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Infiltrating the Walled Garden

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Learning Management Systems (LMS) are walled gardens. They provide substantial control over the environment in which learning activities take place, and at first glance this appears to be a good thing. For this reason they are often relatively appealing to faculty members beginning to make the transition from fully traditional classroom instruction. The level of control is familiar… but it is also misleading when taken in the context of the full learning process (see “Hack the LMS: Getting Progressive” for more on this).

The type of control the LMS offers is misleading for several reasons. It implies that the content provided by the instructor within the LMS is the only information relevant to the topic at hand. It also implies the instructor’s organization of that information is received wisdom. It implies that the only legitimate parties to the class conversation are the instructor and the students (after all, they are the only ones allowed to log in to the LMS), and that the class conversation exists in isolation from other conversations about similar topics going on elsewhere (on the web or in physical spaces). These are all control statements, and as such they feel comfortable to those of us steeped in traditional instructional practices. The longer I teach, the less I trust these assumptions. My knowledge and experience (and those of my faculty colleagues) are valuable, but I’m seeking a way to do what Pete Rorabaugh describes as ”open[ing] to the participatory knowledge making practices of Web 2.0 while situating our academic authority within it”.

I’m not suggesting that using an LMS is a bad idea. I use them myself. At their best they are powerful organizational tools, and I find them invaluable for many aspects of teaching and learning. What I’m suggesting is that they are best used as a sort of hub that incorporates input from and output to resources that extend far beyond their own walls. Much of learning (even online) is social, and I’m willing to trade classroom authority for online community to a significant extent.

My experience has been that most people who use an LMS for teaching gradually move toward adding links to web-based resources outside the LMS. Just about every LMS in common use makes this easy to do, and most instructors are comfortable with the Web 1.0 concept of “WWW as library”. However, relatively few instructors seem to move beyond linking to outside readings by incorporating links to outside learning experiences. Many are not quite sure what this would look like, and even those who are often find their students unreceptive (after all, the rules out there can look poorly defined).

Here’s the way it typically seems to work as my students begin to encounter increasingly sophisticated “outside” resources: Almost all students are willing and able to follow a given link or URL and do “assigned reading” online; they are familiar with the concept of an online library. They are often less willing to listen in on an online conversation among others about a specified topic, and require some convincing that this might be “legitimate” content. They are generally reluctant to actually participate in such an online conversation with figures in the “outside” world, sometimes expressing the sentiment that they wouldn’t find it valuable to converse about significant content with anyone who would be willing to stoop so low as to engage in conversation with them — but at least they understand the concept of an online conversation. When they encounter my requests that they leave familiar territory entirely, and begin creatingsomething new in an environment such as a wiki or a graphic organizer, their resistance stiffens still further. I’ve learned that I need to ease them through a progression of increasingly less familiar online activities if I expect them to grapple successfully with the full range. A rough hierarchy for use in this progression might include the following:

  • Static web pages: sources providing traditional text and graphic content in a read-only form;
  • Organizations and self-organizing interest groups: sources providing contact with groups of learners actively discussing and organizing information. I ask my students to monitor RSS feeds, such as Scott McLeod’s Dangerously Irrelevant; to follow a small number of Twitter figures, such as Diane Ravitch (@DianeRavitch); and to examine a collection of social bookmarks on Delicious.com that has been created by peers in earlier semesters. I am considering having them review web pages that have been annotated with Diigo. The hallmark of this level is that the students are lurkers and viewers, rather than active participants — they are becoming accustomed to these venues.
  • Active conversations: sources providing potential direct access to participation in an ongoing dialogue. I recommend that students begin to comment within the blogs they are assigned to monitor online, and I assign them to create their own blogs (and to post on one another’s blogs) using Blogger as well to contribute resources via Twitter using our class hashtag (#ete567csu). This level is distinguished by its requirement that students begin to actively contribute their own thoughts and observations to the learning conversation.
  • External learning tools: sources providing entry to learning environments distinct from the LMS. I require each class to create a substantial class wiki using PBWorks, to collaboratively edit a group project of their own creation using Google Docs and to create visual representations of their own personal learning networks using Mindmeister. This level is marked by the requirement that students create original work outside the LMS.

As part of my process of easing students further into these unfamiliar environments I have begun to experiment with bringing the outside environments into the LMS in limited ways. In effect, I deliberately blur the line between “in here” and “out there”, and over time this has made it easier to convince students to leave the LMS completely.

My first effort at blurring the lines was to modify Blackboard  so that one of the “course tools” in the standard Blackboard interface linked to a wiki framework I had created for the class on pbwiki (which later became PBWorks). This not only created the impression that the class wiki was just one tool among many in the LMS, on par with our class discussions or gradebook, but also caused the wiki to open within the Blackboard CE8 “frame” on-screen, so that visually it appeared to be part of the Blackboard environment. The creation of the new course tool itself was as simple as learning to use Blackboard’s own internal options (Build->Manage Course->Course Menu->Course Tools->Add Custom Link), and it turned out to work well in practice.

My second boundary-blurring project involved Twitter. I wanted to demonstrate the use of Twitter as a resource-sharing professional development tool, so I created a Twitter hashtag for our class (#ete567csu) and began to use it to curate resources that my students might find useful. I quickly learned that Twitter was a foreign environment to most of my students – so I brought Twitter into the LMS by creating a feed in the LMS that monitors our class hashtag in a window on the class home page. The students see a steady flow of information clearly labeled as coming from “outside” – and the window includes a “join the conversation” link that directs them to Twitter so that they can enter the conversation. (My next experiment will involve using Feed2JS to bring an RSS feed into the LMS.)

There are good pedagogical reasons both for providing links that take students outside the LMS, and for bringing portions of the outside world into the LMS. Collectively, these practices:

  • Connect the students to a resource base wider than any text or lecture;
  • Expose them to alternative organization of content and other perspectives on topics covered by the class;
  • Infuse current news and recent developments into our discussions;
  • Place both the instructor and the students into wider dialogues with other learners and experts outside our class and our institution;
  • Model constructive uses of contemporary technological tools for both teaching and learning, and
  • Demonstrate and reinforce the use of a Personal Learning Network (PLN) as part of both teaching and learning.

As such, they benefit both instructor and the learners. As Ted Nelson (who coined the term “hypertext”) once put it, “Everything is deeply intertwingled.” I’m left wondering… in what ways might we embrace this intertwingularity not only in our understandings but also in our teaching methodologies?

[Photo by niznoz]

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