I have a hard truth to share with you. Our learning management systems are letting us down. They are not getting the job done.
The slow rise of social learning
Over the last decade, the internet has gone from a primarily static content distribution system, to a social publishing, communication and sharing environment. As we’ve seen this “social web” develop, several social learning theoretical frameworks have been developed and tested, including connectivism, social constructivism and the conversational framework. These pedagogical models of learning remain at the periphery and have yet to achieve mainstream adoption.
That uptake will be slower in coming than some of us might wish, due to many stumbling blocks. I’ll mention just a few here:
- our policies (both governmental and institutional) are slow to adapt because policy changes are not made at the speed of social media,
- a “content is king” culture exists in learning and training that is hard to crack,
- some long-standing organisational habits are not conducive to transformation (timetabling, lectures, a weighted teaching-research balance),
- there are debates about what constitutes proof of learning; is it tests and exams or projects, group work and portfolios,
- the struggle for investments needed for large IT projects in an age of funding and budget cuts,
- digital literacy skill challenges of the parties involved,
- and a persistent belief that nothing trumps face-to-face interactions.
I’m sure that there are gradations to which these stumbling blocks are present in your organisation and that there are others. And there’s no need to point fingers. These are large complex changes that affect every single part, process and person in our organisations. It will take time, new practices and some very hard thinking to adopt this new social learning. But it’ll be totally worth it. We will change how people have learned for… well, forever. The flexibility, support and opportunities we now have through education technology and social media, will allow people to have a job while studying, to have a family, to lead a portfolio life, to live where they want, to change careers. And that goes for teachers and learners as well. Social technologies shold herald the survival or perhaps rebirth of the university, in a new connected form. It’s tremendously exciting to be a part of this learning transformation, even if getting there makes us want to tear our hair out…
The insidious infiltrator
So I’ve been doing my share of the hard thinking, and in starting my new role at Deakin University, I came to a realisation. One of the stumbling blocks to the uptake of social learning is so well camouflaged, so institutionalized, such a part of the furniture, that I’ve been using it on a daily basis and never noticed just how much it got in the way of social learning. In fact, it is an insidious infiltrator, it presents itself as an aide to our social learning cause, our hope, while actually delaying it. Yep, it’s the Learning Management System.*
About 3 years ago I had a small glimmering of hope that a change was gonna come, when I was running a Beginner’s Guide to EIT Online workshop at my previous institution, EIT Hawke’s Bay. The beginner’s guide was aimed at staff members (teachers, librarians, professional staff and others) new to EIT Online, our Moodle LMS. Besides Moodle use, the workshop also covered some basic computing skills, like file management, browser use, and shortcuts like Ctrl+C and Ctrl+V. With this target audience, I often explained the uploading of a file to a course as “no more difficult than attaching a file to an email”. I figured email was likely the most commonly used information system in their every day tasks. But on that day, one of the participants proved me wrong. After succesfully uploading a file to her course site, she piped up triumphantly: “Oh, it’s like posting on my wall!” She was of course referring to her Facebook wall. And I thought to myself two things. One: I really need to update my workshop. Two: this is it! If people are gaining these kinds of digital literacies from social networking activities they perform on a daily basis, just think what a change that’s going to make in how far I can take them in our course design and learning management system…
But that’s not what happened. More and more, I would work with lecturers who became my Facebook friends, my Twitter buddies, my Instagram connections. (Even now in my new country, they still send me the loveliest messages and pictures and some of the most obnoxious content they dig up on the “interwebz”. Bless.) Their digital literacies were obviously on the rise. However, they continued to struggle and wrangle with our LMS and with adopting social learning approaches. No matter how encouraging I was in us focusing on activity-based learning, and collaborative learning activities, in most instances the creation of a social learning experience was an uphill battle, from course design, to course development, to facilitation. Why?
Well, I’m starting to think that most LMSs are simply not very good social learning environments. They’re not even middling. They’re great at administrative tasks. Most are ok to good on content management. But despite course pages, discussion forums, wikis and glossaries, they are just not great social environments, requiring too many hoops to jump through to create a convenient, natural, social learning experience that fits in with our information consuming, active, diverse and increasingly mobile lives.
Why is it more difficult to be social in an LMS than on Facebook?
Well to answer this, let’s look at 5 things we do on an average day on the largest social network, Facebook, that are difficult to do in an LMS.
15% of Facebook users update their own status.
In an LMS, only a teacher, tutor or trainer can perform a status update seen by the community or by a selected part of that community, in the form of a course announcement. Learners do not have a status update. Most LMS systems allow you to fill in some brief biographical information on your Profile page, but this is often a static text field with no history or stream. Some LMSs have implemented ‘shoutbox’ modules, which means users can post short messages in a course stream, but those messages are often not collated on the user’s profile page. You can say, well but that is not what the LMS is for. My answer is, perhaps, but that is how people establish an identity in a social environment. And identity is a prerequisite for building a learning community. Not allowing a user a space to establish an identity, makes it very difficult for them to feel ownership and participate actively.
We all try to get around this. For example by having an introduction forum, activity forums, or the Week 1, Week 2, Week 3, forums. But these are often public, or at least course wide, spaces. They are also instigated by the lead user in the environment (the teacher) and so slightly contrived. This is part of that insidious nature of the LMS I mentioned. We think we’re being social, we try to jump through the hoop the LMS has presented us with, but it’s a workaround.
22% of Facebook users comment on another’s post or status.
Making a connection with another user is the first step towards building trust. Commenting on someone’s posted content (a link or a shared thought) is a gentle trust building or trust affirming activity. And trust is prerequisite for communicating, discussing, collaborating and creating, all the things that should happen in a social learning community. Now on Facebook such a comment is often short, supportive or appreciative, and timely. It is also often only viewed by the few people in your network who happened to be online at that time in the Facebooks News stream or those you have closer ties with. And so even though it doesn’t disappear, it does lose its prominence in the crowd. And it is mainly contained to the user’s timeline.
In an LMS, a post will likely sit in a forum and remain prominent for the entire term. And so it becomes more intimidating to post to a forum or to comment on someone else’s post. And again, because the forum activity is an orchestrated subenvironment set up by the lead user, comments are often required to adhere to criteria (length, referencing, inclusion of links). And now, it’s not a matter of two learners connecting gently in each other’s personal learning spaces, but being mashed together in a public or group setting.
20% of Facebook users comment on another user’s photos.
The latest version of Moodle has a repository where learners can upload files, including photos. Many LMSs have a similar function or a portfolio tool where a learner can post individual content and choose to share it, often including the ability to make content available through a public link. So this sharing of photos (and other artefacts) is possible to some degree. But having a repository is not the same as having a personal space with a personal browsable life stream that can feed your community stream. Or I suppose in the case of the LMS and education, we should talk about a “personal learning stream that can feed and populate the communal learning stream.”
Reflecting on that very popular Facebook activity of posting and commenting on photos and updates, you can see that another obstacle in the LMS is the single sidedness a user (teacher or learner) is often required to present in a course site. Photos and status updates which users post to Facebook often are artefacts representative of a range of their interests. Speaking for myself I post about ukulele playing, shoes and food as well as social media journal articles and education technology presentations. I’d like to think that all of that gives me a rounded identity, again making it easier to be an interesting connection, current collaborator, fellow learner and future colleague.
Now I wouldn’t chat about ukuleles, shoes or food in an online work meeting. However, the fact that I have my own space (in my case on Facebook, Twitter, my blog and a little on LinkedIn) in which I display not only my personality, but also my expertise and thinking, means that a colleague or fellow learner can build up a sense of ambient awareness about me. A mutual ambient awareness can act as a lubricant to collaboration or co-learning. The one-sidedness and single focus imposed on us by the LMS is another hoop to jump through on the road to social learning.
26% of Facebook users “Like” another user’s content.
Liking is another gentle connection establishing and affirmative activity between users, fulfilling a similar role to the leaving of Comments mentioned above. However, at a network or community level, more ‘Likes’ on a piece of content, indicate importance (or at least popularity) of that artefact. It denotes value of that content.
However the Like button has an even more powerful function: the ability of the user to curate something into their own stream and the network stream with a single click. In the 8 Realities of the New Normal presentation, Lee Rainie of Pew states that one of the new ways people are adapting to the information age is that we show “grazing behaviour”. We consume little tidbits throughout the day. And when we see something that piques our interest we want to either collect it or share it (or both). The astronomic rise of Pinterest shows how fond we are of curating our interests, whether hobby, work or in our learning behaviour. Pinterest buttons are popping up left, right and centre, but the Facebook Like button is almost omnipresent already. So for a user to share an interest takes one action: Hit the Like button.
In an LMS, sharing a website for a teacher will typically take 11 actions from the moment they decided to share what piqued their interest.
- Copy the url.
- Open a new tab.
- Go to the LMS website
- Log in.
- Click on that particular course site.
- Go into Edit mode.
- Scroll to the appropriate module or topic
- Click Add Link.
- Give the link a name.
- Paste the link.
- Click Save.
- (Optional but probably necessary) Send a course announcement to let learners know about the new piece of content.
The learner in an LMS course site is dependent on the teacher setting up a social sharing space in the form of a wiki, glossary or forum. If it’s not in the course site, they can’t share at all. However, if this prerequisite does exist, their number of actions would be similar.
That’s 11 hoops to jump through to achieve one element of social learning in the LMS. And for the learner with little lasting result, because after 3 or 6 months, they will likely lose access to the content they and their fellow learners shared in that course site.
10% of Facebook users send another user a private message
In Facebook the Message function acts both as a very dressed down email and as a chat tool. It’s great for leaving someone a short, private message. Thanks to the presence indication that is built in, you can see when your friends are online and have a live, longer conversation with them. When you open up Facebook, you can see by the icon that you have a new message. A message also sets off an activity notification on your smartphone, so you can see it even on the move.
Most LMSs have a private messaging or private email function. Many institutions disable this function for learners. The worry is that learners may abuse the function, by spamming all 600 students in a course, or targeting individuals for abuse. Some institutions limit it so learners cannot message their teachers. Regardless of the policies and procedures, the LMS messaging system is often flawed for two reasons.
First, you only get messages or are able to chat, when you are logged in. Most people have Facebook open the whole day. In my work as Moodle admin, I found that the average site visit lasted 10 minutes. That is a short time, and so doesn’t create much overlap between fellow learners in a course. Anyway, in most LMSs it’s difficult to see whether any other learners are online with you. Most don’t have presence indication or it is only there if the teacher turns it on.
Second, the notification system is often an email. Or worse, an email to an institutional student email that is never checked. On receipt of the email the student can then, click a link, go to their browser, log in, click on the Messages link, find the message and then reply. It certainly lacks the convenience and that easy to use on-the-move aspect of the Facebook notification system. I know that people are working on mobile apps for LMSs, and I can’t wait until they’re pervasive.
The LMS as a mixing panel, the teacher as a DJ
So how can we address this stumbling block to social learning, now that we’ve uncovered it? Should we demand from our LMS vendors that their systems should be more like Facebook? No. Even the corporate LMSs don’t have the Zuckerberg millions to try and remake themselves in the Facebook image. And anyway, the Facebook statistics I’ve used above are just to highlight some social activities we do on a daily basis in ONE platform. Every day statistics like those above are available for Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, Evernote, Google apps,…. The list goes on.
LMSs should not try to emulate all of those social media, but instead become better at integrating with them. The LMS needs to become a mixing panel for all the other platforms, where the teacher as a DJ for learning, can direct learning activities and community interactions. And we can see that the LMSs are developing in that direction. Moodle and D2L now make it easier for a teacher to find and embed content from those platforms, treating them as external content repositories. It’ll be interesting to see how they go about the next step, which should be linking to or importing people’s social identities and interactions.
Should we avoid using the LMS in our teaching & learning? Again, no. I think there is a role for the LMS. As I said above it is great for some of the administrative tasks and sensitive communication or assessment activities. But in our learning design, we need to show an awareness of the LMS limitations and work with other tools when they are better suited to the desired learning activity, using the LMS as a base camp.
A ‘mixing panel’ example
Say I want to design a crowd curation learning activity, in which learners contribute and share interesting links they find about the course topic throughout the course. In an LMS centric design, I might set up a forum in which students can post links but this solution has issues. It’s a cumbersome task for the learners requiring many actions. It’s taking place in an isolated system from the rest of the web community missing out on added value available in the network. The learners are not building towards a personal collection. And the learners will lose access to the course based collection, when they are unenrolled.
However a mixing panel learning design might be to use the LMS and Delicious. All the learners set up an account, they install the bookmarklet which makes curating a link a one-click action, and for any links about the course topic, they label it with a course tag I’ve set up. In the LMS I set up a web page with links, the course tag and instructions for the activity and a feed in a sidebar on the course homepage that shows the latest 5 curated links with that course tag. Every few weeks I post a course announcement in the LMS sharing, reviewing and commenting on some of the most popular links curated with our course tag. How is this ‘mixing panel’ design better suited for social learning?
- a better workflow for the students that is similar to a social activity they already do, so they are more likely to participate at a higher level,
- a dynamic stream both in Delicious and in the course, showing the other learners’ contributions which can act as a motivator,
- added value from the wider network around that topic. On Delicious, experienced practitioners in that field will already be active so the learning activity can contribute to the induction into a community of practice,
- the possibility to connect with the other course participants on Delicious in a connection that will outlast the course duration,
- the establishing of a personal and community collection of links that also outlasts the course duration,
- the collection can transcend the current course community of learning, as next semester’s students continue to grow the collection.
I think this ‘mixing panel’ use of the LMS is the answer. As Professor Grainne Conole said in her presentation here in Melbourne recently, “social media is a Pandora’s box”. It’s been opened and there is no putting it back in the box again. She’s right and we need to recognise that in the learning experiences we design. Use the LMS where indicated, but don’t make users jump through hoops. People have their personal learning networks and environments already. Let’s use them and use the LMS as a mixing panel were us DJ teachers can bring it all together and whip up the learning community!
I’d like to thank Hazel Owen for the opportunity to appear as February’s guest blogger on her Ethos Consultancy NZ community site. Yes, it’s technically March now, but believe me most of this very long post was written in February. When she asked me, we discussed several topics and finally agreed on a comparison of user experiences in the LMS versus social media. I had no idea so much on this had been rumbling about in my mind. I’m very pleased Hazel chivvied me along in the nicest possible way to articulate these thoughts and put them all together coherently.
*If you are not in an organization with an LMS, you can probably substitute Intranet or Content Management System, where I say LMS.