ACM Logo  An ACM Publication  |  CONTRIBUTE  |  FOLLOW    

A call to arms

By Michael Feldstein / January 2006

Print Email
Comments Instapaper

Several years ago, Dr. Joseph Konstan wrote an opinion piece for eLearn explaining why he, a noted computer scientist, avoided using distance learning technologies. He argued that the collaboration technologies available at the time didn't allow him the flexibility to employ proven teaching techniques that he used in his face-to-face classes. His bottom-line argument was that distance learning technology designers simply fail to understand the fundamental needs of teachers and students:

Too often, technology shapes and dictates our delivery and the experience we create for students. This is especially true of online learning technology, which doesn't support the learning experiences I want to foster. For these technologies to improve, those who develop them must pay far more attention to the ways in which teachers teach and students learn.

In my original response, again in eLearn, I agreed with Dr. Konstan's assessment but put the onus on faculty to step up and invent a new pedagogy that would drive design requirements for virtual learning environments. I argued:

Making this transition to the new environment can be particularly hard for the people who are gifted classroom teachers, because they have developed strong instincts about crafting lessons that they must now (at least partly) unlearn. But it is precisely those people—the passionate evangelists of the classroom like Dr. Konstan—who have the talent to see a new way of doing things. After all, while the classroom may be radically different in a virtual class, the human beings are exactly the same. We need good instincts about how people learn in general in order to figure out how they can learn in this new environment. Once we, the educators, have developed a vision of how we can be effective teachers in our virtual classrooms, then we can demand better supporting technology and have a reasonable hope of getting something that satisfies us.

Dr. Konstan and I really weren't very far apart on this issue: He was calling for developers to apply user-centered design practices while I was calling for faculty to participate actively in design-requirement scoping. These were essentially two halves of one solution.

Little Visible Progress

That was in 2001. Since then, I would like to say that distance learning technologies have made huge leaps forward in terms of supporting quality teaching and learning. I would like to, but I can't. The fact is that, over the last four years, mainstream LMSs have progressed from unusably bad to painfully mediocre. Our course environments are still essentially Web folders for storing documents, threaded discussion boards, homework drop boxes, and multiple-choice tests. Sure, we've added a few more bells and whistles—rich text editors, better multimedia handling, and so on. But the basics have not changed very much.

Why is this? I think Dr. Konstan gave us a strong clue:

I've heard of great promise in instructional technology, but so far all of the gains I've seen have come in the form of general-purpose technologies. Having course Web sites and discussion boards is great. Online testing and grading systems aren't. Why? Because they try to change the way I test and grade to match the system. Not only do they encourage multiple-choice, or at least text-only, answers, but they encourage grading systems based on cumulative points. What if I want students to be able to draw pictures? What if I want to be able to reward progress when there is continual effort? Again, must we submit to the tyranny of technology?

Let's face it: By and large, LMSs are not much more than general-purpose groupware re-implemented badly. Even today, the hottest new teaching technologies—weblogs, wikis, photo sharing, and social tagging—are all general-purpose technologies that are being adopted and adapted by teachers. And it takes a long time for commercial LMS vendors to build these innovations into their products. The few teaching-specific tools that tend to end up in the virtual classroom (mostly test engines and gradebooks) are usually pretty weak.

Meanwhile, strides have been made toward articulating pedagogies appropriate for teaching online, but they mostly focus on adapting to the weak toolset. We have very rich best practices for using discussion boards mostly because discussion boards are among the very few usable tools that online teachers have.

A New Hope

To be sure, there are few shining examples of new learning environments that bring genuinely original and exciting affordances to online teaching and learning. The two that come to mind most immediately are Moodle and LAMS. Both of these systems feel like they are designed for teachers. This is hard to quantify, though it is easy to see. Importantly, they are also both supported by close community partnerships between their developers and their users. If you go to either the main Moodle community site or the LAMS community site, you will see nearly constant dialog between developers and users, as well as a healthy number of participants who are both users and developers. The development is largely teacher-driven. While most LMSs, both Open Source and proprietary, claim to have teacher involvement in their planning and development, Moodle and LAMS have faculty participation that is dramatically different in both quantity and quality.

In the United States, LMS selection is still largely seen as primarily an IT decision or a business decision rather than an academic quality decision. (Another thing that Moodle and LAMS have in common is that they are both developed in Australia.) We will continue to make poor progress in our learning environments until LMS development and selection is seen as a core concern of academic vice presidents, faculty senates, and faculty unions. Teachers and developers must sit side-by-side to scope out core design requirements.

To that end, I will be writing a series of articles for eLearn Magazine that focus on the points at which software architecture and learning design meet. These articles will often be co-written with technologists. We will aim to engage faculty in conversation about what they should expect (and demand) from their technology and to engage technologists in conversation about what teachers and students need and how those needs translate into technical design. We will also aim to provide practical guidelines that should impact learning technology development and selection decisions.

There is no reason why a system that meets the requirements of the CIO and the CFO cannot also meet the needs of the teachers and students who use it every day. But it will not happen by itself. We must make it so.


  • There are no comments at this time.