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.

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.

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.

Digital learning: who’s doing the learning?

This week Angela Nicolettou, Manager, Digital Learning, Design and Social Context College shares with us her thoughts on setting up a new digital learning team and some of the challenges it presents.

angela tomtom image

Picture Credit – Angela Nicolettou

A new team has been established this year at the College of Design and Social Context, the Digital Learning team, and I have the pleasure of managing this group. Being in a management role is new to me and so I find myself ‘learning’ on the job. Learning about recruitment, workplans, policies and procedures and other administrative tasks that I have not had to pay much attention to in my career so far. It is not all administration and processes though, it is also about team building, learning about new educational technologies, working with new groups in the college, learning from those in the team and having opportunities to bounce ideas off each other and progress concepts, processes, develop resources, to name a few. In short, my new role is a hive of activity and there is the ever-present ‘newness’ of the work.

Why am I writing about this? As I was thinking about this post and reflecting on what Digital Learning is, it led me to think about who is doing the learning? The students yes, but before that can happen, the teachers need to learn a thing or two about digital learning spaces, just like my new role is taking me on a steep learning curve.

So, to the teachers. What is their role in this age of digital learning? What skills does one need to teach? When I trained to be a teacher in the 90’s it was all about curriculum, content, class planning and class management. All of these elements I would argue are still the case, but added to this we have online learning. It involves not only knowing how to use various educational technologies, but also knowing how to create digital learning spaces, communities, manage these, provide feedback, ensure that students are engaged and supported, fix things when they aren’t working (or at least know where to find help), and do all of this for groups of 5 to 500+ students. Technology brings with it opportunities never before imagined in teaching spaces, such as global collaboration, online assessment, industry engagement at the touch of a button, access to numerous resources, and on-demand access to learning resources; place and time are no longer a limit to engagement.

Is it then reasonable to expect that one teacher can have all these skills? I’d say no. Like many jobs in the digital age, it is a job that requires constant learning and development. Just like the students, teachers in the digital space are in a constant flux of learning and development. A dynamic space that is at once terrifying and exhilarating with the promise of ongoing innovation.

I can understand terror and resistance when it comes to trying new things and ‘going online’ because this can mean a new and unfamiliar work space, a combination that may lead to difficulties, loss of classroom management and most importantly hours of extra work. But what if it works? What if there are efficiencies to be gained, such as ease of grading, management of student groups, and communication with students? What if student engagement can be enhanced through having more collaborative activities, peer feedback opportunities and real-time student feedback that teachers can respond to during teaching time? The short answer is there are, with efficiency and engagement being two of the most positive outcomes I regularly see occurring when online learning is well structured, thought through and designed.

Believe it or not, Learning Management Systems (such as Blackboard) when used well are all about efficiencies. Student collaboration tools (even those in Blackboard) when linked to clear outcomes and assessment are brilliant at enhancing engagement. The key to success here is to have a clear plan. The first step is to develop an understanding of who the students are and what their learning needs are (developing learner personas is a good way to do this). The next step is to determine exactly what it is you want the students to do, know and experience so that a series of activities can be developed. These activities will also need to be linked to the assessment tasks. The basis for the map is now drawn up, choosing and implementing the technology tools is the final step. All this can be achieved with ‘safe’ technologies, ones that are part of the university’s systems and ones where there are lots of existing examples, resources and success stories to draw from.

Going beyond the ‘safe’, we enter the world of innovation. This is where ideas are trialled, new technologies tested, and old technologies stretched. This is where students are often challenged to learn differently, and more times than not, it takes way more time to develop the learning environment than originally anticipated. It is where learning technologists and production staff need to be engaged, projects scoped and resources allocated. Is it worth it? Most of the time it is. It’s the frustrating and exhilarating part of this work. This is where we need ‘special projects’ such as Global Learning by Design or the e-learning innovation incubator; projects that are designed to support these innovative activities, providing the time and resources to ‘have a go’.

So what of the Digital Learning team? What is our role in all this? Simply, we are here to support the design and delivery of everyday efficient and engaging online teaching activities by curating resources, providing exemplars and principles of good learning design, encouraging the development networks of like-minded teachers and engaging with as many teachers as we can. We are also here to support innovation projects, test emerging technologies, challenge ideas and spark conversations both virtually and literally about online learning and what that means for our work.

Who’s doing the learning? I’d say we all are!

To find out more about the DSC Digital Learning team go to the Digital Learning Teams’s Blog


Share your thoughts and questions on this post in the comments section!

Find us on:

Facebook: www.facebook.com/teachingtomtom
Twitter: @teachingtomtom
WordPress: teachingtomtom.com

Openness in Dunedin

This week Howard Errey, Educational Developer in the College of Design and Social Context at RMIT University, shares his thoughts on the upcoming Ascilite conference in Dunedin.

 I am looking forward to attending the Ascilite conference (Australasian Society for Computers in Learning in Tertiary Education)  for the first time, at the end of November in Dunedin, New Zealand. I will be presenting a sharing practice session on The LMS and the alternatives, mainly telling stories we have collected  through the year-long project and hopefully opening discussions around similar experiences.

Dunedin Railway Station

Dunedin Railway Station – Photo Credit, n0cturbulous @ flickr

Dunedin seems like a small town a long way away from anywhere. Why get excited about a conference there?

For me Dunedin is an important place in the history of online learning and in particular the history of open courseware. It was way back in 2008 that Otago Polytechnic with the involvement of Leigh Blackall signed up to make all their learning content creative commons. From my point of view at the time working in a TAFE in Australia that held a very closed and proprietary view of its content, this seemed like a revolutionary step. It certainly put Otago Polytechnic and therefore for me, Dunedin, on the map.

I am curious about my own organisation, RMIT University’s approach to open resources. While it is on the Ed technology ‘roadmap’ I don’t see a lot of activity in using open source content. For example I am yet to see courses from the National VET Content Repository sitting in one of our courses. I may well be looking in the wrong places. The importing or exporting of learning objects is not part of the formal LMS training here. Certainly good numbers from RMIT have attended the Converge conference where the national repository is heavily promoted.

Part of the issue may be the nature of ‘share alike’ licencing. Once an organisation uses creative commons object there is some obligation to share modified content back into the system with open source licencing. For some staff it is probably ends up coming down to a decision that it is easier not to go there.

One useful work-around I have heard about is an Australian university that encourages adjuncts to place their learning content in Wikiversity where content is open. Content is then visible via a wireframe in Moodle, thus circumventing copyright restrictions of building content in the university LMS. Adjuncts often consider themselves as consultants to the university rather than employees and this is a great way to let them know their knowledge is valued, without it being locked down as university owned copyright.

In the mean time I have raised the possibility of teaching about learning objects and SCORM with our LMS trainer Michael Fedyk. As it happens Michael’s favourite place is Dunedin. He tells me there are lots of good reasons to go there, particularly Speight’s brewery. Michael is also a Flickr enthusiast and tells me that the Dunedin Railway Station is the second most photographed building in the Southern Hemisphere, after the Sydney Opera House. Thanks to Michael for making his photo of the station available with Creative Commons Share Alike licence!

You can read about Otago Polytechnic’s approach to copyright here.


Share your thoughts and questions in the comments section below!
Find us on:

User Experience Design (UX) and Digital Literacy

Push Pad to Open Automatic door. Right...

Photo credit Dave Stone on Flickr: CC licence

Posted by: Howard Errey, Educational Developer, College of Design and Social Context, RMIT University.

Dr. Jeremy Yuille is a senior lecturer in several subjects/courses at RMIT University in the School of Media and Communications around User Experience Design, Interaction Design, and Digital Design as well as professional practice and studio contexts. This post is a transcription of an interview with him for the Beyond Blackboard Course Shells: “What on earth are they using?” project.

Do you use Blackboard?
I use it as little as possible. In the last course I used it to manage assessment. So it was the place where students had to submit their work. It was the “official” place where the final word on what was going on in the course was put. It worked better than it has in the past.

I’m pretty sure that at least a quarter of the students did not look at anything there, but then I am also pretty sure about the same number did not turn up to the class either! (I’m not sure about the correlation between those 2 things.) It was really just used for the grade centre. I did it to see how it would work. I will probably continue with it as it makes that end of semester work flow go more easily. It also meant there was no physical artifacts to have to deal with and no chance of losing anything.

What other tools do you you use?
In the course of teaching, I have used lots of different tools. Before blogs we had Moveable Type and Typepad. We installed our own instances on the servers here and were managing them. These days, I tend to use something more lightweight. I have been using a Facebook page.  It wasn’t as successful as I thought it would be. I used a “page” instead of a “group” – they are different. I’ve used Twitter and then quickly found out that most of the students at that point didn’t use it. I have used a Google Site and that was disappointing, mainly because I work with design students and it immediately lost credibility no matter what content was in there.

The thing I’ve found that works best is a WordPress site. It is very easy. We don’t have to worry about login or access. I just use the free WordPress.com rather than hosting WordPress.org. Other colleagues use it as well.

I have tried getting students on to their own blogs. It didn’t work. I have heard good stories of others doing this. Young people are tending to communicate visually. It might be better to get them doing their own Pinterest or something like that. I would like to get them to write more and better. For us, WordPress is like a link bucket and we use it for reflecting/collaborative/sense-making, and write it in a way that students can comment into it.

I have used Google Docs for sharing documentation with our Singapore students. Their brief  was written in Docs and they could use the commenting and collaboration features to ask me questions about that.

I’m about to use Google Docs this week to teach students how they can do remote interviews for instance. It’s much better than email because you are working with someone on what their interview will look like, particularly if it is to be published. It puts more work onto the interviewee. So the success depends on what the payoff is for the interviewee. Writing input can vary wildly.

I have tried getting students to collaborate on Google Docs. Our students are interesting. We think they are digital natives but they are not – or not in the way that we think about it. In the past I have assumed students knew why this was interesting or why the way you can collaborate on, say, Google Docs is so good. But it’s not until I contrive the situation where you get someone to open it and you edit something in front of them and they all freak out and suddenly they get it. I have done this with staff too. Or you do it on the phone with someone and you are talking to them about it and it’s not until you contrive those “aha” moments that they get it. I am hoping to get students a little bit more in it this year. Google Docs is a bit more stable now. For the last couple of years I have trying to get my colleagues to use Google Docs, while managing the program and that was a challenge.


Photo credit Max Crowe on Flickr: CC licence

In what particular ways are students not as savvy online as we might think?

We have found that they are not as critical as we have led to believe. This means they tend to be consumers on information but their appetite is not broad. They don’t tend to look widely. It’s a bit like they come here on a diet of junk food.

When it comes to content creation I am still quite surprised by my students because communication design or graphic design happens with digital technology. But these are offline solo processes. So that doesn’t map really well on to them having a lot of experience working with people online. Just the idea of being networked isn’t a large part of their online identity.  There is a student I am noticing at the moment who does seem to have a large networked identity and I think that is because they have been working outside in the fashion industry. That student is aware of what the value of a networked identity. Whereas a lot of our students have not had a lot of experience outside of school and they have no sense of what a networked identity is. And that then flows into a lot of digital literacies, for example, how do you work with someone, why is it valuable to even work with someone online? With studios it is challenging to get them to interact face-to-face let alone online. One of the things we still find hardest to teach are these kind of soft skills. We need to think about these as digital soft skills with the first question being: How do you form relationships with people?

What were your your intentions in using Facebook?
Basically, lowering friction; reducing barriers. Previous informal research in class showed me 99% had it in common. If I put things there it is easier to get them to see it. Then, once you’re on there, you have all sorts of other features. So I created an equivalent of live Tweeting during lectures. I created a back channel and have a series of guest lecturers and would have a live feed on the page. The students who engaged with the page and attended the lectures tended to benefit, although that didn’t show up on the student survey scores. But I suspect that the students who attended didn’t do the survey – what can you say? This is the first time the course had been taught and we had a only a few survey responses and those were mostly negative.

Technically the students could have input into the Facebook channel, but I am not sure they are aware enough of that practice. We could run a whole course just on back channels. We could foreground it a bit more or put it on the screens like at conferences. I suppose they get it because they see it on things like Qanda; but I am yet to be convinced that they have actually taken part in something like that. That would be different. At present they are just spectators. They are quite sophisticated spectators but are not overly critical. When it comes to making something or contributing, those skills are not as developed.

How do we help students find the practical experience?
I don’t think it’s happening explicitly in our systems. It is starting in first year where they have taken on the task of expressing literacies in transition. So much of this is about being able to communicate with the written word. I am a little bit gobsmacked that the middle aged lecturers who are teaching courses about digital design are far more sophisticated users than the student — who we have been lead to believe are good at doing stuff online. There is a mistake there and we haven’t quite cracked that. We need to know: what is their understanding of this medium?… or how can we get them thinking about engaging with the network? Some of the things they are doing in primary schools now are going to lead into networked literacy. So that is 15 years before they get to university, and hopefully between now and then we will begin to understand and observe some change.

With design there is a large part that is embodied. But it’s not just soft skills but also how you look at situations and perceive different ways of framing things. There is a large amount of embodied knowledge in these platforms. When you first open a Google Doc and start synchronous editing – no one forgets that. Those moments when the penny drops. Those kind of threshold learning experiences. They are embodied and yet because we think of it as virtual we think, they will just get it. We think that students will jump into these sort of environments, yet their literacy with them is so low. If you have had experience of seeing an edit war in Wikipedia then you have a different perspective on that Wikipedia page and all that’s behind it. This week I will show students an edit log of an interview I did with someone, so they can see how it all happens. One of the challenges here is how to pull someone into the experience of using something without them actually using it. How do you simulate their use in order for them to experience what it means to use it and see the payoff?


Photo credit Vanessa Bertozzi on Flickr CC licence

You can tell someone, “Oh it’s great you can collaborate with someone.” But collaborate is a big word that means so many different things. However, the first time you do collaborate and you see that the work is better because you collaborated, then you understand what collaboration means.

For me it’s that the digital platforms are fine (there are challenges with clunkiness and access). It depends what they have experienced physically. I am interested in the role of video. Some of the platforms that have been developed recently like Adobe Voice. I will be exploring more time-based rich media.

How could learning design learn from UX?
With Marius Foley and Blair Wilde we are working in how you take the studio online. The Internet pipes are now all connected. You can now go online, press a button, and start a blog or whatever. It’s still a bit clunky but much better than it used to be.

This raises questions. How are you then able to stand back and put an experiential skin across all that? How do we create an experience that is as rich as sitting in a studio or us having a conversation now? They are interesting challenges not just in education but commercially as well. I do think UX can help here by framing embodied experiences so that people learn by experience. Experience is interpreted through your embodied interactions with the world. It gets more abstract through a piece of glass when online. Experience seems to change when you talk with someone or listen to someone talking. There are different cues for connecting with humans than connecting with information. I am interested in this and don’t have all the answers.

We are proposing a masters for experienced designers. It will teach design skills that are not so much about usability but about how to be better leaders in organisations. It will be entirely online and we don’t yet know how we will do that. It’s a really interesting opportunity. If we can do it well, I think they will borrow a lot more from cinema and sound design than they will from computer and user interface design. We know how to bolt stuff together, so then how do we make it affective?

 Share your thoughts and questions on “User Experience Design (UX) and Digital Literacy” in the comments section!


Image of popular social media logos wearing graduation hats

Are you teaching at RMIT University in 2014? Do you have an active online presence with your teaching – either within the Blackboard learning management system or beyond? You may have received a postcard in September for the staff educational technologies survey.

Please tell us your views on using digital technologies for teaching and learning at RMIT. It takes 10 minutes and we’re keen to hear your experiences. Click Here (RMIT login required)

Find us on:

Sailing through Peer Review: Five lessons learnt at the coalface

Dr Ehsan Gharaie, Lecturer, School of Property, Construction and Project Management (PCPM)
Dallas Wingrove, Senior Advisor, Learning and Teaching, College of Design and Social Context, RMIT University.

Having a peer reviewer review your teaching is for many staff an unfamiliar risk taking experience that can be anxiety provoking. Ehsan Gharaie, a lecturer in the school of PCPM at RMIT University, recently underwent the process of peer review. As Ehsan embarked upon this journey he approached me as Senior Advisor L & T to support him through the process which included observing Ehsan’s teaching and providing feedback in response to the Peer Review criteria. What unfolded was highly useful professional learning for us both. In this post we share our experience of peer review and the lessons learnt.

Similar to many Australian and international universities, RMIT has now implemented a process of peer review of teaching. At RMIT, peer review is now mandated for teaching staff who seek an individual teaching award, and in 2015 is also to be introduced for staff seeking academic promotion.

In tertiary education, beyond teaching practice such as team teaching, and Peer Partnerships programs, there are limited opportunities for staff to share their practice with a peer, and receive feedback. The often ‘siloed’ nature of teaching presents many challenges for educators and opening your class room up to someone else for the purpose of peer review can be extremely daunting.

So what does this process mean for teachers? And how can they best prepare to have a positive experience of peer review?

Here are five lessons learnt through our experience of the peer review process:

  1. Understand and engage in the process

Before getting involved in the process it is vital that you understand the peer review process and its purpose. Attend your university’s workshops and information sessions. Familiarise yourself with your university’s guidelines and importantly engage with the teaching dimensions/criteria against which you will be reviewed. Remember, these dimensions/criteria align with recognised principles of good teaching practice. Reflect on how these criteria relate to your own practice and list and discuss with a peer examples which provide evidence of how you contribute to and demonstrate these dimensions in your practice. Contact staff implementing the Peer Review process, ask them questions and share any concerns you may have. At RMIT the process of Peer Review is implemented through the university’s Learning and Teaching Unit Stills of Ehsan Teachingwhich runs induction/information workshops, and provides advice for participants.

  1. Seek support and advice

There are many processes in academia that are competitive, but remember, this is NOT one of them. Your teaching practice will be reviewed against established dimensions/criteria. You are not competing with your peers so if you feel confident enough, share your experiences along the way, and seek and provide support to your peers. Do not hold back. Talk to people who can support you. Your colleagues, peers, program manager, and your university’s Learning and Teaching Advisors/Academic Developers can help you through the process. You may need them to simply listen to you to your concerns and anxieties. Having a colleague to talk to can really help ease your anxiety; this is not a journey that you have to go through alone.

  1. Engage with your peer reviewers

Whilst the formal peer review takes place in your class, there is also important activity which occurs prior to and following the peer review. Similar to other universities, at RMIT it is mandatory to meet with your peer reviewers at least once prior to the review. Remember, any meetings and discussions with your peer reviewers help to build the context for your review. Peer reviewers are experienced educators and learning and teaching experts and your dialogue with them will help to ease your concerns and/or fears. In doing so, demonstrate your knowledge and command of the discipline field and discuss your teaching approach. Initiate further contact with your peer reviewers as needed including if you have questions or require further clarification and advice. Importantly, provide the context for your teaching prior to the review. Identify: the aim of your session, how your class relates to the course and the wider program, the expectations of your students, the class dynamic, the nature of your particular cohort, your teaching and learning goals for the particular session, and provide any other information that you believe would assist your reviewers to understand your teaching and the class to be reviewed.

  1. Seek feedback on your teaching prior to your peer review:

Have the confidence to ask one of your peers or your Learning and Teaching Advisor to observe your teaching practice and provide confidential feedback. Provide the peer review dimensions/criteria and seek feedback about your teaching. It will be very helpful to see your teaching through someone else’s eyes. You also get used to having someone other than your students sitting in your class. In this way, you can dip your toe in the water, and ease yourself more gently into the process of observation, review and feedback.

Access other programs which support peer feedback. Participate in a Peer Partnerships program for example where you partner with another teacher to observe each other’s practice and provide feedback to support continuous improvement. At RMIT you can take up the opportunity to participate in RMIT Peer Partnerships. RMIT Peer Partnerships is a voluntary, confidential program involving peer observation of teaching. RMIT Peer Partnerships facilitates highly useful relevant professional development learning and can assist you to become more comfortable and at ease with sharing your teaching practice, and support critical reflection on practice through giving and receiving feedback.

  1. Believe in yourself: don’t panic, this is just another day in the class.

The prospect of peer review can seem very daunting for many staff. Most if not all educators experience some level of discomfort when having their teaching reviewed or evaluated, these are normal human reactions. However, if you have done your preparation, you understand the process, and you seek feedback beforehand, you will be well placed to feel more comfortable about the process. You just need to resist the nerves in the first five minutes of the class and as soon as you relax you will forget the reviewers are even sitting there. Remember, reviewers are experienced teachers and they can tell if you pretend. Just be yourself. After all this is just another day in the class.

The next steps…

As you contemplate whether you are ready to embark upon the Peer Review journey remember to access all supports and enlist the support of a peer AND remind yourself that the process is one which endeavours to strengthen the teaching culture of your university and to also value and recognise your good teaching practice.

Share your thoughts and questions in the comments section!
Find us on:

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,513 other followers