Why is innovation in teaching in higher education so difficult? 3. Learning management systems

July 23, 2018 Tony Bates

Reasons for using a Learning Management System

I pointed out in my previous post that the LMS is a legacy system that can inhibit innovation in teaching. Also in an earlier post I had pointed to the articles about the future of Blackboard and other proprietary LMSs, and commented that 

what surprises me is that in an age of multimedia and social media…. anyone is using an LMS at all.

This provoked an unusually large number of comments, both on my blog and on Twitter, some supporting my position and many more critical of it. 

The main critical points made were that LMSs have many advantages:

  • convenience: an LMS is the most effective way to organise teaching materials, activities, grievances, tracking students;
  • linked to convenience: it is too much to expect instructors to integrate a range of tools from scratch; the LMS is a simpler way to do this;
  • compliance and security: an LMS is safer than general, public apps (less open to hacking), protects student privacy, and allows for audit/management of grievances.

I will try to address these points below, but note that none of these advantages has anything to do with improving students’ learning – they are mainly instructor, legal, administrative and institutional benefits.

I do not underestimate the importance of convenience to faculty and administrators, and of privacy and security for students, but I would like to see this balanced against the potential learning benefits of using something other than a learning management system. I will also argue that there are other ways to address convenience and privacy/security issues.

What do I mean by an LMS?

One of the issues here is definition. You can define an LMS so broadly that even a physical campus institution can be considered a learning management system. I want to make the distinction in particular between a ‘course’ and an LMS. By LMS I mean basically the off-the-shelf, proprietary software platforms such as Blackboard, Canvas, Brightspace, Moodle that are used in 90% or more of post-secondary institutions, at least in Canada. I don’t include specific platforms developed on a one-off basis for a particular institution or academic department, or by an individual instructor, as I see these more as tailored rather than bespoke. 

Until quite recently, I believed that any of these proprietary LMSs was flexible enough to allow me to teach in the way I wanted. I could post content, determine a schedule for what had to be covered each week, set student activities such as graded or ungraded assignments, communicate individually or in a group with students, set up discussion forums, choose topics for discussion, monitor the discussions, set and mark assessments, grade students, post their grades to the student information system, and give individual or group feedback, all in a secure online environment. 

However, I no longer wish to teach like that. With an LMS, I am given a tool then required to fit my teaching within the boundaries of that tool. I will shortly describe why I want to teach differently, but the essence here is that I want software solutions that fit the way I want to teach.  I want to decide how I want to teach, and more importantly, how I want my students to study, and then find the tool or tools that will allow me and them to do that. If I can be persuaded that an LMS can meet that requirement, fine, but I don’t believe at the moment that this is the case.

Why I want to change my approach to teaching and learning

Basically, in my previous approach, the focus was on me defining the curriculum/what had to be studied, the transmission of this knowledge to students, helping them to develop understanding and critical thinking about this content, and assessing the students. There was a focus on both content and skills, but a limited range of skills. In particular, I was the one who primarily defined what students had to know, and provided or directed them to the relevant content sources.

In a digital age, I don’t believe that this is any longer a satisfactory approach. I was doing most of the hard work, in defining what to read, and what students should do. They were limited in particular to writing or online multiple choice assessments to demonstrate what they had learned. Of course, students liked this. It was clear what they had to do, not just each week but often daily. They had a clear choice: do what I told them, or fail. 

I have written extensively in Teaching in a Digital Age about my ‘new’ approach to teaching and learning (although actually it’s not new – it is a somewhat similar approach I and some other teachers used in teaching in elementary schools in Britain in the 1960s, which was then called ‘discovery learning’ – see Bruner, 1961).

In essence, there is too much new knowledge being generated every day in every discipline for students to be able to master it all, particularly within the scope of a four year degree or even seven years’ higher education. Secondly, information is everywhere on the Internet. I don’t have to provide most of the content I wish to teach; it’s already out there somewhere.

The challenge now is to know where to find that information, how to analyse it, how to evaluate the reliability and relevance of that information, then organise and then apply that information in appropriate ways. This means knowing how to navigate the Internet, how to behave responsibly and ethically online, and how to protect one’s privacy and that of others. I used to do that for students; now I want them to learn how do it themselves.

I therefore want students not only to know things, but to be able to apply their knowledge appropriately within specific contexts. I want them in particular to develop the skills of independent learning, critical thinking, problem solving, and a broad digital literacy, because these are the skills they will need once they have left post-secondary education (or more accurately, skills that they will continue to develop after completing a formal qualification). 

I realise that this approach will not suit all instructors or fit well with every subject area, although I think these are challenges that most subject disciplines are now facing in a digital era.

What do I need to do to teach in this way?

I think it will help to use the concepts of ‘inside’ and ‘outside’. ‘Inside’ is within the relatively safe, secure confines of the institution (I am still talking digitally, here.) To be inside you must be a registered student (or an institutionally employed instructor). What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas. Students can discuss with other students and their instructors maybe highly controversial issues in an open, academic way, without fear of being sued, imprisoned or ridiculed. Their work and grades are secure (unless they choose to make them public). The same applies to instructors. They can communicate individually with students or to the class as a whole, but it is confidential within the boundaries of the institution.

‘Outside’ is whatever is available publicly through the Internet. This can be open educational resources, public reports, open data, open journals, open textbooks, publicly available You Tube videos, Wikipedia, social media, such as Facebook. It can also be student blogs and wikis, student-made YouTube videos, and those parts of their e-portfolios – a record of their studies – that they choose to make public. Students may also choose to use social media as part of their studies, but they will need to know that this is public and not private or secure, and what the risks are.

For me, most student learning will be done outside: finding, analysing, demonstrating and testing what they have learned. Some inter-student discussion or engagement with external sources such as the general public may take place outside, but students will be provided with guidelines or even rules about what is appropriate for discussion in public forums. Again, instructors will vary in the amount of learning they want done outside, but in my case I would like to push as much as possible ‘outside’ without compromising student security or safety. However, managing risk is a critical part of the learning process here for student and instructor alike.

It will still be necessary to provide a structure and schedule for the course, in terms of desired learning outcomes, student activities and when they are to be completed, and assessment rubrics. These guidelines can be strict and rigid, or open and vague, depending on the needs of the students and the learning objectives.

Student assessment will be mainly through written or multi-media reporting, organised probably through e-portfolios, which will have both a private and a public section. The students will choose (within guidelines) what to make public. Assessment will be continuous, as the e-portfolio is developed.

Is an LMS necessary for this kind of teaching?

This is where I need help. I am not an IT expert, and I’m not up-to-date with all the tools that are now available. If you can show me that I can do all these things within one of the current proprietary LMSs, then that’s fine with me, but unless they have changed significantly since I last used one, I will be surprised. I will though accept that perhaps for the ‘inside’ work, an LMS might be suitable, but it has to be integrated in some way with the outside work.

Here’s where I need the feedback of my readers. Many of you have to grapple with these issues every day. What I am NOT willing to do though is to compromise my vision of teaching to fit an institutional, proprietary software platform.

So can a current proprietary LMS meet my needs?

Over to you!


Bruner, J. S. (1961). ‘The act of discovery’ Harvard Educational Review Vol. 31, No. 1, pp: 21–32.

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