the behalf of many educators to default to the closed system out of fear or laziness, and this tendency should be challenged. Yet there remain some cases where the closed boxiness of the LMS is – at least in theory – something to be desired.

Third, the LMS is a box in the same way that this is a box, bringing together a bunch of popular material into one relatively convenient set. The purist will always argue that you’re better off buying the individual albums, that there’s so much richness you lose when you lose the context of the record. But the purist already owns every Zeppelin album and thus has already gone through the learning process, while the intended market for the box set has not. Likewise, the WP purist will always argue that Wordpress (or whatever the pet tech happens to be) is so much better than the bundled version. Like the Zep purist, the WP purist will almost always be right about the superiority of “the real thing”. But the purist is a geek, and speaks from the geek’s point of view. For the non-geek, there are lots of practical reasons to prefer the ease and convenience of the box. And even the staunchest purist would never wish to deprive the neophyte of Stairway to Heaven just because the neophyte doesn’t want to buy every Zeppelin record.

There are lots of reasons to want to rid oneself and one’s university of the LMS. But just because LMSs are, on balance, pretty awful doesn’t mean that everything about them is awful.

2 thoughts on “Parsing the box

  1. Patrick Murray-John

    I actually think about that walled garden for copyrighted materials from the opposite direction, especially since in many cases that’s just concealing a copyright violation, not preventing it, and so doesn’t quite fall under fair use (it often still fails the ‘right to make money’ consideration). So, both for better fair use practices, and to encourage more creation and use of public or Creative Commons material, I lean toward wanting to see that use of the box go away, too.

    Not entirely sure about the last variety of ‘box’ you look at. Maybe here’s a place where we can take the good and bad from an LMS and find a better way to create those sets?

  2. Matt

    Great post, Boone. I love your delineation of various types of LMS boxes, and I agree with your last point — the ways in which boxes can function to gather together similar objects (or similar learners) is an important function that my “get rid of all LMS’s” conveniently ignores.

    However, I’d make two points about that:

    First, it seems to me that one of the best aspects of the small-pieces-loosely-joined approach is that it takes full advantage of RSS feeds to allow classrooms to be configured, reconfigured, and distributed in different ways. One can still gather blog RSS feeds from a classroom into a box; but one can also reconfigure that box as one chooses. Thus, a SPLJ (small-pieces-loosely-joined) box is akin to a box with holes in it, a box that can be endlessly remade, on the fly, according to the student or teacher’s wishes. It is a box that is flexible in a way that most LMS’s are not.

    Second, what bothers me most about LMS’s is that they pre-define what online learning is. In an LMS, learning activities are those that can be completed within the parameters of the LMS system that is being used. And, in an age in which so many different kinds of applications and learning experiences are appearing every day, I see no reason to limit online learning to the old blogs, wikis, DB formula.


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