Thoughts about Choosing, Change, and the 800-Pound LMS Gorilla

Matt just shared some more detailed reflections about this dual layer approach in #HumanMOOC where the LMS is an instructivist model as opposed to the more constructivist or connectivist model outside the LMS. You can see his post here: Every Choice is Awesome. Every Path is Cool When You’re in #HumanMOOC

I understand the abstract idea, and I am certainly an advocate of choice as a good design principle, but it seems to me that this "duality" is really a false choice, given the way the LMS component of the class is set up. If the instructivist pathway consisted of people just consuming content and taking quizzes, then sure, having that happen in the LMS would probably a good choice (I balk at using the word awesome for that type of learning... but whatever: cuique suum). If students are not creating anything to share but are just consuming content and being tested, the Internet at large is not losing out when that activity takes place inside an LMS silo, and the students likewise are not missing out on anything since all the content they need and the follow-up quiz questions are accessible there in the LMS.

But it's clear from the way Canvas is being used in #HumanMOOC that the "stream" pathway is not just based on students consuming content and being tested. People inside the LMS are being asked to create content and share it inside the LMS. There is also a sense that there could be discussion since "discussion boards" are the tool being used. There are no quizzes.

And that is what has me puzzled: I do not understand how it can be a good thing to encourage learners to engage in social learning activities (creating and sharing, discussing) inside a space that hampers connections between learners rather than energetically fostering them. By trying to engage in connectivist activities inside a silo that is not very social, it seems to me there are real losses as a result: there is a loss of connection among the learners (because of the clunkiness of Canvas when it comes to constructivist and connectivist learning; see below) and also a loss to the larger learning community of the class when there are creating and sharing activities that are walled off from one another.

If a course is going to be more than consuming content and taking quizzes (as it is), then the environment really does matter; there is no neutral space (as Matt acknowledges), and not all environments are awesome. Here are just a few ways in which it seems to me that Canvas fails to provide a less-than-awesome environment for creating, sharing, and discussing:

1. There is no person-centered stream. What I mean by that is there is no way to see each learner's contributions in the context of that person's larger learning (as happens in a blog or portfolio). When I click to go to the Profile page at Canvas, it is a static page; I do not see people's contributions being reflected there, not even by way of links. This is really surprising to me: the raw data is there in Canvas; it would not be rocket science to make the profile page dynamic so that in addition to learner work showing up in discussion forums, it could also show up in the Profile. That would benefit the learners themselves, giving them a chance to see their work over the duration of the course (which might or might not be instructivism; I'm not sure how self-reflection fits in there), and it would also benefit other learners in their efforts to learn one from another (as the use of the discussion board at least implies).

2. The discussion boards are poorly designed. By now, you'd think the LMS designers would have figured out some of the features that really make discussion boards useful: being able to filter the board based on number of replies (so that I could focus on replying to the folks who don't have replies yet), being able to see the board posts ordered at random in addition to date-based presentation (randomization is a great way to surface content, especially in a busy board), etc. I always feel so badly about discussion board posts without replies. Blog posts without replies are fine (you can write a blog as much for yourself as for others)... but a discussion board where many or even most contributions go by without replies? Ouch. It hurts. It's called a "discussion" board for a reason, right?

3. The notifications are very poor. If you do want people to return repeatedly to the closed environment of the LMS, you need really excellent notifications to let them know why they need to go back in there. Yet the notification options in Canvas are surprisingly primitive, not really letting you know what you are being notified about. Ideally, you would know specifically when someone replied to you (as opposed to all the replies at a discussion board), or, even better, a set of mention-triggered notifications like at Twitter and other social networks. I get email and Twitter DM notifications from Canvas, but I end up ignoring them because they do not tell me what I really need to know in order to choose (i.e. choose based on real information) whether I want/need to leave the Internet where I spend my time to go into the walled space.

I could go on... but you get the idea.

So, like I said, I'm sure Canvas would be great for a truly instructivist model where learners just consume content and take quizzes as presented by the instructor, oblivious to other learners. If, however, the supposedly instructivist pathway in #HumanMOOC involves students creating, sharing, and discussing (as it does), then it seems to me that Canvas suffers from serious limitations that inherently limit what can happen there. For consume-and-quiz courses, no problem, but #HumanMOOC aspires to more than that, both in the "stream" and in the "garden" pathway.

Thus, rather than a truly instructivist stream versus a connectivist or constructivist garden, it seems to me that the dual design here is an opposition we have all seen before, not "stream" versus "garden" but instead garden v. garden: the walled garden inside the LMS and the many different kinds of gardens that can grow outside those walls. And for a really stimulating and in-depth discussion about what we lose by trying to build any kind of garden inside the LMS, I'll defer to Brian Lamb and Jim Groom: Reclaiming Innovation.

The problem of the LMS is a huge question, admittedly, and one that people are maybe even tired of discussing... but I think we need to keep on discussing it at every opportunity; otherwise, the LMSes will win out by sheer inertia since they are the proverbial 800-pound gorilla in the digital room. So, if people have not read Brian and Jim's Educause piece from 2014, take a look if you have a chance: it still rings true now in 2015-going-into-2016!

Just speaking for myself, I am hoping that 2016 might surprise us all by being a year of real change and innovation... maybe... maybe... :-)

But at the same time, I keep in mind this lightbulb joke which a History professor at my school told me during my first week on the faculty, way back in 1999. And this, too, still rings true all these years later:

Update: I just got my email notification for today from Canvas, and I'm including a screenshot here. Especially for "HumanMOOC," this is such a letdown: there are no avatars, no names, no nothing to let me know just who the "humans" are who were active in the Canvas space. The data is in the Canvas database, and it's not complicated data; I'm baffled that Canvas thinks it is not worthwhile to share that with users in truly useful notifications. From other interactions, I know that "" is Andy Nobes... but surely it would be possible for Canvas to use the name and include an avatar...?