A few thoughts on learning management systems, and on integrated learning environments and their implementation

Why do we build digital learning systems to mimic classrooms?

It is understandable that, when we teach in person, we have to occupy and make different uses of the same or similar environments like classrooms, labs, workshops, lecture theatres, and offices. There are huge financial, physical, and organizational constraints on making the environment fit the task, so it would be madness to build a whole new classroom every time we wished to run a different class.

Online, we could build anything we like

But why do we do the same when we teach online? There are countless tools available and, if none are suitable, it is not too hard to build them or modify them to suit our needs. Once they are built, moving between them just takes a tap of a screen or the click of a mouse. Heck, you can even occupy several of them at once if you have a decent monitor or more than one device.

So why don’t we do this?

Here are a few of the more obvious reasons that using the perfect app for the context of study rarely happens:

  • Teachers’ lack of knowledge of the options (it takes time and effort to discover what’s available).
  • Teachers’ lack of skill in using them (most interesting tools have a learning curve, and that gets steeper in inverse proportion to the softness and diversity of the toolset, so most teachers don’t even know how to make the most of what they already have).
  • Lack of time and/or money for development (a real-life application is what it contains, not just the shell that contains it, and it is not always as easy to take existing stuff and put it in a new tool as it might be in a physical space).
  • Costs and difficulties in management (each tool adds costs in managing faults, configuration, accounting for use, performance, and security).
  • Cognitive load involved for learners in adapting to the metaphors, signposts, and methods needed to use the tool itself.

All of these are a direct consequence of the very diversity that would make us want to use different apps in the first place. This is a classic Faustian bargain in which the technology does what we want, and in the process creates new problems to solve.  Every virtual system invents at least some of the dynamics of how people and things interact with it and within it. In effect, every app has its own physics. That makes them harder to find out about, harder to learn, harder to develop, costlier to manage, and more difficult to navigate than the static, fixed facilities found in particular physical locations. They are all different, there are few if any universals, and any universal today may become a conditional tomorrow. Gravity doesn’t necessarily work the same way in virtual systems.

image of a pile of containersAnd so we get learning management systems

The learning management system (LMS) kind of deals with all of these problems: poorly, harmfully, boringly, and painfully, but it does deal with them. Currently, most of the teaching at Athabasca University is through the open source Moodle LMS, lightly modified by us because our needs are not quite like others (self-pacing and all that). But Moodle is not special: in terms of what it does and how it does it, it is not significantly different from any other mainstream LMS – Blackboard, Brightspace, Canvas, Sakai, whatever.

Almost every LMS essentially automates the functions, though not exactly the form, of traditional classrooms. In other parts of the world people prefer to use the term ‘managed learning environment’ (MLE) for such things, and it is the most dominant representative of a larger category of systems usually described as virtual learning environments (VLEs) that also includes things like MOOs (multi-user dungeons, object oriented), immersive learning environments, and simpler web-based teaching systems that replicate aspects of classrooms such as Google Classroom or Microsoft’s gnarly bundle of hastily repurposed rubbish for teaching that I’m not sure even has a name yet. Notice the spatial metaphors in many of these names.

Little boxes made of ticky tacky

The people who originally designed LMSs back in the 90s (I did so myself) based their designs on the functions and entities found in a traditional university because that was their context, and that was where they had to fit. Metaphorically, an LMS or MLE is a big university building with rather uniform classrooms, with perhaps a yard where you can camp out with a few other systems (plugins, LTI hooks, etc) that conform to its requirements and that are allowed in to classrooms when invited, and a few doors and gateways (mainly hyperlinks) linking it circuitously or in jury-rigged fashion to other similarly weakly connected buildings (e.g. places to register, places to seek support, places to talk to an advisor, places to complain, places to find books, and so on). It doesn’t have metaphorical corridors, halls, common rooms, canteens, yards, libraries or any of the other things that normally make up a physical university. You rarely get to even be aware of other classrooms beyond those you are in. Some people (me in a past life) might give classrooms cute names like ‘the learning cafe’ but it’s still just another classroom. You teleport from one classroom to the next because what happens in corridors (really a big lot of incredibly important pedagogically useful stuff, as it happens) is not perceived by the designers as a useful classroom function to be automated or perhaps, more charitably, they just couldn’t figure out how to automate that.

Reified roles

It’s a very controlled environment where everyone has a programmatically enforced role (mostly reflecting traditional educational roles), that may vary according to the room, but that are far less fluid than those in physical spaces. There are strong hierarchies, and limited opportunities for moving between them. Some of those hierarchies are new: the system administrator, for instance, has way more power than anyone in a physical university to determine how learning happens, like an architect with the power to move walls, change the decor, add extensions, and so on, at will. The programmers of the system are almost god-like in their command of its physics. But the ways that they give teachers (or learning designers, or administrators) control, as designers, directors, and regulators of the classroom, are perhaps the most pernicious. In a classroom a teacher may lead (and, by default, usually does). In an LMS, a teacher (or someone playing that role) must lead. The teacher sees things that students cannot, and controls things that the students may not. A teacher configures the space, and determines with some precision how it will be used. With a lot of effort and risk, it can be made to behave differently, but it almost never is.

Functions are everything

An LMS is typically built along functional lines, and those functions are mostly based on loose, superficial observations of what teachers and students seem to do in physical classrooms. The metaphorical classrooms are weird, because they are structured by teaching (seldom learning) function rather than along pedagogical lines: for instance, if you want to talk with someone, you normally need to go to a separate enclosed area inside the classroom or leave a note on the teacher’s desk. Same if you want to take a test, or share your work with others. Another function, another space. Some have many little rooms for different things. Lectures are either literally that (video recordings) or (more usefully, from a learning perspective), text and images to be read on screen, based on the assumption that the only function of lectures is information transmission (it is so very, very much not – that’s its least useful and least effective role). There’s seldom a chance to put even put up your hand to question something. Notices can usually only be pinned on the wall by teachers. Classroom timetables are embodied in software because of course you need a rigid and unforgiving timetable in a medium that sells itself on enabling learning anywhere, any time. Some, including Moodle, will allow you to break up the content differently, but it’s still another timetable; just a timetable without dates. It’s still the teacher who sets the order, pacing and content.

Robot overlords

It’s a high-tech classroom. There are often robots there that are programmed to make you behave in ways determined by those higher in the hierarchy (sometimes teachers, sometimes administrators, sometimes the programmers of the software). For instance, they might act as gatekeepers that prevent you from moving on to the next section before completing the current one, or they might prevent you submitting work before or after a specified date. They might mark your work. There are surveillance cameras everywhere, recording your every move, often only accessible to those with more powerful roles (though sometimes a robot or two might give you a filtered view of it).

Beginnings and ends

You can’t usually go back and visit when your course is over because someone decided it would be a good idea to set opening and closing enrolment dates and assumed that, when they were done, the learning was done (which of course it never is – it keeps on evolving long after explicit teaching and testing occurred). Again, it’s because physical classes are scheduled and terms come to an end because they must be, not because it makes pedagogical sense. And, like almost everything, you can override this default, but hardly anyone ever does, because it brings back those Faustian bargains, especially in manageability.

Dull caricatures of physical spaces

Basically, the LMS is an automated set of metaphorical classrooms that hardens many of the undesirable by-products of educational systems in software in brain-dead ways that have little to do with how best to teach, and that stretch the spatial metaphors that inform it beyond breaking point. Each bit of automation and each navigational decision hardens pedagogical choices. For all the cozy metaphors, programmers invent rather than replicate physics, in the process warping reality in ways that do no good and much harm. Classrooms solved problems of physics for in-person teaching and form part of a much larger structure that has evolved to teach reasonably well (including corridors, common rooms, canteens, and libraries, as it happens). Their more visible functions are only a part of that and, arguably, not the main part. There is much pedagogy embedded in the ways that physical universities, whether by accident or design, have evolved over centuries to support learning in every quadrangle and nook of a coffee shop. LMSs just focus on a limited subset of teaching roles, and empower the teacher in ways that caricature their already excessive dominance in the classroom (which only occurred because it had to, thanks to physics and the constraints it imposed).

LMSs are crap, but they contain recognizable semblances of their physical counterparts and just enough configurability and flexibility to more or less work as teaching tools, a bit, for everyone, almost no matter what their level of digital proficiency might be. They more or less solve the Faustian bargains listed earlier, but they do so by stifling what we wanted and should have been able to do in the first place with online tools, in the process creating new and quite horrific problems, as well as demolishing most of what makes physical universities work in the first place. It never has been true that virtual learning environments are learning environments – they are only ever parts of them – and there are places to escape from them, such as the Landing, other virtual systems, or even just plain old email, but then all those Faustian bargains come back to haunt us again. There has to be a better way.

Beyond the LMS

Cognisant of the issues, Athabasca University is now some way down the path to developing its own distinctive solutions to these problems, in a multi-year multi-million-dollar initiative known as (following the spatial metaphor) the Integrated Learning Environment (ILE). The ILE is not an application. It is an umbrella term for a lot of different, usually independent systems working together as one. Though some of the most interesting opportunities are still only loosely imagined, perhaps because they cause problems that are fiendishly hard to solve (e.g. how can we integrate systems that we build ourselves without creating risks for the rest of the ILE, and what happens when they need to be maintained?) a lot of progress is being made on the non-teaching foundations on which the rest depends (student admin systems, support tools, procedures, etc), as well as on the most visible and perhaps the biggest of its parts, BrightSpace, a proprietary commercial LMS that is meant to replace Moodle, for no obvious pedagogical or technical reasons (it’s no better). It might make economic sense. I don’t know, but I do know that open source software typically costs a fair bit to own, albeit because of the things that make it a much better idea (freedom, flexibility, ownership, etc). There is probably a fair bit of time and money being spent with Desire2Learn (makers of Brightspace) on the things that we spent a fair bit of time and money on many years ago to make Moodle a bit less classroom-like. The choice no doubt has something to do with how reliably and easily it can be made to work with some of the other proprietary commercial systems that someone has decided will make up the ILE. It bothers me greatly that we are not trying hard to choose open source solutions, for reasons that will become clearer in the rest of this post. However, (pedagogically speaking) all the mainstream LMSs are much of a muchness, making the same mistakes as one another in very similar ways, so it probably won’t wreck too much of what we already do within Moodle. But, on its own, it won’t move us much further forward and we could do it better. That’s what the ILE is supposed to do – to make the LMS just a part of a much larger teaching environment, intimately connected with the rest of what the university does for or with students, and extensible with new and better ways of learning, teaching, and assessing learning.

picture of lego bricksLego bricks make poor metaphors

When we were first imagining the ILE, though the approach was admirably participative, engaging much of the university community, I was very worried by the things we were encouraged to focus on. It was all about the functionality, the usability, the design, the tools, the pedagogies, the business systems that supported them. Those things matter, for sure, and should be not be ignored, but they should and will change and grow all the time: in fact, part of the point of building this thing is to do just that. Using the city metaphor, pretty much all that we (collectively) considered were the spaces (the rooms, mainly), and the stuff that goes on inside them, much like LMS designers thought of universities as just collections of classrooms in which teaching functions were performed. Space and stuff are, not uncoincidentally, exactly what Stewart Brand identified long ago as inevitably being the fastest-changing, most volatile parts of any town or city (after site, structure, skin, and services). I’ve written a fair bit on the universality of this principle across all systems. It’s a solid structural principle that applies as much to ecosystems and educational systems as to cities. As Brand observes himself, drawing from O’Neill et al (1986), the larger, slower-changing elements of any system affect the smaller, faster-changing more than vice versa. This is for much the same reasons that path dependencies set in. It’s about the prior providing the context for what follows. Flexible things have to fit into the gaps left by less flexible, older, pre-existing things. In physical spaces, of course these tend to be bigger and/or slower, but the same is true in virtual spaces, where size seldom matters that much, but hardness (inflexibility, brittleness) really does. Though lip service was paid to the word ‘integrated’ in our discussions,  I had the strong feeling that the kind of integration we had in mind was that of a Lego set. In fact, I think we were aiming to find a ‘Lego Athabasca University’ set, with assembly instructions and a picture on the box. The vendors who came to talk with us made much of how effectively they could do that, rather than how effectively they could make it possible for others to do that.

Metaphors matter. Lego bricks have to fit together tightly, in pre-specified ways, especially if you are following a plan. If you want to move them around, you have to dismantle a bit of the structure to fit them in. It’s difficult to integrate things that are not bricks, or that are made by different toy companies to work in different ways. At best you get what Brand calls ‘magazine architecture’, or ‘no road’ architecture, beautiful, fit for purpose, intricate and solid, but slow to learn. Lego is not a terrible way to build, compared with buying everything pre-assembled, but it could be improved.

Signals and boundaries

Drawing inspiration from John Holland’s brilliant last work, Signals & Boundaries, I tried to make the case that, instead, we should be focusing on the boundaries (the interfaces between the buildings and the rest of the city), and the signals that pass between them (the people, the messages, etc, the forms they take and how they move around). In Brand’s terms, I wanted us to be thinking about skin and services, and perhaps even structure, though site – Athabasca University – was a given. Though a few people nodded in agreement, I think it mainly fell on deaf ears. We wanted oven-ready solutions, not the infrastructure to enable those solutions. Though the city metaphor works well, because we are talking about human constructions, others would result in similar ways of thinking: cells in bodies, organisms in ecosystems, brains, termite mounds, and so on. All are organized by boundaries (at many levels of hierarchy) and the signals that pass between them.

The Lego set metaphor – whether deliberately or not – seems to have prevailed for now. A lot of old buildings are being slated for demolition and a lot of new virtual buildings are now being erected as part of this development, many of them chosen not because of problems with existing buildings but so that they can more easily connect together and live in the same cloud. This will very likely work, for now, but it is not cheap and it is not flexible, especially given the fact that most of it is not open so, like a rental property, we are not allowed to fix things, add utilities, change the walls, etc, and we are wholly dependent on the landlords being nice to us and each other (knowing that some – ahem, Microsoft – have a long history of abusing their tenants). Those buildings will age. We will find them cramped. Some will age faster than others, and will have to be modified to keep up, perhaps at high cost. Companies renting them might go out of business or change their terms so we might have to demolish the buildings and rent/make new ones. We will be annoyed at how they do things, usually without asking us. We will hate the landlords who dictate what we can do and how we can do it, and who will keep upping the rent while not doing what we ask. We will want more, and the only way to get it will be to build extensions, buy new brick sets, if it is not enough to pay someone to remodel the interiors (and it won’t be). Of course, because most of the big structural elements will not be open source, we will not be able to do that ourselves.

What the ILE really should be

The ILE is, I think, poorly named, because it should not be an environment at all. Following the building metaphor, the ILE is (or should be) more like the system that connects a lot of buildings, bringing them together into a coherent, safe, livable community. It’s infrastructure and services; it is the roads, the traffic signals, the doors, the sidewalks, the water pipes, the waste pipes, the electricity, the network cables; it is the services – fire, police, schools, traffic control, etc; it is all the many rules, standards, norms and regulations that make them work together to help make an environment in which people can live, work, play, and grow. It’s part of the environment – the part that makes it work – but it is not the environment itself. The environment itself is Athabasca University, not just the tools, processes, and systems that support its functions. That includes, most importantly, the people who are part of the university, or who are visitors to it, who are not just users of the environment or dwellers in its walls, but who are or should be the most significant and visible parts of it, just as trees are part of the environment of forests, not users of the forest. Those people live in physical as well as other virtual environments (social media, Word documents, websites, etc) that the ILE can connect together too, to make them a part of it, so the spatial metaphor gets weird at this point. The ILE makes environmental boundaries fuzzy, permeable, and shifting. It’s not an ILE, it’s an ILI – an integrated learning infrastructure.

If we focused on the connections and interfaces, and on how information and processes need to pass across them, and if we thought hard about the nature of those signals, then we could build a system that is resilient, that adapts, that lasts, that grows, that evolves, with parts that we can seamless replace or improve because the interfaces – the building facades, the mains pipes, the junction boxes, etc – will mostly stay the same, evolving slowly as they should. This is about strategy, not planning,  a way of thinking about systems rather than a sequence of things to do.

Some of the key people involved in the process realize this. They are talking about standards, protocols, and projects to build interfaces between systems, and imagining future needs, though they are inevitably distracted by the process of renting Lego bricks, so I am not sure how much they will be able to stay focused on that. I hope they prevail over those who think they are building a set of classrooms and tightly connected admin offices out of self-contained interlocking bricks because our future depends on getting it right. We are aiming to grow. It just takes one critical piece in the Lego building to fail to support that, and the rest falls apart like a… well, like a pile of bricks.

References

Brand, S. (1997). How buildings learn. Phoenix Illustrated. https://www.penguinrandomhouse.ca/books/320919/how-buildings-learn-by-stewart-brand/9780140139969

Holland, J. H. (2012). Signals and Boundaries: Building Blocks for Complex Adaptive Systems. MIT Press.  https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/signals-and-boundaries

O’Neill, R.V., DeAngelis, D.L, Waide, J. B., & Allen, T. F. H. (1986). A Hierarchical Concept of Ecosystems. Princeton University Press. http://www.gbv.de/dms/bs/toc/025157787.pdf

Postman, N. (1998). Five things we need to know about technological change. Denver, Colorado, 28.  https://student.cs.uwaterloo.ca/~cs492/papers/neil-postman–five-things.html

The NGDLE: We Are the Architects | EDUCAUSE

A nice overview of where the NGDLE concept was earlier this year. We really need to be thinking about this at AU because the LMS alone will not take us where we need to be. One of the nice things about this article is that it talks quite clearly about the current and future roles of existing LMSs, placing them quite neatly within the general ecosystem implied by the NGDLE.

The article calls me out on my prediction that the acronym would not catch on though, in my defence, I think it would have been way more popular with a better acronym! The diagram is particularly useful as a means to understand the general concept at, if not a glance, then at least pretty quickly…

ngdle overview

Address of the bookmark: https://er.educause.edu/articles/2017/7/the-ngdle-we-are-the-architects

Originally posted at: https://landing.athabascau.ca/bookmarks/view/2752680/the-ngdle-we-are-the-architects-educause

Learnium

Learnium is yet another attempt to overlay a cloud-based social medium on institutional learning, in the same family as systems like Edmodo, Wikispaces Classroom, Lore, GoingOn, etc, etc. I deliberately exclude from this list the far more excellent, theoretically grounded, and innovative Curatr, as well as dumb bandwagoners like – of all things – Blackboard (not deserving of a link but you could look up their atrocious social media management tools if you want to see how not to do this).

Learnium has a UK focus and it includes mobile apps as well as institutional integration tools. It looks slick, has a good range of tools, and seems to be gaining a little traction. This is trying to do something a little like what we tried to do with the Landing, but it should not be confused with the Landing in intent or design philosophy, notwithstanding some superficial similarities. Although the Landing is often used for teaching purposes, it deliberately avoids things like institutional roles, and deliberately blurs such distinctions when its users make use of them (eg. when they create course groups). It can be quite confusing for students expecting a guided space and top-down structure, and annoying if you are a teacher trying to control the learning space to behave that way, but that’s simply not how it is designed to work. The Landing is a learning space, where everyone is a teacher, not an institutional teaching space where the role is reserved for a few.

Learnium has a far more institutionally managed, teacher/course-oriented perspective. From what I can tell, it’s basically an LMS, cut down in some places, enhanced in its social aspects. It’s closer to Canvas than Moodle in that regard. It might have some value for teachers that like the social media tools but that dislike the lack of teacher-control, lack of privacy, deeply problematic ethics, and ugly intrusions of things like Facebook, and who do not want the cost or hassle of managing their own environments.  It is probably a more congenial environment for social pedagogies than most institutional LMSs, allowing learning to spread beyond class groups and supporting some kinds of social networking. There is a lot of scope and potential for vertical social networks like this that serve a particular kind of community in a tailored fashion. This is very much not Facebook, and that’s a very good thing.

But Learnium is an answer to the question ‘how can I use social media in my courses?’ rather than ‘how can social media help to change how people learn?’ It is also an answer to the question of ‘how can Learnium make money?’ rather than ‘how can Learnium help its users?’ And, like any cloud-based service of this nature (sadly including Curatr), it is not a safe place to entrust your learning community: things like changes to terms of service, changes to tools, bankcruptcy ,and takeovers are an ever-present threat. With the exception of open systems that allow you to move everything, lock stock and barrel, to somewhere else with no significant loss of data or functionality, an institution (and its students) can never own a cloud-based system like this. It might be a small difference from an end user perspective, at least until it blows up, but it’s all the difference in the world.

Address of the bookmark: https://www.learnium.com/about/institutions/

Original page

The LMS as a paywall

I was writing about openness in education in a chapter I am struggling with today, and had just read Tony Bates’s comments on iQualify, an awful cloud rental service offering a monolithic locked-in throwback that just makes me exclaim, in horror, ‘Oh good grief! Seriously?’ And it got me thinking.

Learning management systems, as implemented in academia, are basically paywalls. You don’t get in unless you pay your fees. So why not pick up on what publishers infamously already do and allow people to pay per use? In a self-paced model like that used at Athabasca it makes perfect sense and most of the infrastructure – role-based time-based access etc – and of course the content already exists. Not every student needs 6 months of access or the trimmings of a whole course but, especially for those taking a challenge route (just the assessment), it would often be useful to have access to a course for a little while in order to get a sense of what the expectations might be, the scope of the content, and the norms and standards employed. On occasion, it might even be a good idea to interact with others. Perhaps we could sell daily, weekly or monthly passes. Or we could maybe do it at a finer level of granularity too/instead: a different pass for different topics, or different components like forums, quizzes or assignment marking. Together, following from the publishers’ lead, such passes might cost 10 or 20 times the total cost of simply subscribing to a whole course if every option were purchased, but students could strategically pick the parts they actually need, so reducing their own overall costs.

This idea is, of course, stupid. This is not because it doesn’t make economic and practical sense: it totally does, notwithstanding the management, technical and administrative complexity it entails. It is stupid because it flips education on its head. It makes chunks of learning into profit centres rather than the stuff of life. It makes education into a product rather than celebrating its role as an agent of personal and societal growth. It reduces the rich, intricately interwoven fabric of the educational experience to a set of instrumentally-driven isolated events and activities. It draws attention to accreditation as the be-all and end-all of the process. It is aggressively antisocial, purpose-built to reduce the chances of forming a vibrant learning community. This is beginning to sound eerily familiar. Is that not exactly what, in too high a percentage of our courses, we are doing already?

If we and other universities are to survive and thrive, the solution is not to treat courses and accreditation as products or services. The ongoing value of a university is to catalyze the production and preservation of knowledge: that is what we are here for, that is what makes us worthwhile having. Courses are just tools that support that process, though they are far from the only ones, while accreditation is not even that: it’s just a byproduct, effluent from the educational process that happens to have some practical societal value (albeit at enormous cost to learning). In physical universities there are vast numbers of alternatives that support the richer purpose of creating and sustaining knowledge: cafes, quads, hallways, common rooms, societies, clubs, open lectures, libraries, smoking areas, student accommodation, sports centres, theatres, workshops, studios, research labs and so on. Everywhere you go you are confronted with learning opportunities and people to learn with and from, and the taught courses are just part of the mix, often only a small part. At least, that is true in a slightly idealized world – sadly, the vast majority of physical universities are as stupidly focused on the tools as we are, so those benefits are an afterthought rather than the main thing to celebrate, and are often the first things to suffer when cuts come along. Online, such beyond-the-course opportunities are few and far between: the Landing is (of course) built with exactly that concern in mind, but there’s precious little sign of it anywhere else at AU, one of the most advanced online universities in the world.  The nearest thing most students get to it is the odd Facebook group or Twitter interaction, which seems an awful waste to me, though a fascinating phenomenon that blurs the lines between the institution and the broader community.

It is already possible to take a high quality course for free in almost any subject that interests you and, more damagingly, any time now there will soon be sources of accreditation that are as prestigious as those awarded by universities but orders of magnitude cheaper, not to mention compellingly cut-price  options from universities that can leverage their size and economies of scale (and, perhaps, cheap labour) to out-price the rest of us. Competing on these grounds makes no sense for a publicly funded institution the role of which is not to be an accreditation mill but to preserve, critique, observe, transform and support society as a whole. We need to celebrate and cultivate the iceberg, not just its visible tip. Our true value is not in our courses but in our people (staff and students) and the learning community that they create.

The EDUCAUSE NGDLE and an API of One's Own (Michael Feldstein)

Michael Feldstein responds on NGDLEs with a brilliant in-depth piece on the complex issues involved in building standards for online learning tool interoperability and more. I wish I’d read this before posting my own most recent response because it addresses several of the same issues with similar conclusions, but in greater depth and with more eloquence, as well as bringing up some other important points such as the very complex differences in needs between different contexts of application. My post does add things that Michael’s overlooks and the perspective is a little different (so do read it anyway!), but the overlapping parts are far better and more thoroughly expressed by Michael.

This is an idea that has been in the air and ripe for exploitation for a very long time but, as Michael says in his post and as I also claim in mine, there are some very big barriers when it comes down to implementing such a thing and a bunch of wicked problems that are very hard to resolve to everyone’s satisfaction. We have been here before, several times: let’s hope the team behind NGDLE finds ways to avoid the mistakes we made in the past.

Address of the bookmark: http://mfeldstein.com/the-educause-ngdle-and-an-api-of-ones-own/

Niggles about NGDLEs – lessons from ELF

Malcom Brown has responded to Tony Bates and me in an Educause guest post in which he defends the concept of the NGDLE and expands a bit on the purposes behind it. This does help to clarify the intent although, as I mentioned in my earlier post, I am quite firmly in favour of the idea, so I am already converted on the main points. I don’t mind the Lego metaphor if it works, but I do think we should concentrate more on the connections than the pieces. I also see that it is fairly agnostic to pedagogy, at least in principle. And I totally agree that we desperately need to build more flexible, assemblable systems along these lines if we are to enable effective teaching, management of the learning process and, much much more importantly, if we are to support effective learning. Something like the proposed environment (more of an ecosystem, I’d say) is crucial if we want to move on.

But…

It has been done before, over ten years ago in the form of ELF, in much more depth and detail and with large government and standards bodies supporting it, and it is important to learn the lessons of what was ultimately a failed initiative. Well – maybe not failed, but certainly severely stalled. Parts persist and have become absorbed, but the real value of it was as a model for building tools for learning, and that model is still not as widespread as it should be. The fact that the Educause initiative describes itself as ‘next generation’ is perhaps the most damning evidence of its failure.

Elves

Why ELF ‘failed’

I was not a part of nor close to the ELF project but, as an outsider, I suspect that it suffered from four major and interconnected problems:

  1. It was very technically driven and framed in the language of ICTs, not educators or learners. Requirements from educators were gathered in many ways, with workshops, working groups and a highly distributed team of experts in the UK, Australia, the US, Canada, the Netherlands and New Zealand (it was a very large project). Some of the central players had a very deep understanding of the pedagogical and organizational needs of not just learners but organizations that support them, and several were pioneers in personal learning environments (PLEs) that went way beyond the institution. But the focus was always on building the technical infrastructure – indeed, it had to be, in order to operationalize it. For those outside the field, who had not reflected deeply on the reasons this was necessary, it likely just seemed like a bunch of techies playing with computers. It was hard to get the message across.
  2. It was far too over-ambitious, perhaps bolstered by the large amounts of funding and support from several governments and large professional bodies. The e-learning framework was just one of several strands like e-science, e-libraries and so on, that went to make up the e-framework. After a while, it simply became the e-framework and, though conceptually wonderful, in practical terms it was attempting far too much in one fell swoop. It became so broad, complex and fuzzy that it collapsed under its own weight. It was not helped by commercial interests that were keen to keep things as proprietary and closed as they could get away with. Big players were not really on board with the idea of letting thousands of small players enter their locked-in markets, which was one of the avowed intents behind it. So, when government funding fizzled out, there was no one to take up such a huge banner. A few small flags might have been way more successful.
  3. It was too centralized (oddly, given its aggressively decentralized intent and the care taken to attempt to avoid that). With the best of intent, developers built over-engineered standards relying on web service architectures that the rest of the world was abandoning because they were too clunky, insufficiently agile and much too troublesome to implement. I am reminded, when reading many of the documents that were produced at the time, of the ISO OSI network standards of the late 80s that took decades to reach maturity through ornate webs of committees and working groups, were beautifully and carefully engineered, and that were thoroughly and completely trounced by the lighter, looser, more evolved, more distributed TCP/IP standards that are now pretty much ubiquitous. For large complex systems, evolution beats carefully designed engineering every single time.
  4. The fact that it was created by educators whose framing was entirely within the existing system meant that most of the pieces that claimed to relate to e-learning (as opposed to generic services) had nothing to do with learning at all, but were representative of institutional roles and structures: marking, grading, tracking, course management, resource management, course validation, curriculum, reporting and so on. None of this has anything to do with learning and, as I have argued on many occasions elsewhere, may often be antagonistic to learning. While there were also components that were actually about learning, they tended to be framed in the context of existing educational systems (writing lessons, creating formal portfolios, sequencing of course content, etc). Though very much built to support things like PLEs as well as institutional environments, the focus was the institution far more than the learner.

As far as I can tell, any implementation of the proposed NGDLE is going to run into exactly the same problems. Though the components described are contemporary and the odd bit of vocabulary has evolved a bit, all of them can be found in the original ELF model and the approach to achieving it seems pretty much the same. Moreover, though the proposed architecture is flexible enough to support pretty much anything – as was ELF – there is a tacit assumption that this is about education as we know it, updated to support the processes and methods that have been developed since (and often in response to) the heinous mistakes we made when we designed the LMSs that dominate education today. This is not surprising – if you ask a bunch of experts for ideas you will get their expertise, but you will not get much in the way of invention or new ideas. The methodology is therefore almost guaranteed to miss the next big thing. Those ideas may come up but they will be smoothed out in an averaging process and dissenting models will not become part of the creed. This is what I mean when I criticize it as a view from the inside.

Much better than the LMS

If implemented, a NGDLE will undoubtedly be better than any LMS, with which there are manifold problems. In the first place, LMSs are uniformly patterned on mediaeval educational systems, with all their ecclesiastic origins, power structures and rituals intact. This is crazy, and actually reinforces a lot of things we should not be doing in the first place, like courses, intimately bound assessment and accreditation, and laughably absurd attempts to exert teacher control, without the slightest consideration of the fact that pedagogies determined by the physics of spaces in which we lock doors and keep learners controlled for an hour or two at a time make no sense whatsoever in online learning. In the second place, centralized systems have to maintain an uneasy and seldom great balance between catering to every need and remaining usably simple. This inevitable leads to compromises, from small things (e.g. minor formatting annoyances in discussion forums) to the large (e.g. embedded roles or units of granularity that make everything a course). While customization options can soften this a little, centralized systems are structurally flawed by their very nature. I have discussed such things in some depth elsewhere, including both my published books. Suffice to say, the LMS shapes us in its own image, and its own image is authoritarian, teacher-controlled and archaic. So, a system that componentizes things so that we can disaggregate any or all of it, provide local control (for teachers and other learners as well as institutions and administrators) and allow creative assemblies is devoutly to be wished for. Such a system architecture can support everything from the traditional authoritarian model to the loosest of personal learning environments, and much in between.

Conclusion

NGDLE is a misnomer. We have already seen that generation come and go. But, as a broad blueprint for where we should be going and what we should be doing now, both ELF and NGDLE provide patterns that we should be using and thinking about whenever we implement online learning tools and content and, for that, I welcome it. I am particularly appreciative that NGDLE provides reinvigorated support for approaches that I have been pushing for over a decade but that ICT departments and even faculty resist implacably. It’s great to be able to point to the product of so many experts and say ‘look, I am not a crank: this is a mainstream idea’. We need a sea-change in how we think of learning technologies and such initiatives are an important part of creating the culture and ethos that lets this happen. For that I totally applaud this initiative.

In practical terms, I don’t think much of this will come from the top-down, apart from in the development of lightweight, non-prescriptive standards and the norming of the concepts behind it. Of current standards, I think TinCan is hopeful, though I am a bit concerned that it is becoming over-ornate in its emerging development. LTI is a good idea, sufficiently mature, and light enough to be usable but, again, in its new iteration it is aiming higher than might be wise. Caliper is OK but also showing signs of excessive ambition. Open Badges are great but I gather that is becoming less lightweight in its latest incarnation. We need more of such things, not more elaborate versions of them. Unfortunately, the nature of technology is that it always evolves towards increasing complexity. It would be much better if we stuck with small, working pieces and assembled those together rather than constantly embellishing good working tools. Unix provides a good model for that, with tools that have worked more or less identically for decades but that constantly gain new value in recombination.

Footnote: what became of ELF?

It is quite hard to find information about ELF today. It seems (as an outsider) that the project just ground to a halt rather than being deliberately killed. There were lots of exemplar projects, lots of hooks and plenty of small systems built that applied the idea and the standards, many of which are still in use today, but it never achieved traction. If you want to find out more, here is a small reading list:

http://www.elframework.org/ – the main site (the link to the later e-framework site leads to a broken page)

http://www.elframework.org/projects.html  – some of the relevant projects ELF incorporated.

https://web.archive.org/web/20061112235250/http://www.jisc.ac.uk/uploaded_documents/Altilab04-ELF.pd – good, brief overview from 2004 of what it involved and how it fitted together

 https://web.archive.org/web/20110522062036/http://www.jisc.ac.uk/uploaded_documents/AltilabServiceOrientedFrameworks.pdf  – spooky: this is about ‘Next Generation E-Learning Environments’ rather than digital ones. But, though framed in more technical language, the ideas are the same as NGDLE.

http://www.webarchive.org.uk/wayback/archive/20110621221935/http://www.elearning.ac.uk/features/nontechguide2 – a slightly less technical variant (links to part 1, which explains web services for non-technical people)

See also https://web.archive.org/web/20090330220421/http://www.elframework.org/general/requirements/scenarios/Scenario%20Apparatus%20UK%205%20(manchester%20lipsig).doc and https://web.archive.org/web/20090330220553/http://www.elframework.org/general/requirements/use_cases/EcSIGusecases.zip, a set of scenarios and use cases that are eerily similar to those proposed for NGDLE.

If anyone has any information about what became of ELF, or documents that describe its demise, or details of any ongoing work, I’d be delighted to learn more!