Un-Managing Learning Management Systems – A possible future for online learning

Derek’s link and commentary on Scott Wilson’s inaugural post The VLE of the Future has spurred me into illustrator action to try and explain why I think that the Online Learning Environment (OLE – I prefer that to Virtual, it’s very real I think) is indeed going to be an aggregator integrated with other aggregators.

So what’s with the the title of this post, well, as much as we might quibble about if it’s a VLE or an OLE more often than not I hear the WebCTs and Blackboards of the world referred to and Learning Management Systems (LMSs) and after so much pushing of alternative vocabulary / acronyms, this doesn’t just seem to be sticking but in fact growing (I swore I’d never do this but google searches for LMS – 2.2m and for VLE – 493k). Why? Well, I think that’ s fairly obvious… because that’s what they are.

We’re obsessed with management, I reckon. Managing our finances, managing our workplaces, managing our kids schooling, managing our expectations, managing our knowledge, managing things to such a degree that we have squashed personality, differences, argument and life. Needless to say we’ve been scared out of any possibility of incorporating subversion into our design and development… from a business perspective. As David Weinberger put it in cluetrain, we live in “a profoundly managed age” where “we manage our households, our children, our wildlife, our ecological environment. And that which is unmanaged strikes us as bad: weeds, riots, cancer.”

And so our LMSs cater to this very well indeed. They provide the most stunning potential for auditing teaching and learning ever seen, they force their users to (on the whole) adopt uniform presentation strategies, they almost entirely do away with individual ownership of material, communication and personal space and they impose upon teachers pedagogies and strategies which those managing the process find to be acceptable… and if you do dare to mess with anything then you’re accountable to policy and procedure in this area which, quite probably includes the kind of IT restrictions that are necessary to maintain the ‘managed’ environment and hence prevent any sort of deviation, subversion or individual expression.

So, if I was a betting man I’d say that the future of the OLE is, probably, unfortunately, the LMS. But, it doesn’t have to be that way…

I reckon that through weblogs and aggregation we can un-manage OLEs, we can, dare I say, incorporate subversion into our learning technologies and we can stop the rot of terrible student evaluations, frustrated and alienated teachers and encroaching managerialism into teaching and learning and what I’d like to do, briefly, is examine two possible models.

Blog OLEs

The first of these is, unfortunately, the one that I think will take off quicker. What we have is a CMS acting as an OLE which facilitates the development of blogs within it, this is similar to the weblogs at upei initiative (which isn’t an OLE) and you can experience it for yourself if you set up a blog (by writing some blog posts) at the incsub association. This is do-able within a traditional OLE as you provide each learner with the capacity to develop a blog, aggregate these through the course homepage and so on.

That is not to say that this hasn’t been very successful however, obviously the weblogs@upei project has done extremely well, as have other communities founded around similar principles such as Kairos News and Urban Vancouver. BUT this is opt-in management, individuals who are using this are joining in the same spirit as one joins a listserv and are keen to participate in the community and hence work within it’s constraints. I don’t feel that this is the same in a class environment.

Take, for example, a typical tertiary student. In any one semester they may well be enrolled in four units each with an online presence each lasting effectively 13-14 weeks… now if each unit has a community and you ask that student to join these communities and keep a blog in each one… the question arises as to whether they would or not… and I’m betting that they wouldn’t (I certainly couldn’t be bothered). Factor into this the matter that they don’t ‘own’ their blogs (the community owns them), they most likely will just get archived / put away somewhere after the term has finished and the fact that probably (certainly presently) their ability to format / develop their bog individually is limited to, if their lucky, a new banner… and I think you’ll get some pretty unmotivated learners.

However, if that learner has their own blog ‘outside’ of the central, managed environment then things can start to look a bit different. Let’s say that in this case they are studying four units and they can simply create categories for each one (so postings relevant to that unit can go there and to their main blog if appropriate), that that category is then aggregated into the ‘central’ area (where unit guides, copyrighted study materials, core materials etc. can also be found) and that this blog also serves as a portfolio cum social tool for the student in question (as each learner has also been furnished with their own aggregator). The student in question owns the content, they are able to develop their blog as they choose and do with their content as they please, they are able to develop an online presence over an extended period of time and become parts of communities through their blog (communities that will form as naturally as communities form in f2f college) and they are able to subvert the technology in many wonderful ways (podcasting, photoblogging, vogging etc. etc.). It’s also their responsibility… and that is a great teacher in itself.

And that is what WordPress Multi User allows us to facilitate. Previously the only feasible option has been Manila which I find a bit too clumsy, proprietary and which costs (anything that costs never gets done around yer average institution without first going through enough red tape to kill off anything that was good about it in the first place) and I guess MT to a degree, but now, with development there is the potential for a fully fledged open source un-managed OLE based around blogs and aggregation.

What it needs is some bright spark who can do the code to figure out how to build it in with an aggregation / administration (like Schooltool)/ Content Management System and we’ll be away… any takers give me a shout!

35 replies on “Un-Managing Learning Management Systems – A possible future for online learning”

  1. Great post, great images. But remember, Drupal can do both. The Un-managed OLE portion is handled by the aggregator. Feed items can even act as first-class nodes by using the node_import module.

    And, you’re positing a single publish system. What if students tend to post from a tool like MarsEdit, Blogjet, or Ecto? Each “blog” is nothing more than a menu setting away, so it would be very simple to talk to multiple class environments.

    Or, have a single account across all class instances. Sign up at the central university server, then post in one location, and one of the “categories” are the classes you are allowed to post to. These are pushed out the class sites.

    Ownership is an interesting question. I agree, students will want to feel that it is “theirs”. Some won’t be capable of handling running their own, and others will feel more comfortable in a managed environment. Which is a bit like email. Some people use myname@school (or company, or ISP), while others use myname@mydomain.

    There is some work being done to allow for more customization and “ownership” of individal blogs within Drupal, as well as customized domains — i.e. myname.domain.com points to domain.com/blog/myname

    In any case, couldn’t Drupal still be the aggregation/admin/CMS portion of this?

    Will Pate [1] of GoodBasic [2] (who did weblogs@upei) is working with several educational initiatives to drive some of this stuff.

    [1] http://www.willpate.org
    [2] http://www.goodbasic.com

  2. Thanks for your comment Boris,

    Absolutely, the public aggreagation thing is something I think Drupal does well, it’s also got great forums (with email subscription built in) and wiki-ish functionality.

    I’d like to see a better ‘non-drupal’ document presentation service (i.e. .pdfs, .ppts etc.) and of course there’s the matter of integrating administrative data / logins with private storage areas and all of that stuff but there’s definitely potential there.

    I see what you’re saying with the multiple-blog posting tools but it seems like another layer, un-simplifying and besides, I’m talking about a coherant identity.

    Are we saying the same things about categories?

    Cheers, James

  3. Documents: yep, room for improvement there. Well, the categorized file store stuff is OK. Search needs to include in-document indexing so that attached documents are handled as well.

    Private storage: my workspace and some of the node privacy and group options are heading in that direction.

    Blog posting tools: just mentioning it as an aside. I know a friend that lost their site, but still had all the posts “local”, so just republished the posts once the site was up, so that’s what I was thinking of, I guess.

    Categories: yes, we’re saying the same thing. Except that categories + aggregator (per person — one Drupal site as individual blog) + single userbase is what we can do and accomplish — today — with Drupal.

    Thus ends my “State of the Union” address for Drupal :P

    Seriously, there is a conference coming up at the end of February, and this year in general is going to move Drupal forward in all sorts of interesting ways. Tell us (or rather, Will) what you need/want/dream about.

  4. Boris, a true multi-user (pre-config’d) Drupal system would kick off, absolutely… As for individual web-based-aggregators, at the moment I can’t see past Bloglines, at all.

  5. James, I’ve been reading your site for months and watching you get closer and closer conceptually to what we are working towards at GoodBasic. I’ve been quietly checking our ideas against yours, to see if what we think is our most awesome idea ever against your expert opinion. Time and time again I’ve found that we are thinking along parallel lines.

    We may not use the same words (part of our plan is to completely ignore the vocabulary of VLEs and OLEs and replace it with the vocabulary of social software) because we think the whole approach to elearning right now (as you have so often shown) is misguided. Right now it seeks to extend the classroom metaphor into a virtual space where it not only no longer serves its purpose, but actually breaks. A hierarchical discussion model means little discussion, or often none at all. A model that puts instructor as first-amongst-equals still gives them control of the direction of the overall conversation, but we can actually show that it creates a space where the students want to share and debate.

    We want to hold elearning’s hand as it comes out into the social software space, the same space that today’s students will use to find jobs, professional and hobby colleagues, business partners, investors, friends and even significant others. This way each online class teaches them valuable skills that that have utility far beyond the day they write their last exam – social software proficiency will be the literacy of my generation.

    And I agree that students should own their own content. One of the things we’ll be encouraging each institution to do is to put creative commons licenses on the content of the courses, and with some development of Drupal students could choose their own and have default licenses.

    Today you pretty much crossed the threshold of describing exactly what we’re setting out to do with online learning, and Boris gave you only an inkling of where we can go with it. Right now we could setup anything from one class to a whole learning institution’s classes with Drupal. With a little work, which we hope to fund with project fees, we can take it so far that there simply will be no reason left to use WebCT or Blackboard.

    If you want to kick the tires of a single Drupal class (you’ve already seen what did with Weblogs@UPEI) email me and I’ll forward you a site we did for Rob Paterson. I would post it here but there are student marks on there right now and I’m not sure if it’s kosher to tell the world their grades.

  6. Hi Will,

    Very cool, I’d love to have a look around, I think some of the stuff we can do with Drupal is amazing and would love to check out some examples of what you guys have been doing.

    BTW “creative commons licenses on the content of the courses” is an excellent idea, have you had much success? I can see myself harassing copyright advisors (one sits almost next to me) all over the place!

    Will email this to you too.

    Cheers, James

  7. The CC licenses might be a hard sell, but it will probably be easier if we take it from the angle of it being more for the students than the instructor. Despite it adding a challenge, I think it will be worth it in the long run. It will probably have to be optional, but highly recommended.

  8. Pingback: XplanaZine
  9. James – thank you for starting to synthesize what has been percolating through from various ed tech posts over the past months. The concept of “small pieces loosely joined” or an organic model makes much more sense than any big enterprise container for learning. IMHO, learning by definition is messy, and the more you manage it, the less learning you get.

    I participated as a mentor in Rob Paterson’s class this past Summer, and what I really liked was the RSS feed, so I could stay current with the new posts. The site was still password-protected, but the RSS worked like a charm (thanks Will.

    I look forward to seeing what the Drupal community comes up with, and would love to be in Vancouver for the conference, but won’t be able to make it :-(

  10. Pingback: jarche.com
  11. Some great stuff here James – I think you’re right about the “managed” aspect – although I’d say that the distinction would perhaps be that while an LMS manages learners, our new ‘thing’ is about enabling people to manage their own learning (and other activities). A tool for self-organisation, rather for letting you be organised by your institution!

    I wish I had more time to get something together on building one of these things. I have lots of diagrams, but it would be nice to have a living breathing application to show for all this thinking…

  12. Thanks for the comments guys, the more I think about it the more I feel like there’s something fundamental about the individual which has been ignored in the design of these environments. It can be as simple as looking at a face-to-face context and watching how people interact with each other and the group and how this is facilitated… but that’s another post I guess…

  13. Pingback: apcampbell
  14. Pingback: Bryght
  15. Hi James,

    Thanks for the mention of SchoolTool. We aren’t going to specifically be creating an eLearning platform with SchoolTool, but since we made the decision about moving our architecture 100% to Zope 3, it seems likely that such a thing will come into being one way or another. There are a few Zope 2 online learning projects now, like EduPlone and Fle3, which will eventually start thinking about moving to Zope 3 and since we’re jumping on Zope 3 so quickly, it will be natural for them to build their applications on SchoolTool, since what we’re doing is the most mundane/least interesting part of the work anyhow.

    Also, we should have blogging and wiki integration quickly. It isn’t a coincidence that I’ve got the authors of a weblogging app for Plone working on SchoolTool (although again, weblogs probably won’t be a funded part of the project).

  16. It’s a pleasure Tom, a very worthwhile project.

    Very interesting that you are looking at blogging / wiki integration too… could be one of those ‘side-projects’ which takes over the whole game ;o)

    The more I think about the ‘open-source’ school (and I think it should happen, schools are not places to make money out of like that, they need sustainable & flexible solutions) the more I envisage something like schooltool being the ‘boring’ underpinning bit… does that sound like the kind of things you’re heading for?

    Cheers, James

  17. Zope 3 is all about “component architecture,” which in our case means that we should be able to take the general purpose wiki or weblog software which other people write for Zope 3 and integrate it into SchoolTool’s structure (or vice versa…) by primarily manipulating XML configuration files and touching the underlying Python code very little if at all.

    But yeah, the private motto of SchoolTool is “solving the least sexy part of an unsexy problem.”

  18. Heh :o)

    That’s fantastic, Zope 3 sounds very interesting indeed… will have to keep an ear to the ground on that, did you say that you might be downunder sometime this year?

    Cheers, James

  19. Pingback: Guitef
  20. Pingback: Rochebelle
  21. Missed this strand somewhere…..Scott’s post has certainly struck a cord…

    Two things – first lets not get overhung up on th technology – the point is that the use of blogs does potentially add a little subversion in the system – but what we are really looking for is to free or subvert the whole system of e-learning and we need to extend the idea of blogging (in terms of individual expression and creativity – across the whole ed-tech range of applications.

    Secondly – what I think is missing from Scott’s ideas, although maybe is implicit – is not just that students may be enrolled on one or two or three modules and courses – but that they may combine a formal learning programme with self directed or supported learning from a wide range of different sources including the workplace (which once more may or may not be structured learning) or excternal web sites, bulletin boards, disucssion lists, video and other conferences etc.

    This means we need to look again at tools which can allow leaners to yes aggregate their learning experince but at the same time reflect and structure those experiences – that is what will lay at the heart of any Personal Learning environment. Somewhere else Scott says this might look a bit like iTunes (and he makes the excellent throw away remark that we have overemphsised reliance on on-line environments – a future application should work on and off line).

    I reckon this would be pretty different form anything we have got at the moment and would cots a lot to build. I reckon it should be a biggggg Open Source project – the firsts tage to agree the educational design.

    Anyone any ideas how to organise (not manage!) this?

Comments are closed.