a beautiful new building

3 strategies to start reimagining the learning management system

Online learning, by and large, has become a vast, sterile wasteland of outdated content and pedagogy; here’s how to start fixing it

I wrote several weeks ago that we need to deconstruct the learning management system (LMS) and then reimagine it from the ground up as a “learning” system, not a “management” system.

While there are exceptions, online learning, by and large, has become a vast, sterile wasteland of outdated content and pedagogy. Like many of our industrial legacy educational structures, the focus of the LMS on management over learning creates students that are merely widgets, not learners. It is time to fundamentally reimagine this space.

A number of years ago, I developed a framework called Ideaspaces to help me design an innovation center. It was and came out of a host of disconnected reading I was doing about what facilitated innovation and learning. I recognized that innovation and learning are basically the same thing. “Learning” is self-innovation; “innovation” is the scaling of learning to an organization and beyond. The underlying principles are the same and can be applied to all systems designed to facilitate and augment human intellect.

Ideaspaces is made up of three parts. First, the physical or virtual Space, which is the environment that facilitates creative thought and interactions. Second, once spaces are established, people need the Time to reflect and interact. Finally, the Structure of the organization, from a class to a company, needs to be designed to scale ideas across the larger community. This framework is directly applicable to our LMSs. Without oversimplifying a complex discussion, Ideaspaces allows us to break down some of the basic needs any system will need to effectively facilitate learning.

Text is not the answer

A careful examination of the digital spaces that exist in our online environments reveals that they are still fundamentally based on textual expression. There are a lot of reasons for this, not least among which is the fact that most faculty, including myself, were trained in a world where text dominated due to technological constraints. Expertise in education is still measured through the lens of reading and writing. Technical restrictions in early learning management systems only served reinforce these biases because they struggled with rich media.

However, even as these limitations fell away, rich media continued to be seen as a supplement to the vast libraries of text that were rapidly developed online. I wrote out the class notes for my American Government classes to the tune of 40,000 words for my online courses. Course packs were created to ease this burden on faculty but were never really an effective solution due to a range of issues with them.

The evolution of online learning largely missed the fact that the world has made a profound visual transition. We like to think about the impact of blogs, online newsletters, etc., but what has really shifted has been the explosion of visual content from YouTube videos to Twitch live streaming to simple memes. This is the world the younger generation lives in and will be the cornerstone of work and thought in the digital world. Our online spaces must be fundamentally redesigned with this reality front and center if we hope to facilitate modern pedagogy.

Time is a particular challenge in the online environment. On the face of it, online instruction offered a “new” modality: asynchronous learning. Of course, the part most of us completely missed was the fact that this is nothing new. Homework has always been asynchronous. By disconnecting entirely from the classroom, we have simply created classes that are entirely homework. No one would attempt this in the real world because we recognize the importance of our human interactions. Yet we seem to accept this online.

I struggle to get my students to meaningfully connect with the class and with each other. In the absence of a physical meeting, this struggle is amplified. There is no substitute for synchronous conversation and rhetoric in learning. Advanced video conferencing therefore needs to be a central part of any LMS strategy in order to promote live interactions. This is not just a technical question. Online pedagogy must emphasize these kinds of interactions above all else because they are the most likely to be neglected by the modalities of what we now consider distance education.

Structure is often the most obvious factor but is at the same time the hardest to implement because it usually requires a systemic rethink of what you are doing. There are many layers of this in online (as well as more traditional) learning and I have discussed them in previous blogs.

In the context of the individual online course, we need to develop structural elements to facilitate the synchronous learning community building that digital learning has disrupted. Assignments, assessments, interface design, tools, etc., all need to be repurposed toward overcoming this deficit.

Most of our students struggle to find connection with each other and the larger community of learning that education should represent. We have to recognize that the isolation of online learning only exacerbates this isolation. We therefore need to create technological systems that create space, time, and structures that leverage the rich media environment of the digital era and bend those to the central pedagogical challenge of creating communities of learning first and foremost. If we start from these bases, we can start the process of augmenting deep learning experiences with digital technologies instead of degrading those experiences in pursuit of making them more convenient. Our world will be richer for it.

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