In and out of the box

I like to think of myself as an outside of the box kind of thinker, whether I really am one or not. Rightly or wrongly, I¬†do think of an LMS as a box. Indeed, the first LMS I ever heard of was “Course in a Box.” So I initially thought I would like teaching online courses or modules better without an LMS.

The first time I taught online (way back in 2004), I actually taught two courses: one in the box (with WebCT) and one out of the box, just out there on the Web, so I had a direct comparison of two different approaches. (I thought I’d blogged about this experiences previously, but now I can’t find the post! If I’m being redundant, many apologies everyone!). While they both had some good features and they both had some challenges, when push comes to shove, the one I liked the most was in fact the one outside of the box. I liked my DIY approach (incidentally I developed the course with the full support of our Faculty Resource Center and around 6 staff members who took care of different things like art, music, video, programming, etc.– very DIY on my part) ūüėČ

Because I don’t want to be put or kept in a box, Lisa Lane’s article Insideous Pedagogies really resonates with me. I think absolutely the tool drives many decisions. I absolutely think that the default settings drive some pedagogical decisions. I may not be getting this right, but it seems a form of functional fixedness that limits not only what we really can do but also what we think we can do.

So on a soapbox I’ve been, raging against the machine, in this case the LMS. And then one day, a student asked me if I could post the syllabus for an onsite course in our then LMS, eLearning. I said no thanks, that I didn’t use an LMS, but that I’d happily email it to everyone. In a different course, a student asked me if I could post my ppt (which I don’t use often, but when I do, there’s a good reason for it!) in our LMS. I said no thanks, because I wasn’t using an LMS, but that I’d happily email it to everyone. In a different term, some students asked me¬†whether instead of emailing my readings, which I did in large part because I was using open source readings and wanted them to simply be able to click the links rather than retyping them, I could post them to our LMS (BB by this point). Another student request was whether instead of linking student blogs to my blog, I could post all of the URLs in BB. Over and over and over time have come the requests for me to use my LMS. I started to wonder: what gives???

Did I jump in the box and start using an LMS? You betcha! But not before talking to the students to figure out what on earth was the deal. In addition to trying to stay out of the box, I also was trying to use technologies that they use in their real lives. Email, blogs, and so forth. Trying not to impose one for which they would have little other use. I could not figure out why on earth they seemed so into the LMS.

What I didn’t realize was that they use the LMS, and they use it¬†_often_. In many classes, over many semesters, over years. They simply know it. They are familiar with it. They like it. They go back to it after the semester ends (I tend to leave things open). They want some commonality across their educational experiences, their educational tech. In short, an LMS is in fact tech that students use in their real lives, their real educational lives.¬†It finally dawned on me that using one could¬†be helpful to them.

I have found what is the most useful for the students I teach is to put resources on the LMS. Having a syllabus there, having readings there, having links there, it all provides a central repository of information. So an LMS can serve an important function. (Discussions, reflections, games, etc. so far seem to work better outside of the LMS; perhaps I will learn otherwise at some point).

So for now, as I’ve apparently always been, I’m both in and out of the box. I’m ok with that.

Schrödinger's cat in a box
Photo by Michael Rosa