Defaults matter

I have often written about the subtle and not-so-subtle constraints of learning management systems (LMSs) that channel teaching down a limited number of paths, and so impose implicit pedagogies on us that may be highly counter productive and dissuade us from teaching well – this paper is an early expression of my thoughts on the matter. I came across another example today.

When a teacher enters comments on assignments in Moodle (and in most LMSs), it is a one-time, one-way publication event. The student gets a notification and that’s it. While it is perfectly possible for a dialogue to continue via email or internal messaging, or to avoid having to use such a system altogether, or to overlay processes on top of it to soften the hard structure of the tool, the design of the software makes it quite clear this is not expected or normal. At best, it is treated as a separate process. The design of such an assignment submission system is entirely about delivering a final judgement. It is a tacit assertion of teacher power. The most we can do to subvert that in Moodle is to return an assignment for resubmission, but that carries its own meanings and, on resubmission, still returns us to the same single feedback box.

Defaults are very powerful things that profoundly shape how we behave (e.g. see here, here and here). Imagine how different the process would be if the comment box were, by default, part of a dialogue, inviting response from the student. Imagine how different it would be if the student could respond by submitting a new version (not replacing the old) or by posting amendments in a further submission, to keep going until it is just right, not as a process of replacement but of evolution and augmentation. You might think of this as being something like a journal submission system, where revisions are made in response to reviewers until the article is acceptable. But we could go further. What if it were treated as a debugging process, using approaches like those in Bugzilla or Github to track down issues and refine solutions until they were as good as they could be, incorporating feedback and help from students and others on or beyond the course? It seems to me that, if we are serious about assignments as a formative means of helping someone to learn (and we should be), that’s what we should be doing. There is really no excuse, ever, for a committed student to get less than 100% in the end. If students are committed and willing to persist until they have learned what they come here to learn, it is not ever the students’ failure when they achieve less than the best: it is the teachers’.

This is, of course, one of the motivations behind the Landing. In part we built this site to enable pedagogies like this that do not fit the moulds that LMSs ever-so-subtly press us into. The Landing has its own set of constraints and assumptions, but it is an alternative and complementary set, albeit one that is designed to be soft and malleable in many more ways than a standard LMS. The point, though, is not that any one system is better than any other but that all of them embed pedagogical and process assumptions, some of which are inherently incompatible.

The solution is, I think, not to build a one-size-fits-all system. Yes, we could easily enough modify Moodle to behave the way I suggest and in myriad other ways (e.g. I’d love to see dialogue available in every component, to allow student-controlled spaces wherever we need them, to allow students to add to their own courses, etc) but that doesn’t work either. The more we pack in, the softer the system becomes, and so the harder it is to operate it effectively. Greater flexibility always comes at a high price, in cognitive load, technical difficulty and combinatorial complexity. Moreover, the more we make it suit one group of people, the less well it suits others. This is the nature of monolithic systems.

There are a few existing ways to greatly reduce this problem, without massive reinvention and disruption. One is to disaggregate the pieces. We could build the LMS out of interoperable blocks so that we could, for instance, replace the standard submission system with a different one, without impacting other parts of the system. That was the goal of OKI and the now-defunct E-Framework although, in both cases, assembly was almost always a centralized IT management function and not available to those who most needed it – students and teachers. Neither have really made it to the mainstream. Sakai (an also-ran LMS that still persists) continues to use OKI technologies under the hood but the e-framework (a far better idea) seems dead in the water. These were both great ideas. There just wasn’t the will or the money, and competition from incumbents like Moodle and Blackboard was too strong. Other widget-based methods (e.g. using Wookie) offer more hope, because they do not demand significant retooling of existing systems, but they are currently far from on the ascendent and the promising EU TENCompetence project that was a leader behind this seems moribund, its site offline.

Another approach is to use modules/plugins/building blocks within an existing system. However, this can be difficult or impossible to manage in a manner that delivers control to the end user without at the same time making it difficult for those that do not want or need such control, because LMSs are monoliths that have to address the needs of many people. Not everyone needs a big toolkit and, for many, it would actively make things worse if they had one. Judicious use of templates can help with that, but the real problem is that one size does not fit all. Also, it locks you in to a particular platform, making evolution dependent on designers whose goals may not align with how you want to teach.

Bearing that in mind, another way to cope with the problem is to use multiple independent systems bound by interoperability standards – LTI, OpenBadges or TinCan, for example. With such standards, different learning platforms can become part of the same federated environment, sharing data, processing, learning paths and so on, allowing records to be kept centrally while enabling incompatible pedagogies to run independently within each system. That seems to me to be the most sensible option right now. It’s still more complex for all concerned than taking the easy path, and it increases management burden as well as replicating too much functionality for no particularly good reason. But sometimes the easy path is the wrong one, and diversity drives growth and improvement.

I am a professional learner, employed as a Full Professor at Athabasca University, where I research lots of things broadly in the area of learning and technology and teach mainly in the School of Computing & Information Systems, of which I am the Chair. I am married, with two grown-up children, and live in beautiful Vancouver.

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