in learning, teaching, technologies

Why I’m Giving the LMS Another Chance

First of class tomorrow at the uni, which means I’m probably not getting much sleep tonight. Since I started teaching high school ten years ago, this pattern has yet to change. Part of me hopes that it never does.

On the brighter side, the syllabus is up, and I’ve made first contact with my new students teacher-candidates. And, contrary to my prior claims, I’ve decided to give the Canvas Learning Management System (LMS) a try.

So, what exactly is it that is making me go back on this recent burst of tech contrarianism? The short answer is, as always, “it’s complicated.” But there are at least three big things on my mind right now.

1. I’m genuinely curious.

After years spent Blackboarding my students to death, I’ve been building an understanding of some of more prominent critiques of LMS culture. I’ve also been searching for alternative approaches, and continue to be intrigued by the Domain of One’s Own movement – especially for teacher education.

A student's complaints about online classes.

Will Canvas help me to avoid this? Probably not without sound pedagogy to go along with it.

Recently, however, I’ve been drilling down into what exactly makes Canvas different. And as some of this work is from the perspective of critical ed-tech colleagues that I deeply respect, I must admit that I’m genuinely curious about the potentials of this platform. In particular, I’m intrigued by Canvas’ ability to interface with the rest of the internet, something I’ve been desperately searching for in my prior online and blended teaching experiences.

I’m maintaining (and teaching my candidates to maintain) a skeptical approach this semester, to be sure. But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t excited to see my iframed NowComment test doc spring to life inside my course shell. And the ability to just open up aspects of my course design for public comment and critique? Intriguing, indeed.

2. I’m in this for the students.

I totally get that sometimes, the best learning happens at just the edge of our comfort zones – call it what you will. And I recognize that for many students, LMS-inspired, consumption-driven modules can become a stale lifesuck that crushes the potential of meaningful learning in a digital age.

However, for many of us, getting into that discomfort zone sometimes requires our teachers, coaches, and mentors to start from a place of familiarity. Consider the popularity of analogies in teaching, the effectiveness of external cues in coaching, and the many approaches to starting small in behavioral or organizational change.

For my teacher-candidates this semester, I’m making a conscious choice to begin the semester in a potential comfort zone – the LMS environment – with the goal of nudging them out of it to consider deeper issues of online participation, digital representation, social media censorship, data ownership, and the like. Like our adopted textbook, Canvas isn’t just a tool for teaching. It is also a cultural artifact for us to examine, analyze, question, critique, hack, remix, and reflect on.

Screenshot of my Canvas homepage.

What does this interface communicate to us as learners? What’s happening to our data behind the screen? Who owns content that lives here? Just a few of the questions we’ll be unpacking as a class this semester.

3. I’m confident in my pedagogy.

While I wouldn’t suggest that I’m an expert teacher by any means – that’s for my students to decide – and re-decide every semester – I can claim that I am confident in the ways I engage students. In their 2012 article, “Hacking the Screwdriver,” Sean Michael Morris and Jesse Stommel  argue:

“The LMS is dangerous for good teachers that aren’t also good pedagogues. It determines too much in advance by presenting an interface that asks the user to approach it in very particular ways. What’s on the upper left when you enter an LMS determines what you do first, what you do second, and what you don’t do.”

As someone who’s been trained as a teacher, learning scientist, and arguably, the biggest critic of my own teaching practice, I can say that I’ve had some experience in resisting the “siren’s allure” of all-in-one ed-tech products like Canvas. And as Bruce taught us, I’m taking what is useful, and discarding the rest. As I told a colleague the other day, teaching doesn’t necessarily come “easier” for me as a result of my field of expertise. It’s more that my experience as a teacher, teacher-educator, and education researcher have given me a different lens through which to approach – and embrace – the beautiful struggle of teaching.

Good teaching and learning happen by design – ours, rather than the LMS

Am I going to mess up this semester? On occasion – no doubt. Are my teacher-candidates going to question and critique my activities, assessments, and philosophy of teaching? I sure hope so. Because all of this is part of the practice. Sometimes the most interesting part. But it won’t be because I handed over my power (and responsibility) as an educator to an LMS – well designed or no. My successes and failures as a teacher will be my own. The products of a shared experience called a “course” that my teacher-candidates and I will build together. And the seeds for learning and improvement the next time around.

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