Course Handover:  A CHAT can make a world of difference

Andrea Chester is Deputy Pro Vice-Chancellor, Learning and Teaching in the College of Design and Social Context at RMIT University. In this post she describes a collaborative project to improve course handover.

“You can take it over now’ and you could see him running off into the distance!”
Левитан. Владимирка. Версия без рамки. 1892. Isaak Levitan. The Vladimirka (1892). Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.

If you’re a course coordinator there’s a good chance that you’ve been asked at some stage in your career, to take over a course (substitute “unit” or “subject”, depending on the nomenclature of your institution). Courses change hands for many reasons: people move on, take leave, want (or need) a change. Unless you’ve had the luxury of always teaching courses you’ve developed yourself, you will have experienced course handover.  While it’s a common and important phenomenon across programs, there is very little written about it.

Over the last year I have been working on a project, funded by the Office for Learning and Teaching, exploring the issue of course handover in higher education. We’ve been talking to new and experienced Course Coordinators, Program Managers, Heads of School and Deans. We wanted to hear about staff experiences and expectations of course handover. We wanted to know what good practice might look like and how we could best support it.

We spoke to staff at three universities: RMIT, the University of South Australia and the University of Newcastle across the disciplines of Design, Health and Business. Here’s what we found:

  1. Luck. Unlike nursing handover, which takes place at the start and end of every shift and usually follows a standardised process (see, for example ISBAR), the handover of courses is often left to the goodwill of those involved. None of the staff we spoke to had experienced or facilitated a formal handover. Several, however, described with gratitude a colleague, not always the outgoing course coordinator, who had taken the time to talk about the course with them.
    Too often, however, course handover was lacking. As one of our respondents told us, “The outgoing course coordinator said ‘You can take it over now’ and you could see him running off into the distance!” Another was told, “I hated teaching this course. I never wanted to teach this course. I’m so glad I’m leaving.” What a welcome!
  2. The unknown unknown. New course coordinators don’t know what they don’t know; there is often, as D.H. Lawrence put it, “the unknown unknown”. New course coordinators found it difficult to know what to ask, particularly if they were new to the role or the university.
    One of our respondents told us that he first learned about an assessment task when he received emails from students wanting information about it. Other staff told us that simply reading an assessment task didn’t necessarily provide them with the information about its purpose and role in the course.
  3. The luxury of time. Staff told us all too familiar stories of being handed courses only a few days before the start of semester or when teaching had already commenced. But courses don’t always change hands at the beginning of the semester. In some instances outgoing coordinators leave unexpectedly, in one case taking many of the course resources with her.
  4. Course handover is important. Poor handover jeopardises the integrity of the course, risks key program learning outcomes, and in some instances may compromise the ability of students to meet standards expected by accreditation bodies. And as our respondents recounted, poor handover is stressful and inefficient.

So what does good course handover look like?

When we asked our participants about the features of an ideal handover, consistent themes emerged. We collated those themes under six headings and the acronym CHATTS.

The CHATTS framework provides a structure for the handover conversation. It offers prompts for core information that the new course coordinator needs and, once captured, it can provide a resource for all staff teaching into the course.


Context A course is positioned within the context of a program or programs. In this section the person responsible for the program explains:

  • the purpose of the course
  • how it links with other courses in the program
  • how it forms an integral component of the program
Handover process The CHATTS framework is designed to facilitate conversations between a person who understands the course, such as the outgoing course coordinator, and the incoming or new course coordinator. This section requires an agreement about how and when the handover process will occur.


Assessment Assessment is often considered to be the most critical aspect of a course. This section summarises:

  • the assessment items for the course
  • their purpose
  • due dates
  • what is being assessed
Teaching quality Quality teaching of the course requires the outgoing course handover to provide access to previous course evaluations and information about when and how the current offering of the course will be evaluated.


Timeline For a course to run smoothly a sequence of events must occur and a number of items need to be addressed. This section lists and identifies the dates of these key events.


Staff &


New course coordinators need to know the roles and functions of key staff members. In this section staff members critical to the efficient running of the course are listed. New coordinators may not have a clear understanding of the assumed knowledge for a course and what to expect of the students they will be teaching.  In this section the expectations of students are documented in terms of what they already know and what they should be able to achieve.


Of course a good handover, like most aspects of quality in learning and teaching, takes time and commitment and should be properly acknowledged in workloads. If done well and consistently, however, the process provides evidence that can be used for a range of purposes.

As we move into work planning for the New Year it is a good time to think about courses you might be handing on and those you might be receiving. How would you like to do course handover this time around?

For more information about the framework and the project, see the CHATTS website.


Motivation for leadership

Associate Professor Fiona Peterson is Deputy Dean (Learning and Teaching) in the School of Media and Communication at RMIT University. Her book – Creative leadership signposts in higher education – was published in 2013. She is a Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy UK, and on Advisory Boards in the Humanities, and Communication and Media USA.

academic leadership

The significance of leadership in tertiary education and professional development of leaders has continued to emerge strongly in the literature.

However, there are still gaps in addressing the motivation of these leaders, including what impact motivation has on learning and teaching leadership futures.

Who are the learning and teaching leaders?

Academics might lead course or program teams, disciplines, clusters, or learning and teaching across a school; or they might have leadership roles at college or university level. They might have staff reporting to them, or not.

The detail varies, but there are some joys and challenges in common.

Joys might include celebrating student and staff successes, getting the balance right for being strategic and collegial, seeing something really inspirational unfold, or contributing to the scholarship of learning and teaching.

Challenges might also include getting that balance right between strategy and collegiality, coping with ongoing change and complexity, coping with the scope and scale of the role, getting that article written somehow…it’s a juggling act.

So, what really motivates academics to take up such leadership roles, and why do they persist?

(We could ask the same questions about all academic leadership roles such as research, international, and so on…)

Academic leaders may cite ‘making a difference’ as a reason and key benefit of taking on a leadership role (e.g. DeZure et al., 2014), but we need to know more about why and how they sustain their motivation (or not) to persist within the role, and what this means for learning and teaching leadership futures.

As a start, I share some thoughts and a short story here from my experience.

The significance of ‘meaningfulness’ has been highlighted in sustaining leaders in education (e.g. Mayer, Surtee & Barnard, 2015). This is echoed in the business world as the ‘meaning quotient’ for enhancing productivity, through being challenged and ‘on the edge’, breaking new ground and doing what matters, as well as a sense of belonging (Cranston & Keller, 2013).

Studies continue to show that a proactive personality and low aversion to risk correlate with leadership motivation (Chan et al., 2015), and that emotional intelligence including responsible self-management is highly applicable to academic leadership (Parrish, 2015).

How can academic leaders be supported to persist?

Given the value of professional learning communities for leaders (e.g. Jansen et al., 2010; Scott et al., 2008), we need to think more about ways to foster this approach for ourselves as well as those we lead.

I have long since believed that the role of community is important in building motivation, through the collaborative professional development of leaders – to sustain and improve leadership practice, to achieve outcomes that matter, and to advocate for leadership excellence.

In recent months the importance of community has certainly been evident to me. I have enjoyed an uplifting and energizing experience, collaborating with fellow leaders of learning and teaching.

Four of us in similar roles across different contexts decided to write a journal article together. We were interested in what we could discover about the scholarship of learning and teaching across disciplines. Using a comparative narrative approach, we chose a common lens of leading curriculum development to reflect on our own contexts and experience.

Apart from the joy of writing – in snatches and sometimes from far-flung exotic places – our topic was interesting to us. Unsurprisingly, we identified the influence of our underpinning disciplines on the ways in which we thought about our leadership practice contexts.

What was more surprising was that our own different disciplinary ‘world views’ proved to be important in our perception and language about our learning and teaching leadership roles, ranging from strategist or enabler (education, communication, psychology), to curator (design). We also thought differently about concepts such as deep and surface learning, and what the scholarship of learning and teaching means.

In flagging further research needed, we thought it was important to look more closely at the significance of developing shared language for learning and teaching leaders working in interdisciplinary contexts. At the same time, we enjoyed discovering the differences!

Throughout our collaboration I felt that I was doing something worthwhile. For me, this was the ‘meaning quotient’ in action – being challenged, a little on the edge, breaking new ground and doing what matters, with a sense of belonging (Cranston & Keller, 2013).

Overall, I found the collegial experience really useful and very MOTIVATING.


Chan, K., Uy, M., Chernyshenko, O., Ho, M., & Sam, Y. (2015). Personality and entrepreneurial, professional and leadership motivations. Personality and Individual Differences, 77, 161-166.  

Cranston, S., & Keller, S. (2013). Increasing the ‘meaning quotient’ of work.  McKinsey Quarterly, January.

DeZure, D., Shaw, A., & Rojewski, J. (2014). Cultivating the next generation of academic leaders: Implications for administrators and faculty. Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 46(1), 6-12. Available online at: (accessed 3 September 2014).

Jansen, C., Cammock, P., & Conner, L. (2010) Leaders building professional learning communities: Appreciative inquiry in action. Journal of Educational Leadership, Policy and Practice, 25(2), 41-54.

Mayer, C., Surtee, S., & Barnard, A. (2015). Women leaders in higher education: A psycho-spiritual perspective. Journal of Behavioural Science, 45(1), 102-115.

Parrish, D. (2015). The relevance of emotional intelligence for leadership in a higher education context. Studies in Higher Education, 40 (5), 821-837.

Scott, G., Coates, H., & Anderson, M., (2008). Learning leaders in times of change. Sydney: Australian Learning and Teaching Council Report.


Today we hear from Associate Professor Suzie Attiwill, Deputy Dean Learning and Teaching in the School of Architecture and Design. Suzie offers us a response to a reflection by Professor Peter Corrigan, around curriculum-as-plan vs curriculum-as-lived.

The following article is composed of two parts. The first is a reflection by Professor Peter Corrigan, a distinguished professor in the School of Architecture and Design at RMIT University. The School’s Dean, Professor Richard Blythe invited him to “prepare a short reflection on his view of a university, calling on his own experiences as a student and also on his extensive experience as an inspirational lecturer and professor”. Richard then invited Peter to present his reflection to the School’s senior leadership group as part of the School’s strategic planning. Following this, each member of the group was asked to write a short response.

The purpose of this process, Richard notes, was “to remind us all of the core values of tertiary institutions and what it is, above all else, that we should be striving to achieve”. It is an important time for these kinds of reflections because universities are in a period of rapid change and every one of us, students included, need to be thinking about the consequences, what we value, and where we would like to end up.

The second part is my response – an inflection as Deputy Dean of Learning & Teaching and an associate professor of Interior Design. As the academic year draws to a close – almost! – this article is poised as an extended invitation to other colleagues to reflect on what we are trying to achieve.

University Reflections: a paper by Professor Peter Corrigan   

Recently when I was approached to consider my university days and reflect on my teaching method, I was reminded of Vladimir Nabokov’s remark that “MEMORY IS MERELY A TOY SOLD WITH A KEY”. All I can offer are opinions which are entirely personal.

At this year’s Venice Biennale, the question was asked “has neo-liberalism caused architecture to lose its moral mission?” In other words, have the architects lost touch with the responsibilities of yesteryear and thrown in their lot with developers, entrepreneurs and multinational corporations? Is the architect simply pursuing a narrow aesthetics at the expense of history, culture and context? We recognize that this is the world of cost–benefit ratios, of public interest versus the private gain. My education led me to believe that ideas would shape the world I would come to inhabit.

As a young man, I received a Commonwealth Government Scholarship and travelled daily by tram from St Kilda to the university (where I was surprised to discover that some students owned cars). Then, the undergraduate architecture degree was a six-year program. The Student Union possessed a very large room containing twelve billiard tables where I spent many dreaming hours sitting in the shadows on banquettes watching what I took to be mature men (often law students who play football) engrossed in competition beneath clouds of cigarette smoke. In this building there was a room given over entirely to the reading of magazine and newspapers, another room was dedicated to the game of chess, and yet others enabled students to listen to recorded music. Rooms were set aside for the playing of musical instruments and a very large space called The Student Lounge allowed for private discussions and the playing of cards. An enormous cloakroom with attendants guaranteed the secure daily storage of personal items and also enabled luxuries such as cameras and cricket bats to be borrowed. Shoes would be cleaned upon request. The engine room of the Union was a vast cafeteria which provided three cheap home cooked meals a day (with daily specials) and incidental home cooked snacks for between times. Above the cafeteria sat an equally large ballroom which was given over to dancing, concerts or large and splendid dinners. There were of course generous-sized toilets, wash-rooms, a laundry and showers. There were meeting rooms, a 500-seat fully operational live theatre-cum-cinema with a fly tower containing twenty five lines and a capacious workshop in the rear, with large dressing rooms located below stage. Students took all of this, plus an art gallery and a bookshop, for granted.

The next academic institution I attended was Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, and here the facilities available to the student body quite shocked me. The Beinecke Rare Book Library (by Gordon Bunshaft of SOM), the Colleges, the Gothic gymnasium (with its competitive swimming pools and basketball courts), the hockey rink (by Eero Saarinen) and the art gallery by Louis Kahn were just the start of it. But these and other extravagances, however, were trumped by the eighteen-hole golf course which I found hard to believe even existed, until I visited it and was told by the resident professional (in a luxurious nineteenth hole shop) that on a busy day, at least 12 students played the fairways. In my first year in the Architecture and Design building, I was surprised by the generous service in its cafeteria and the existence of a nurse in a medical room.  But I did occasionally nap on a lounge on the roof terrace and I marvelled at the size of the in-house library. In my first year I became ill (from the excessive consumption of food and drink) at a Thanksgiving dinner given by an exuberant Italian American family. I was taken to the Yale infirmary, a boutique hospital exclusively given over to students, where I remained for three days. The following year I badly gashed my leg, while crossing Central Park at night, after attending the Rockefeller Center. I was returned to the infirmary where the ugly wound was treated with antibiotics and the latest technology, including a sterile staple gun fresh from the killing fields of Vietnam. Again I was put to bed for three days. All this care was again free of charge. The food, the clean sheets, the peace and quiet, still shine in my memory. I felt a duty of care being enacted.

Lately I have noticed that when I’m under my morning shower and thinking back over this particularly unsettling incident, the scar on my right leg, below the knee starts to throb and I realize that I have turned the key in that particular memory box. These buildings and their floor plans can still be recalled; they remain part of the furniture of my mind. At the time they offered security and identity; they gave promise of a future.

But in the end, it was the intellectual communities that shaped me. At Melbourne, I still vividly remember the political activist and poet (and there did seem to be a natural confluence between politics and culture then), Vincent Buckley. He was a small man with a large head and a commanding presence, who was often to be seen striding across the campus to his room in the Old Arts Building, trailing a retinue who hung on his every casual judgement on “how should we live”. Buckley haunted Carlton’s hotels, its student parties, and academic conferences.  He couldn’t resist a racehorse (“Peter, in Ireland they race around in the opposite direction, and there are no grand stands”). He revelled in life’s contradictions but always seemed at ease. But his relationship to his wife and children, however, always puzzled me. As if intimacy was always a vulnerable and enigmatic thing for him.

Vincent Buckley and his circle, those public intellectuals, those men and women of letters who lived in the service of ideas, seeded ideas into our young lives for us to reflect upon then. Was life really a meaningless experience or not? How do we make sense of the implausible? Students were encouraged to take on intellectual lives in order to prepare for responsible futures. Knowledge, (and ideas) were not simply designed to improve us in a practical or commercial sense. It was valued for its own sake; there was no essential justification for the life of the mind. Our values were informed by our exposure to better minds, minds that knew more than we did, from whom we could learn. And eventually experience would bring our values into sharp relief. These hard won values would eventually form the basis for our life’s decisions, the personal and professional, the good along with the bad.  

An elite university training in an ivory tower confirmed my sense of VOCATION. It also sharpened my CLASS HACKLES. It identified a circle of FRIENDS. It informed my TASTE. It firmly established a sense of SELF. And to this day, these attributes for better or for worse have shaped my architectural practice and my teaching. My university education of yesteryear was designed to prepare me to enter a SOCIETY. Today, our universities prepare students to enter an ECONOMY, and what a world of difference there is between these two things.  

My university education taught me to understand that we think with words and that we need to develop an expansive vocabulary to gain entry to the world of letters and conversation, if we aspire to have minds that can deliver content with authority. Nowadays, conversation seems to be in decline while we inhabit a pictorial world of short attention spans.

My university education gave me a sense of boundaries which also, provided me with a reassuring sense of identity. Today, boundaries and the security that goes with them are far less in evidence.  

My university education encouraged me to develop an inner life: an inner reflective life, that sometimes gave pause, and perhaps even, on occasion, the beginnings of patience.


Today’s universities are engaged in an amenities arms race. The University of Technology Sydney in New South Wales recently built a Frank Gehry building, and it is hard not to see this as a public exercise.  

Those employed in university administration now outnumber those employed in teaching and research, which is unnerving, particularly as the bureaucratic burden on academics has also increased.

We live on a large island (considerably larger than Europe) that is remarkably endowed with natural and agricultural resources and we have a small diverse population. With reasonable management and a degree of good fortune, we should have a bright future.

But to fulfil this promise, we need to reconsider the University Project and its present priorities should be examined. We need to look at the values that underlay these priceless institutions otherwise our universities will lose their way. They cannot afford to lose the respect of the society they are meant to serve.

Thank you.

Peter Corrigan

16th December 2014

some notes in response to Peter Corrigan’s text

Suzie Attiwill

An idea of life courses through Peter’s writing. He remarks, in conclusion, “my university education encouraged me to develop an inner life. An inner reflective life, that sometimes gave pause, and perhaps even, on occasion, the beginnings of patience”.

Much of his paper discusses spatial and temporal relations with rooms (many of which are described as vast volumes). These encounters make close distant events (such as “the sterile staple gun fresh from the killing fields of Vietnam” that was used to repair an “ugly wound” and continues to “throb” in the present when he thinks back). There is also reference to an intellectual engagement with questions of “how should we live”.

This focus on life connects with something I was reading recently: “The question of how a life might go is intimate to the fundamental problematic of education …. The word ‘curriculum’ relates to currere and is implicitly concerned with the ways in which the course of ‘a’ life might be composed”.

Experience also permeates Peter’s text. Smells, sounds, volumes, people, programs, numbers of things (billiard tables, lines in the fly tower). Atmosphere. Experience continues to be significant in relation to education, and student experience is a key priority for RMIT.

There is a tendency to understand experience as produced by a centred subject. I’m interested in thinking experience as coming before the individual, through a concept of experience that does not limit experience to the individual but instead addresses the experiential world, an art of pedagogy that is more-than-personal (a quote from the reading I mention above), an approach that opens up ways of thinking and attending to student experience other than placing ‘you’ at centre.

be true

Be true to you Latrobe Street building scaffolding, RMIT University, 4 February 2015. Photograph: Suzie Attiwill Enrol Now / Rule Your World Melbourne Polytechnic advertising, Montague Street under City Link Bridge, 21 January 2015. Photograph: Suzie Attiwill

This involves a shift from a subject/object dichotomy to one focussed on relations; an ecological thinking which attends to social, mental, spatial, temporal, material, immaterial relations. This brings in the idea of institution as a process of instituting – attending to the set-up within which relations can be made.

There are different kinds of set-ups, and a distinction in education can be made between the curriculum-as-plan and the curriculum-as-lived.

These thoughts make another connection with Peter’s reflections – in particular, his critique of the shift from a social to economic model in education. In the move to a business model based on an economy of commerce/ commercial/ commercialization, there is an emphasis on standardization and normalization where everything is testable and assessable, where every attempt is made to erase the unpredictable and unknown.

The curriculum-as-plan is a product of this shift from the social to the commercial. Curriculum-as-lived is another matter. The “question of how a life might go” courses through our learning and teaching and the lives of our faculty.

Reference: Jason Wallin (2013). Morphologies for a Pedagogical Life. In I. Semetsky & D. Masny (Eds.), Deleuze and Education. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press

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

Further info and reading

RMIT Study & Learning Centre

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:

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.

Consider the example of a recent Facebook post where innovative Australian design company ArchiBlox ( 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

A link to Science Alert at University of Technology Sydney where the original Facebook posting was directed

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?