FERPA doesn’t mean we can’t have a social LMS

Update: Be sure to see Jared Stein's comments on the post that started this convo, and KUDOS to Instructure for being the kind of company that participates in public discussions. That is something I do think is awesome!

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Okay, I'm going to set a 15-minute timer on this one because writing up ideas on how to improve an LMS is not my favorite thing to do, but I feel obliged to respond to Matt's invocation of FERPA as a reason why the Canvas notifications have to be so terrible.

Ironically, just this week Jim Groom wrote something about The Schizophrenia of Outsourcing EdTech (and "all the energy expended conjuring the evil spirits of FERPA to prevent anything interesting from happening on campus when it comes to edtech and the web"), and he's written about it before, years ago in fact: You can't spell FERPA without FEAR.  I did a stint working for my campus IT, so I know something about FERPA, and I also know that compliance with FERPA is not the reason why we can't have nice things in online learning.

Keeping in mind institutional constraints (FERPA being one, and there are others of course), plus instructor agency and student agency, it seems to me quite possible to design a flexible system for social notifications that would be customizable to fit any situation, while trying to maximize the usefulness within those parameters. Here are some quick thoughts (and yes, the clock is ticking...):

1. The institution needs to be able to constrain whether students can or cannot use multiple email addresses. Within that constraint, the instructor might have a preference about that also. If there are not institutional or instructor constraints, students should be able to choose from different email options (school address only, school address plus another address, multiple other addresses, etc.). [Strangely enough at my school, students can use an alternate address in the SIS but not in the LMS... go figure!]

2. Again, within institutional and instructor constraints, students should be able to choose additional notification channels, such as SMS and Twitter, etc. They should be able to turn channels on and off, and configure the channels for different granularity (i.e. notification if new post to discussion board, notification if new reply to me at discussion board, etc. etc.).

3. Again, within institutional and instructor constraints, students should be able to choose a display name within the system (which might be their real name, or a nickname, or it might be a pseudonym) and, if there are communications going outside the system which will contain their name, they should be able to choose a display name for external communications (which, again, might be a nickname, or pseudonym). If they want; my guess is most students will opt for same internal and external. And most students will opt for real name (or real nickname). But that should definitely be their choice.

4. Again, within institutional and instructor constraints, students should be able to choose a display avatar for within the system (which might be a personal photo or some other graphic image) and, if there are communications going outside the system which will display the avatar, they should be able to choose a different avatar for external communcations. If they want; my guess is most students will opt for same internal and external. As for using a personal photo or not, with my students most seem to prefer a personal photo but lots choose some other image (as I do, just to make sure they realize that not using a personal photo is a perfectly fine option at least in my classes).

5. Insofar as there are going to be external communications, they should be as useful as possible, containing designated name and designated avatar of the contributor, as much of the content as is practical, with a link that goes directly to that item in the system (not just to the top of that discussion board). The option to reply via the channel used would be a big plus!

6. Notifications should be mirrored internally when there are external communications (go to a page with all notifications, much like at Twitter, G+ etc.), and when there are (for institutional or instructor constraints) no external communications, that internal notifications page is even more essential.

Okay, time's up. That is my 15-minute contribution to the world of Canvas today. For other thoughts (esp. about the static profile pages), see the post that started this discussion: Thoughts about Choosing, Change, and the 800-Pound LMS Gorilla.

We need to learn to look at things from different angles. Otherwise, we are going to continue to have LMSes that everybody uses ... but which are far less useful than they could be.


Learn to look at things from different angles.