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Higher ed: We are missing the boat in online learning

It’s time to reverse engineer the LMS to match the needs of learning, not distribution

We are having the wrong conversations around online instruction. There is a constant pressure to “utilize” technology and “expand online learning” without much reflection on how the technology could actually enhance learning rather than just perpetuating ineffective teaching methods.

Ironically (considering my background in the technology world), one of the areas that I turned my back on in frustration a number of years ago was online education. The reasons for this were that, working within the traditional learning management system (LMS)—for me, that was WebCT, Blackboard, and Moodle—I was too constrained as an instructor, cut off from my students, and, consequently, forced into a Hobson’s choice of mass failure or a drastic lowering of standards. Most importantly for me, classes in an LMS rarely reach the status of a community of learning.

How online environments fail students

For freshmen and sophomores, especially at an open-enrollment college, the most crippling deficit students suffer from is not lack of talent or intellect; it is a poor grasp of learning skills. This deficit is magnified by the nature of most online instruction these days in large part because the platforms most institutions are given to work with tend to work best for self-directed, motivated learners. Even for these kinds of learners they act as constraints to the kinds of exploration necessary for active and empowered learning.

As I have written recently, even in a traditional classroom environment there are severe impediments to the kind of open, creative learning we want from our students. There is always the temptation to go the easy way toward rote learning.

Related: Does your online program hit the right notes?

The online learning environments that exist today facilitate that temptation by prioritizing content delivery over interactions. We need to deconstruct online education and understand where its current paradigm has led us to. To do this, we have to ask ourselves whether we are facilitating the kinds of learning that are necessary to solve the problems of today and tomorrow.

Online learning has always been sold as a logistical expedient. First, it “meets students where they are” so that they can learn asynchronously and/or without reference to geography. It therefore expands the reach of “education” and, as a result, created the second logistical expedient: enrollment growth that didn’t require a parallel growth in expensive physical facilities. This second one quickly grabbed the attention of those institutions trying to grow their enrollment and was justified in part as the parallel “good” of expanding higher education in underserved markets.

Undoubtedly, online education has expanded access to whole new populations of students but with decidedly uneven results. In 1962, Douglas Engelbart wrote, “We refer to a way of life in an integrated domain where hunches, cut-and-try, intangibles, and the human ‘feel for a situation’ usefully coexist with powerful concepts, streamlined technology and notation, sophisticated methods, and high-powered electronic aids.” This dictum has never been applied to online learning. Instead, what we see instead is a depressing litany of compromises on teaching and learning imposed on us by the available technology. Pedagogical questions are much harder and are therefore often avoided or easily eclipsed by technical ones. This needs to change to fix online learning.

The two impediments to fixing online learning

There are two things working against this kind of reinvention. The first is the “it’s always worked this way” argument around how education should work. This is a problem in and of itself and I find myself constantly reminding my colleagues that we are not anything like our students. We made it through college and grad school and doing that in itself sets us apart from the typical student. The second problem is that technology vendors have an overwhelming drive to sell the familiar to faculty and therefore commit the classic McLuhanesque mistake of trying to translate the trappings of the physical classroom into a virtual environment. This approach completely misses the possibilities Engelbart and others foresaw for digital technology.

As a result, we have depressingly ineffective learning environments online that mirror the ineffectiveness of our physical environments, fail to grasp digital opportunities, and generate suboptimal outcomes. The technology of our learning environments, both online and in-person, must address the basic needs of empowered and active learning. This means that exploration needs to be encouraged, experimentation needs to be facilitated, and community must be preserved.

Using technology to enhance learning

I haven’t abandoned the use of the internet for learning in my classes. Far from it. I start with my teaching needs and design appropriate technological tools around them. For instance, I use a collective WordPress blog for my classes instead of an LMS. With a collective blog, I can put iterative learning in the forefront of my classes’ online presences and create a virtual community that mirrors the physical one I’m trying to create in the classroom. It also provides essential training in how technology facilitates effective teams operating in today’s work environment. While WordPress isn’t perfect in this regard, it is much closer to my Engelbartian ideals than any other technological tool.

It’s time to reverse engineer the LMS to match the needs of learning, not distribution. The limitations are no longer technological; they are conceptual. We can fix that.

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