Dammit, the LMS

Our schedule for posting new articles has been interrupted by illness last week and this week. Rather than fall silent at such times, we aim to find and reproduce the good work of others, and use it to connect to our readership.

The learning management system is always a contentious topic in universities. Andrea McLagan has nominated Michael Fieldstien’s article for redistribution to help our debate along. Michael gives good voice against –or maybe for – the notion of being stuck with our LMS in his article originally posted in November 2014. Here it is on the Teaching TomTom, courtesy of Michael’s use of a creative commons attribution copyright license, in case our readers missed it last year.

A 2005 comic about the university adoption of the LMS

And here is a comic strip from 2005 about the university adoption of the LMS by Leigh Blackall

Count De Monet: I have come on the most urgent of business. It is said that the people are revolting!

King Louis: You said it; they stink on ice.

– History of the World, Part I

Jonathan Rees discovered a post I wrote about the LMS in 2006 and, in doing so, discovered that I was writing about LMSs in 2006. I used to write about the future of the LMS quite a bit. I hardly ever do anymore, mostly because I find the topic to be equal parts boring and depressing. My views on the LMS haven’t really changed in the last decade. And sadly, LMSs themselves haven’t changed all that much either. At least not in the ways that I care about most. At first I thought the problem was that the technology wasn’t there to do what I wanted to do gracefully and cost-effectively. That excuse doesn’t exist anymore. Then, once the technology arrived as Web 2.0 blossomed, I thought the problem was that there was little competition in the LMS market and therefore little reason for LMS providers to change their platforms. That’s not true anymore either. And yet the pace of change is still glacial. I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that the LMS is the way it is because a critical mass of faculty want it to be that way.

Jonathan seems to think that the LMS will go away soon because faculty can find everything they need on the naked internet. I don’t see that happening any time soon. But the reasons why seem to get lost in the perennial conversations about how the LMS is going to die any day now. As near as I can remember, the LMS has been about to die any day now since at least 2004, which was roughly when I started paying attention to such things.

And so it comes to pass that, with great reluctance, I take up my pen once more to write about the most dismal of topics: the future of the LMS.

In an Ideal World…

I have been complaining about the LMS on the internet for almost as long as there have been people complaining about the LMS on the internet. Here’s something I wrote in 2004:

The analogy I often make with Blackboard is to a classroom where all the seats are bolted to the floor. How the room is arranged matters. If students are going to be having a class discussion, maybe you put the chairs in a circle. If they will be doing groupwork, maybe you put them in groups. If they are doing lab work, you put them around lab tables. A good room set-up can’t make a class succeed by itself, but a bad room set-up can make it fail. If there’s a loud fan drowning out conversation or if the room is so hot that it’s hard to concentrate, you will lose students.

I am a first- or, at most, second-generation internet LMS whiner. And that early post captures an important aspect of my philosophy on all things LMS and LMS-like. I believe that the spaces we create for fostering learning experiences matter, and that one size cannot fit all. Therefore, teachers and students should have a great deal of control in shaping their learning environments. To the degree that it is possible, technology platforms should get out of the way and avoid dictating choices. This is a really hard thing to do well in software, but it is a critical guiding principle for virtual learning environments. It’s also the thread that ran through the 2006 blog post that Jonathan quoted:

Teaching is about trust. If you want your students to take risks, you have to create an environment that is safe for them to do so. A student may be willing to share a poem or a controversial position or an off-the-wall hypothesis with a small group of trusted classmates that s/he wouldn’t feel comfortable sharing with the entire internet-browsing population and having indexed by Google. Forever. Are there times when encouraging students to take risks out in the open is good? Of course! But the tools shouldn’t dictate the choice. The teacher should decide. It’s about academic freedom to choose best practices. A good learning environment should enable faculty to password-protect course content but not require it. Further, it should not favor password-protection, encouraging teachers to explore the spectrum between public and private learning experiences.

Jonathan seems to think that I was supporting the notion of a “walled garden” in that post—probably because the title of the post is “In Defense of Walled Gardens”—but actually I was advocating for the opposite at the platform level. A platform that is a walled garden is one that forces particular settings related to access and privacy on faculty and students. Saying that faculty and students have a right to have private educational conversations when they think those are best for the situation is not at all the same as saying that it’s OK for the platform to dictate decisions about privacy (or, for that matter, that educational conversations should always be private). What I have been trying to say, there and everywhere, is that our technology needs to support and enable the choices that humans need to make for themselves regarding the best conditions for their personal educational needs and contexts.

Regarding the question of whether this end should be accomplished through an “LMS,” I am both agnostic and utilitarian on this front. I can imagine a platform we might call an “LMS” that would have quite a bit of educational value in a broad range of circumstances. It would bear no resemblance to the LMS of 2004 and only passing resemblance to the LMS of 2014. In the Twitfight between Jonathan and Instructure co-founder Brian Whitmer that followed Jonathan’s post, Brian talked about the idea of an LMS as a “hub” or an “aggregator.” These terms are compatible with what my former SUNY colleagues and I were imagining in 2005 and 2006, although we didn’t think of it in those terms. We thought of the heart of it as a “service broker” and referred to the whole thing in which it would live as a “Learning Management Operating System (LMOS).” You can think of the broker as the aggregator and the user-facing portions of the LMOS as the hub that organized the aggregated content and activity for ease-of-use purposes.

By the way, if you leave off requirements that such a thing should be “institution-hosted” and “enterprise,” the notion that an aggregator or hub would be useful in virtual learning environments is not remotely contentious. Jim Groom’s ds106 uses a WordPress-based aggregation system, the current generation of which was built by Alan Levine. Stephen Downes built gRSShopper ages ago. Both of these systems are RSS aggregators at heart. That second post of mine on the LMOS service broker, which gives a concrete example of how such a thing would work, mainly focuses on how much you could do by fully exploiting the rich metadata in an RSS feed and how much more you could do with it if you just added a couple of simple supplemental APIs. And maybe a couple of specialized record types (like iCal, for example) that could be syndicated in feeds similarly to RSS. While my colleagues and I were thinking about the LMOS as an institution-hosted enterprise application, there’s nothing about the service broker that requires it to be so. In fact, if you add some extra bits to support federation, it could just as easily form the backbone of for a distributed network of personal learning environments. And that, in fact, is a pretty good description of the IMS standard in development called Caliper, which is why I am so interested in it. In my recent post about walled gardens from the series that Jonathan mentions in his own post, I tried to spell out how Caliper could enable either a better LMS, a better world without an LMS, or both simultaneously.

Setting aside all the technical gobbledygook, here’s what all this hub/aggregator/broker stuff amounts to:

  • Jonathan wants to “have it all,” by which he means full access to the wide world of resources on the internet. Great! Easily done.
  • The internet has lots of great stuff but is not organized to make that stuff easy to find or reduce the number of clicks it takes you to see a whole bunch of related stuff. So it would be nice to have the option of organizing the subset of stuff that I need to look at for a class in ways that are convenient for me and make minimal demands on me in terms of forcing me to go out and proactively look to see what has changed in the various places where there might be activity for my class.
  • Sometimes the stuff happening in one place on the internet is related to stuff happening in another place in ways that are relevant to my class. For example, if students are writing assignments on their blogs, I might want to see who has gotten the assignment done by the due date and collect all those assignments in one place that’s convenient for me to comment on them and grade them. It would be nice if I had options of not only aggregating but also integrating and correlating course-related information.
  • Sometimes I may need special capabilities for teaching my class that are not available on the general internet. For example, I might want to model molecules for chemistry or have a special image viewer with social commenting capabilities for art history. It would be nice if there were easy but relatively rich ways to add custom “apps” that can feed into my aggregator.
  • Sometimes it may be appropriate and useful (or even essential) to have private educational conversations and activities. It would be nice to be able to do that when it’s called for and still have access to whole public internet, including the option to hold classes mostly “in public.”

In an ideal world, every class would have its own unique mix of these capabilities based on what’s appropriate for the students, teacher, and subject. Not every class needs all of these capabilities. In fact, there are plenty of teachers who find that their classes don’t need any of them. They do just fine with WordPress. Or a wiki. Or a listserv. Or a rock and a stick. And these are precisely the folks who complain the loudest about what a useless waste the LMS is. It’s a little like an English professor walking into a chemistry lab and grousing, “Who the hell designed this place? You have these giant tables which are bolted to the floor in the middle of the room, making it impossible to have a decent class conversation. And for goodness sake, the tables have gas jets on them. Gas jets! Of all the pointless, useless, preposterous, dangerous things to have in a classroom…! And I don’t even want to knowhow much money the college wasted on installing this garbage.”

Of course, today’s LMS doesn’t look much like what I described in the bullet points above (although I do think the science lab analogy is a reasonable one even for today’s LMS). It’s fair to ask why that is the case. Some of us have been talking about this alternative vision for something that may or may be called an “LMS” for a decade or longer now. And there are folks like Brian Whitmer at LMS companies (and LMS open source projects) saying that they buy into this idea. Why don’t our mainstream platforms look like this yet?

Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

Let’s imagine another world for a moment. Let’s imagine a world in which universities, not vendors, designed and built our online learning environments. Where students and teachers put their heads together to design the perfect system. What wonders would they come up with? What would they build?

Why, they would build an LMS. They did build an LMS. Blackboard started as a system designed by a professor and a TA at Cornell University. Desire2Learn (a.k.a. Brightspace) was designed by a student at the University of Waterloo. Moodle was the project of a graduate student at Curtin University in Australia. Sakai was built by a consortium of universities. WebCT was started at the University of British Columbia. ANGEL at Indiana University.

OK, those are all ancient history. Suppose that now, after the consumer web revolution, you were to get a couple of super-bright young graduate students who hate their school’s LMS to go on a road trip, talk to a whole bunch of teachers and students at different schools, and design a modern learning platform from the ground up using Agile and Lean methodologies. What would they build?

They would build Instructure Canvas. They did build Instructure Canvas. Presumably because that’s what the people they spoke to asked them to build.

In fairness, Canvas isn’t only a traditional LMS with a better user experience. It has a few twists. For example, from the very beginning, you could make your course 100% open in Canvas. If you want to teach out on the internet, undisguised and naked, making your Canvas course site just one class resource of many on the open web, you can. And we all know what happened because of that. Faculty everywhere began opening up their classes. It was sunlight and fresh air for everyone! No more walled gardens for us, no sirree Bob.

That is how it went, isn’t it?

Isn’t it?

I asked Brian Whitmer the percentage of courses on Canvas that faculty have made completely open. He didn’t have an exact number handy but said that it’s “really low.” Apparently, lots of faculty still like their gardens walled. Today, in 2014.

Canvas was a runaway hit from the start, but not because of its openness. Do you know what did it? Do you know what single set of capabilities, more than any other, catapulted it to the top of the charts, enabling it to surpass D2L in market share in just a few years? Do you know what the feature set was that had faculty from Albany to Anaheim falling to their knees, tears of joy streaming down their faces, and proclaiming with cracking, emotion-laden voices, “Finally, an LMS company that understands me!”?

It was Speed Grader. Ask anyone who has been involved in an LMS selection process, particularly during those first few years of Canvas sales.

Here’s the hard truth: While Jonathan wants to think of the LMS as “training wheels” for the internet (like AOL was), there is overwhelming evidence that lots of faculty want those training wheels. They ask for them. And when given a chance to take the training wheels off, they usually don’t.

Let’s take another example: roles and permissions. Audrey Watters recently called out inflexible roles in educational software (including but not limited to LMSs) as problematic:

Ed-tech works like this: you sign up for a service and you’re flagged as either “teacher” or “student” or “admin.” Depending on that role, you have different “privileges” — that’s an important word, because it doesn’t simply imply what you can and cannot do with the software. It’s a nod to political power, social power as well.

Access privileges in software are designed to enforce particular ways of working together, which can be good if and only if everybody agrees that the ways of working together that the access privileges are enforcing are the best and most productive for the tasks at hand. There is no such thing as “everybody agrees” on something like the one single best way for people to work together in all classes. If the access privileges (a.k.a. “roles and permissions”) are not adaptable to the local needs, if there is no rational and self-evident reason for them to be structured the way they are, then they end up just reinforcing the crudest caricatures of classroom power relationships rather than facilitating productive cooperation. Therefore, standard roles and permissions often do more harm than good in educational software. I complained about this problem in 2005 when writing about the LMOS and again in 2006 when reviewing an open source LMS from the UK called Bodington. (At the time, Stephen Downes mocked me for thinking that this was an important aspect of LMS design to consider.)

Bodington had radically open permissions structures. You could attach any permissions (read, write, etc.) to any object in the system, making individual documents, discussions, folders, and what have you totally public, totally private, or somewhere in between.You could collect sets of permissions and and define them as any roles that you wanted. Bodington also, by the way, had no notion of a “course.” It used a geographical metaphor. You would have a “building” or a “floor” that could house a course, a club, a working group, or anything else. In this way, it was significantly more flexible than any LMS I had seen before.

Of course, I’m sure you’ve all heard of Bodington, its enormous success in the market, and how influential it’s been on LMS design.

What’s that? You haven’t?


OK, but surely you’re aware of D2L’s major improvements in the same area. If you recall your LMS patent infringement history, then you’ll remember that roles and permissions were exactly the thing that Blackboard sued D2L over. The essence of the patent was this: Blackboard claimed to have invented a system where the same person could be given the role of “instructor” in one course site and the role of “student” in another. That’s it. And while Blackboard eventually lost that fight, there was a court ruling in the middle in which D2L was found to have infringed on the patent. In order to get around it, the company ripped out its predefined roles, making it possible (and necessary) for every school to create its own. As many as they want. Defined however they want. I remember Ken Chapman telling me that, even though it was the patent suit that pushed him to think this way, in the end he felt that the new way was a significant improvement over the old way of doing things.

And the rest, as you know, was history. The Chronicle and Inside Higher Ed wrote pieces describing the revolution on campuses as masses of faculty demanded flexible roles and permissions. Soon it caught the attention of Thomas Friedman, who proclaimed it to be more evidence that the world is indeed flat. And the LMS market has never been the same since.

That is what happened…right?


Do you want to know why the LMS has barely evolved at all over the last twenty years and will probably barely evolve at all over the next twenty years? It’s not because the terrible, horrible, no-good LMS vendors are trying to suck the blood out of the poor universities. It’s not because the terrible, horrible, no-good university administrators are trying to build a panopticon in which they can oppress the faculty. The reason that we get more of the same year after year is that, year after year, when faculty are given an opportunity to ask for what they want, they ask for more of the same. It’s because every LMS review process I have ever seen goes something like this:

  • Professor John proclaims that he spent the last five years figuring out how to get his Blackboard course the way he likes it and, dammit, he is not moving to another LMS unless it works exactly the same as Blackboard.
  • Professor Jane says that she hates Blackboard, would never use it, runs her own Moodle installation for her classes off her computer at home, and will not move to another LMS unless it works exactly the same as Moodle.
  • Professor Pat doesn’t have strong opinions about any one LMS over the others except that there are three features in Canvas that must be in whatever platform they choose.
  • The selection committee declares that whatever LMS the university chooses next must work exactly like Blackboard and exactly like Moodle while having all the features of Canvas. Oh, and it must be “innovative” and “next-generation” too, because we’re sick of LMSs that all look and work the same.

Nobody comes to the table with an affirmative vision of what an online learning environment should look like or how it should work. Instead, they come with this year’s checklists, which are derived from last year’s checklists. Rather than coming with ideas of what they could have, the come with their fears of what they might lose. When LMS vendors or open source projects invent some innovative new feature, that feature gets added to next year’s checklist if it avoids disrupting the rest of the way the system works and mostly gets ignored or rejected to the degree that it enables (or, heaven forbid, requires) substantial change in current classroom practices.

This is why we can’t have nice things. I understand that it is more emotionally satisfying to rail against the Powers That Be and ascribe the things that we don’t like about ed tech to capitalism and authoritarianism and other nasty isms. And in some cases there is merit to those accusations. But if we were really honest with ourselves and looked at the details of what’s actually happening, we’d be forced to admit that the “ism” most immediately responsible for crappy, harmful ed tech products is consumerism. It’s what we ask for and how we ask for it. As with our democracy, we get the ed tech that we deserve.

In fairness to faculty, they don’t always get an opportunity to ask good questions. For example, at Colorado State University, where Jonathan works, the administrators, in their infinite wisdom, have decided that the best course of action is to choose their next LMS for their faculty by joining the Unizin coalition. But that is not the norm. In most places, faculty do have input but don’t insist on a process that leads to a more thoughtful discussion than compiling a long list of feature demands. If you want agitate for better ed tech, then changing the process by which your campus evaluates educational technology is the best place to start.

There. I did it. I wrote the damned “future of the LMS” post. And I did it mostly by copying and pasting from posts I wrote 10 years ago. I am now going to go pour myself a drink. Somebody please wake me again in another decade.

Engaging students in assessment with rubrics

Kellyann Geurts, Learning and Teaching Advisor to the School of Fashion and Textiles in the College of Design and Social Context here at RMIT University, gives some sound advice on assessment and the use of rubrics to engage students in assessment activities. 

Engaging students in assessment requires timely and meaningful feedback. I recently co-facilitated a rubric development workshop in the DSC College with Cate O’Dwyer from the RMIT Study and Learning Centre.  Meeting and discussing assessment rubrics with the program team provided a valuable opportunity for us to look at overall program assessment strategies, share discipline-specific language, and focus on course learning outcomes in a constructive way.

Three good reasons for creating an assessment rubric:

1. Save time in grading and writing feedback
2. Provide assessment clarity and consistency
3. Engage students in meaningful and timely feedback

Developing a rubric collaboratively can be a great way to engage both staff and students in the assessment process.  One teacher at the workshop shared her practice of involving students in the process of developing the rubric.  In a class activity students were invited to consider the learning outcomes in relation to the assessment and contribute to describing the levels of achievement of the assessment task. This allowed her as the teacher to check in with students on how well they understood the tasks, and together develop shared terminology for levels of achievement.

In a follow-up activity, the students were shown examples from past assessments and worked in groups to evaluate the examples using the rubric.  The activity provided a shared understanding of assessment expectations and a framework for describing high achievement.

In my experience, rubrics are only useful if they are meaningful for students.  Developing an assessment rubric is a time consuming task to do on your own.  There is a plethora of easy to access “how-to” references, examples and templates online and sorting through those to design a rubric tailored to your own task is daunting.  If the assessment performance descriptors are too general or too complex students may be overwhelmed and confused about what to aim for.  Below are some simple guidelines to simplifying the task.

Getting started with rubrics

The perspective of the student is key to developing a useful rubric. A previous post what does ‘good’ look like by Ruth Moeller responds to three key questions when grading students: What criteria are you using? What does ‘good’ look like? Can you explain what students have to produce? These points are especially important when it comes to framing the levels of achievement.

Steps to developing a rubric:

1. Identify course learning outcomes related to the assessment task
2. Align aspects of the assessment with the learning outcomes
3. Describe levels of performance for each assessment task
4. Discuss the rubric with students at the beginning of assessment
5. Test rubric and seek feedback from colleagues and students

Do you have a rubric in place for your final assessments this year?  One good tip for getting started is to start small by creating one rubric for one assignment in a semester.  Find or create a suitable rubric template and include a column for your learning outcomes, e.g.

rubric example

If you would like advice or feedback on using rubrics book a consultation with RMIT Study and Learning Centre, check the RMIT Learning Lab Resources for Staff or contact your School’s Learning and Teaching Advisor.

We know that there are some great ideas for rubrics already in use in the College. We are looking for examples to share across the College; if you have rubric ideas to share, please forward to kellyann.geurts@rmit.edu.au.

Further info and reading

RMIT Study & Learning Centre https://emedia.rmit.edu.au/learninglab/content/using-rubrics




Grainger, P & Weir, K (2015): An alternative grading tool for enhancing assessment practice and quality assurance in higher education, Innovations in Education and Teaching International, DOI: 10.1080/14703297.2015.1022200

To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14703297.2015.1022200

A Brave New “Deloitte” World… Educators Wake UP!

Could we leave the door unlocked? , by Erik Pevernagie, oil on canvas, 100 x130 cm

Could we leave the door unlocked? , by Erik Pevernagie, oil on canvas, 100 x130 cm

This week we have a spirited call to critique the corporate discourse on tertiary education that seems to be influencing executive management in universities. Dallas Wingrove & Angela Clarke take on Deloitte’s recent white paper.

In reading the recent Deloitte white paper The paradigm shift: redefining education we became increasingly concerned by the vision of higher education the authors propose. Deloitte’s analysis of the current and new education paradigm is alarming because of the potential influence this paper may have on the development of future government policy.

The paper, produced by business leaders and technology experts, details a nine-month study conducted by Deloitte’s Centre for the Edge. It indicates that existing models of education are becoming increasingly irrelevant.  The paper suggests a significant disconnect between the purpose of education and the demands on “the modern worker”. In the context of rapid technological change, Deloitte identifies two factors that are operating as catalysts for a paradigm shift in education: work-integrated learning, and a shift from traditional methods of credentialing employees.

In this post we discuss and respond to what we consider are the most alarming assumptions, conclusions and predictions presented by Deloitte through their blindsiding analysis of this new paradigm.  We call on educators to wake up and push back, lest we find ourselves immersed in a brave new “Deloitte” world.

Our response

  • Deloitte is blindsiding. Its analysis ignores major curriculum, pedagogical and policy shifts that have occurred in the higher education sector over the past twenty years. For example, they argue that the existing education paradigm is founded upon building “stocks of knowledge, transferring those stocks to individuals and then certifying that this knowledge has been successfully transferred”. Twenty-first century students are no longer considered entities for receiving transmission; rather they are encouraged to develop graduate attributes such as critical thinking, along with“the values that inform the work of universities, their contribution to culture, citizenship and intellectual growth” (Hounsell, 2010). In more recent years, and despite the massification of the higher education sector, Australian universities have embraced and enacted a more holistic, all-encompassing view of these attributes and values, foregrounding lifelong learning as a core graduate outcome.
  • Deloitte’s analysis ignores the complexities of the education debate. Their model triangulates industry, education and students and takes no account of its role in educating for essential public service sectors such as human services, health, and not-for-profits, or indeed the arts.
  • Deloitte appropriates and then subverts educational concepts. For example, the authors claim a holistic view of a university education and herald lifelong learning as integral to the way forward. Yet Deloitte’s framework subverts a holistic education by privileging productivity and enterprise skills over higher order learning. The underlying assumption is that the usefulness of a university education is to serve the needs of a product-producing economy. As noted above, the concept of lifelong learning is not new for educators. Australian universities have for decades been moving toward models of lifelong learning that foster and evidence the integration and application of knowledge and skills.
  • Deloitte assumes educational institutions are producing “workers” of the future. Using a superficial interpretation of Bloom’s taxonomy, the paper defines a creative worker as someone who has “the ability to build on lower order skills to create a new product or idea”.  In doing so, Deloitte fails to recognise the multiple intelligences required for the development of fully formed citizens.
  • Deloitte subvert research. By repositioning research activity as an “optimisation” practice undertaken to deliver economic outputs the authors ignore the critical role that research plays in enhancing social and cultural wellbeing in society for the betterment of all.  
  • Deloitte is inconsistent in its argument.  Much of the paper argues for a shift from “knowledge stocks” to “knowledge flows”.  This is where knowledge and skills acquisition is a continuous process of filling the gaps because of rapidly changing contexts and technology. However in the final paragraph Deloitte undermines this argument by suggesting that students might need “a bedrock of essential facts”. What facts would they be then, given that knowledge, according to Deloitte, should consist of “flows”?


We acknowledge that one of the fundamental roles of a university is to equip its graduates to contribute effectively to the knowledge economy. In this, employability represents a core graduate outcome. However, a university education should not be exclusively focused on economic returns and the creation of “productive workers”.

The Deloitte paper does raise some interesting points, particularly by reinforcing the importance of integrating learning and work. The role of education sectors in being able to adapt to newly emerging ways of credentialing employability is also worthy of deeper consideration.

Deloitte also proposes a model for “creative knowledge work” consisting of three pillars. The proposed second pillar relates to the importance of equipping “the worker” with the capacity to “create a new solution to a new problem”. A worthy attribute, and yet in making this point Deloitte states, “As Donald Rumsfeld might say, they need to minimise the unknown unknowns”. This is a surprising reference to say the least. “Unknown unknowns” was a phrase used by Rumsfeld when answering questions from the media in the context of evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in 2002.

We believe that Deloitte’s reductionist analysis fails to recognise what lies at the heart of a high quality democratic university education. True, there may be a paradigm shift underway but we should not lose sight of the fact that a twenty-first century educational experience should still:

  • foster higher order  transformative learning, AND
  • nurture socially responsible and ethical citizens of the world committed to contribute to, and equipped to critically engage with, not only business and government, but also with community and culture.

As educators we must remain vigilant and active in the debates around education. Otherwise we may turn around one day to find our educational institutions have been appropriated for the purposes of economic imperatives alone.


Hounsell, D. (2010). ‘Graduates for the 21st Century: Integrating the Enhancement themes’. End of year report.

Whose knowledge is it anyway?

This week we hear from Angela Finn, Deputy Head Learning & Teaching in the School of Fashion and Textiles at RMIT University, discussing emergent issues with intellectual property for the creative arts online.

In recent years, the university has become increasingly interested in defining the ownership of intellectual property. This has become a topic of some confusion and discontent amongst teaching staff and students who are interested in protecting their own rights, for now and the future, for works that have been created within the university environment. In the context of design, sharing images of work can equate to publishing intellectual property. Where more traditional methods of sharing ideas are protected through anti-plagiarism policy and copyright law, the gratuitous reproduction of design images has become commonplace. Compiling and publishing of images is an accepted method of building contemporary knowledge within the visual disciplines and is encouraged through design methods such as recording inspirations in a visual diary – or more commonly now – a Pinterest board.


A screenshot of images that are available through Pinterest from a search for home design. https://www.pinterest.com/search

Consider the example of a recent Facebook post where innovative Australian design company ArchiBlox (http://www.archiblox.com.au/designs/) is gaining publicity by sharing and re-sharing their design drawings within the social media space.  The trade-off to generating interest within new markets is to share enough information for the audience to gain knowledge of a uniquely designed product such as the ArchiBlox modular system.

A link to Science Alert at University of Technology Sydney where the original Facebook posting was directed http://www.sciencealert.com/world-first-this-prefab-home-generates-more-energy-than-it-uses

A link to Science Alert at University of Technology Sydney where the original Facebook posting was directed http://www.sciencealert.com/world-first-this-prefab-home-generates-more-energy-than-it-uses

Although ArchiBlox go to the effort of posting a standard disclaimer on their website,

All ArchiBlox designs are subject to copyright law and are subject to the copyright act 1965. All rights retained by ArchiBlox Pty Ltd

They are embracing a different approach to online marketing. Business and industry are beginning to approach marketing of design by sharing design details as a way of setting their products apart from others in the marketplace. There is emerging freedom around making information freely available, in contrast to the earlier style where detailed information about a particular product or service was only accessible after completing a registration process.

The alternative is where companies such as ArchiBlox are overprotective of their intellectual property, to a point where no one would know about the sustainable, forward thinking, carbon positive, cutting-edge design that they are capable of producing. There is a long history within Fashion & Textiles design where being first is more important than being alone in terms of having a creative and innovative idea. There is little evidence of successful prosecution of fashion companies that infringe intellectual property rights through copying, given the rumoured commonality of the practice within industry circles. The costs of pursuing a case are prohibitive and in fashion terms, the evidence to prove an exact copy as well as hardship through a loss of profits is often difficult to procure.

The current debate about whether or not to freely share knowledge is becoming even more relevant as teachers begin to ‘capture’ their skills and knowledge in various formats to build teaching resources. This has been a result of a continuing and growing trend for using digital platforms to accommodate contemporary students, who have complex and varied work arrangements, and to support wider diversity within teaching practice. At RMIT University many large format lectures are recorded, lecturers produce numerous quizzes, blogs, Google+ communities, Facebook groups – the list continues to grow on what seems a weekly basis.  Some staff members have become concerned with ownership of the resulting image, text, film or other online content that is produced. The University will find it difficult to formulate policy around the dynamic nature of the digital environment. There is no clear delineation between lecturers’ paid work and the resources they develop as a side effect of their dedicated teaching practice, which also vary depending on their skill at using these ubiquitous forms of digital communication. The resulting questions may not have clear answers. Can content generated within an individual teacher’s practice be used to support other teachers within the university? What happens when a staff member moves on from RMIT University? Does the university ‘own’ these materials if they are produced by sessional or part-time staff?

I am reminded of the story of the digital revolution that retells the legend of the first software designers that published code for other designers to use and improve — this is long before our contemporary understanding of open source systems. One of my lecturers at university would tell his students the story that the rule of thumb was that if you liked a particular program you could send an envelope containing $5 to the author as a token of your appreciation. The resulting software was the back upon which today’s giants such as Microsoft, Apple Inc. and Google were built. What would have happened if each individual designer had developed their own software in isolation? Would we have the type of ubiquitous technology we have now? At a quick count I have at least seven personal computing devices (my personal and work laptops, iPads, iPhones as well as Apple TV) within a three metre radius of my sofa!

These questions would be resolved much more easily if we agree with the idea that knowledge cannot be owned but rather, as teachers, we are guardians of the knowledge we have accumulated and our main role is to offer this knowledge to our students. After all, where would any of us be without the people who shared their knowledge with us in the first place?

Good homework for an academic developer

Today Meredith Seaman gives us her reflections on a course development project, specifically the learning design map activity used in Global Learning by Design Express projects.

I recently worked with colleagues as the academic developer on a project to support online development of a new unit. The project was underpinned by a model which I have found supports a refreshing and energised space for course design and reflection worth sharing.

The project

The project brief, broadly, was to design a unit – Disaster Resilient Landscapes. The design needed to take into account that future students would be from a range of disciplines and potentially based in different countries while studying the fully online course. The project was part of an RMIT initiative called Global Learning by Design Express (GLbDx) running in the Design and Social Context College. The projects are collaborations designed to enhance aspects of online learning at the unit level over approximately 6 weeks. The projects involve collaboration between academics, education developers from our digital learning team, and academic developers (which in this case was me). The projects also support collaborations with the Study and Learning Centre and the Library here at RMIT.

As is common to all GLbDx projects, the lead academic and colleagues were supported to develop a detailed design of the new course at an early stage. This takes the form of a week-by-week map and looks something like this:

More on the GLbD Express and Course Maps model.

I was introduced to this particular project at the point where a big complex chart, mapping out every aspect of a 12-week course, had been mostly completed. The resulting map was – quite usefully I think – making apparent some challenges.

The ‘map’ of the 12-week program of study being developed covered:

  • who the likely students were
  • at what stage different learning outcomes would be developed and assessed throughout the course
  • how these learning outcomes aligned with various week by week teacher and student activities
  • and – unsurprising but pivotal – the alignment of assessment tasks and all other aspects of the course week by week.

The map in front of us greatly assisted discussion around the specific needs of the course and cohort.  The range of capabilities we could offer as a project team with diverse experiences and knowledge informed our exploration of many aspects of the course.

It brought our attention to issues such as:

  • Could students get through all the course content in the proposed time frame?
  • Could all the material be covered?
  • Were the assessments manageable for students in the allocated timeframes?
  • What was the best way to convey complex diverse perspectives and resources in a field of contested definitions? e.g. “what is resilience?”

My homework

One key aspect to be considered for this unit was its interdisciplinary aspects. The course would be online for postgraduate students coming from a range of diverse disciplines working on complex real-world problems. As in the real world, the work would be in interdisciplinary teams. The team developing the course was also interdisciplinary.

I was asked what I knew, and what I could find, out about getting interdisciplinary teams to work effectively. An interesting conversation ensued about our knowledge and experiences of good and bad team-work and some principles for good practice. I happily agreed to do more homework on the interdisciplinary ‘problem’ and to provide additional thoughts and resources on what principles and activities could set these teams up effectively and consider ways to scaffold what was likely to be quite intense interdisciplinary group projects.

There are resources very close to home:

  • The Belonging Project, also based here at RMIT, has shared a toolkit for interdisciplinary education and a summary of their approaches. They respond to the industry need for ‘broader knowledge and skills, particularly in those areas where traditional disciplinary boundaries have changed and continue to do so’.
  • The Centre for the Study of Higher Education (CSHE) have also developed a guide to designing courses for interdisciplinary teaching which could be relevant.
  • I’ve also found some frameworks and practical suggestions in the literature, including that students could work in their discipline groups first to create ‘bluffer’s guides’ for students new to certain disciplines, to strengthen their knowledge before working with others (Woods, 2007).

Where next?

We are finding the mapping process a very useful brainstorming and planning technique. More to go on this project, and I look forward to unpacking these resources and others with the teaching team and further supporting the project to see the results. The project is prompting great questions and providing opportunities for us to work through them in more depth with committed and engaged academics.

The GLbDX projects and the approach to course design have in my experience had a really promising ability to prompt rich discussion and brainstorming… with the side benefit of really enjoyable homework being set for academic developers.


Woods, C. 2007. ‘Researching and developing interdisciplinary teaching: towards a conceptual framework for classroom communication Higher Education. Volume 54, Issue 6, pp 853-866.

Crossing Borders: Empowering Teachers to Support Discipline-related Extracurricular Activity (ECA)

This week Cathy Leahy has interviewed Noel Maloney, program coordinator of Professional Screenwriting in the School of Media and Communication, about his work in researching extracurricular student activity.

Crossing a boarder at the Museum of Modern Art Istanbul. Photo by Cathy Leahy

Crossing a boarder at the Museum of Modern Art, Istanbul. Photo by Cathy Leahy

Recently I caught up with Noel Maloney, program coordinator of Professional Screenwriting in the School of Media and Communication, RMIT University. The focus of our discussion was his role as the Design and Social Context (DSC) Innovation Teaching Fellow 2015, in which he is undertaking a project called “Crossing Borders: Empowering Teachers to Support Discipline–Related Extracurricular Activity”. This project will resource teachers and academics to better manage extracurricular, interdisciplinary projects.

What lead you to your interest in this project?

In the School of Media and Communication, and more specifically within the area of professional screenwriting, there has been a long history of projects or events set up with students, or that students initiate, that are not part of formal learning.

There are several important questions these types of projects raise. What do students learn in this sort of activity that they don’t learn in formal learning environments and how do they imagine it benefiting their employment in the future? How can we best support teaching and academic staff to deliver these projects to provide appropriate environments for students, while preserving their characteristic autonomy?

What can be gained through these experiences?

Staff and students I have interviewed for this project value their participation in discipline-related extracurricular projects in several ways. These projects are seen to enhance student experience and create a sense of participation and belonging. They develop employability skills through managing contingencies, developing agency and working collaboratively with people across various disciplines, in environments that often simulate industry conditions but are safe. Students experience a certain freedom in these activities. They also provide an opportunity to showcase work. While students are not formally assessed in these projects, they still find opportunities to  reflect and contextualise their experiences. In these projects students typically make something from beginning to end and this is highly valued. They experience working in a really intense way, and dealing with chaos. These were not negative problems. They talk about these challenges in a very positive way.

In addition these activities build up the profile of the programs, and for the teachers and academics concerned this can work very much in their favour. It can put people and programs on the map.

What are the challenges for staff to support these activities?

Time and money.

Often staff are not allocated time in their work plans to run these sorts of projects. Inevitably they sit above and beyond their formal duties.  This is one of the operational aspects that this project can look at and highlight. Also, these projects often require funding, and a high degree of pre-planning, if they are to be effectively resourced.  

What activities have recently been undertaken in DSC?

Two of the larger projects are:

  • The “9 Slices” project, bringing students together across a number of disciplines to produce a book in nine days as part of the Emerging Writers’ Festival.

  • A Fashion and Textiles event, where students work collaboratively in a global environment to deliver a “Fashion Challenge”. This project has run over a number of years, originally with RMIT University and Salford University in the UK, and more recently expanded to include Columbia College in Chicago.

Other activities include:

  • The RMIT Screen Network, a university wide initiative for media students
  • Young Ones, an online magazine developed by VE design students
  • A film anthology, One Minute to Go, produced by screenwriting and screen production students, with performers from 16th St Actors’ Studio.
  • A photobook project between writing and photography students
  • Various study tours

What are the outcomes you are hoping to achieve through this project by the end of the year?

There will be a symposium in late November, as well as resources to help teachers and academics better manage these activities.

The symposium will bring together both Vocational and Higher Education staff involved in these initiatives, providing a supportive environment to present and share their experiences to a wider audience. There is a growing enthusiasm for this type of opportunity: it’s something that has always been there, but when you start to talk about it, people light up with its potential.

Inspired and want to know more?

If you know of a discipline-related, extracurricular project that deserves mention, get in touch with Noel Maloney, noel.maloney@rmit.edu.au. Or come along to the symposium that will be held in late November.

Polarities: A question from Twitter

This week, Howard Errey raises an interesting question around choice and consequences, and what is lost when discussion and debate polarises.

 The Argument by Austin Wright. Photo by Wikimedia Commons user DavidKF1949

The Argument by Austin Wright. Photo by Wikimedia Commons user DavidKF1949

Last year, for the What on Earth are they Using Project, we investigated what methodologies and technologies are being used outside of RMIT’s Learning Management System (LMS). It was a marvelous experience where many stories were collected that helped transform how staff approach online practice, regardless of platform. In conversations since the project, about the state of online practice at our institution, I often refer to a question we received via Twitter that seemed to encapsulate the consequences for students.

Firstly, this story needs some context. The question came as the last question, in the last event, of the project in December 2014. Gregor Kennedy and Travis Cox had just explained the LMS setup at Melbourne University. If there are 6 students over in Engineering or wherever, that want a plugin for the LMS, Travis and his team can spec it out, tell IT what to do and what to expect, and they will just go and do it.

By contrast we have an interesting situation where we have a poorly implemented LMS, due to funding, structural and political issues not worth pursuing here. In the meantime some of the Google suite of apps have been turned on enabling a wide range of innovative practice, not to mention teaching time efficiency, as we discovered in our project. The gaps in the LMS are often filled by the easy functionality afforded through Google.

And so to the Twitter question. It came from Jenny Luca a school librarian. Her context is that her school hosts trainee teachers on placement. Her question to Gregor asked when Melbourne University was going to turn on Google. It came from a frustration that Melbourne University students on placement didn’t have a sufficient level of ‘digital literacy’, which has become so important in K-12 education sector, especially with so many schools using Google Apps in Education.

It was an innocent enough question, with an equally simple answer. Gregor’s response was ‘no’.

This then begs questions for me. Is our university accidentally doing our students a favour by supporting a few choices in teaching platform? Are our students, despite what might be a frustrating experience, going out there with better digital resilience? I would like to think so; and where does this then leave us in terms of planning elearning infrastructure and designing better experiences for students?

The positive side of all this is that we have options and a new culture of enablement emerging. The negative side is that we have 2 platforms that are both only partially enabled leading to frustrations. Often complicated work arounds are necessary, giving rise to situations that give plenty of ammunition to the risk averse marketing and copyright policy enforcers, that continue to drive innovation underground.


What I notice in our conversations about online practice is how polarities arise, usually between ‘face to face vs online’, or ‘Blackboard vs Google’. The challenge with this is how being invested in either can become your own “prison”, as Jim Groom describes it in relation to ‘closed vs open’. Again perhaps it is good that we have grey areas at RMIT. The challenge I see is that when 2 polarities dominate a conversation there emerges no room for a third element. What if we want a different technology to be supported by the university altogether? In the 2 years I have been at RMIT there has been very little room for such wider conversation.

Another example of a polarity in online educational design, is that between pedagogy and technology. “Pedagogy comes first” is the mantra, rightly so in an educational organisation. At the same time we need to provide the opportunities to play with new technologies, such as the DSC Innovation Incubator, in order to experience those lightbulb moments. Where it gets frustrating, in terms of introducing a third element, is in good quality social design which, as a psychologist, I consider a primary precursor to both pedagogy, technology and student engagement. It is all too easy to assume, as I often hear it, that “social means all that technology stuff like Facebook and Twitter”. The argument is then back in the pedagogy/technology spectrum so that when it comes to starting design, the “pedagogy first” horse has already bolted.

As a mid-design remedy I am thinking of overlaying the educational design course maps and personas, with a social user experience layer. I have been working with an Architecture program where we have an excellent but all too linear course map. On realising this, it occurred to me that using another layer with tracing paper, as per architects’ methods in design, over the top of the course map, could help design a social experience through the course, even before the course starts. In the process it will hopefully help to join some of the dots still missing in our course design efforts, and truly focus on a student centric experience. It will be interesting to see a design with both these layers, and watching for a crossover when the social, or even other factors depending on context, might lead to a better experience and pedagogy.