Monthly Archives: March 2009

Against Learning Management Systems


cc-licensed “Jail” by Luigi Caterino

In a recent post on BavaTuesdays, Jim Groom called down a plague upon two corporate producers of learning management systems, Blackboard and Desire2Learn. After years of fighting Blackboard’s unreasonable patent lawsuits, Desire2Learn made news by proposing a donation of one million dollars to educational causes on the condition that Bb drop its lawsuit.

The premise of D2L’s publicity ploy is that it has put Blackboard in a no-win situation: Bb can either drop its lawsuit against D2L or, by continuing it, admit that it doesn’t care about education.

If only a corporation like Blackboard had a sense of shame, it just might have worked.

For a long time now, Jim has been asking why universities need LMS’s. He has also been fighting the incursion of corporations into higher education through technology. These are points that I’ve been thinking about increasingly since CUNY began having so much trouble with its Blackboard installation that many instructional technologists and individual faculty members in the system started to look for alternate learning environments. As Joe Ugoretz noted on Twitter, CUNY is ripe for a Blackboard killer.

Whether or not CUNY sticks with Blackboard is almost beside the point if, when it looks for a replacement, it considers only other learning management systems–be they closed or open source. As Jim points out, these systems all look depressingly similar: they package a suite of conventional tools (blogs, wikis, discussion forums) within familiar navigational structures and call the whole package a “learning management system.”

The problem with Learning Management Systems lies in the conjunction of three words that should not appear together. Learning is not something that can be “managed” via a “system.” We’re not producing widgets here — we’re attempting to inspire creative thought and critical intelligence.

Learning Management Systems have dominated online education up until now, but must they be what we rely on in the future? Having found our way out of one box, must we immediately look for another? Can we imagine no other possibilities?

Of the many important things Jim has done in recent years, his advocacy of the small-pieces-loosely-joined approach to pedagogy, twined with his resolute resistance to the corporatization of pedagogy, may be one his most important contributions to our public dialogue about teaching and learning. Why, Jim has asked again and again, must we confine education to a box? Why must we pack learning inside of an acronym?

More importantly, why do these questions appear with such force and regularity when the subject involves online education? What is it about learning in online environments that makes us so afraid of open, loosely managed pedagogical space?

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