Techniques for Unleashing Student Work from Learning Management Systems

Ari Moore/Flickr
Ari Moore/Flickr

By Justin Reich

Helping students become networked learners begins by thinking carefully about where we conduct our online learning. Most online learning in higher education and in K-12 takes place in Learning Management Systems (LMS) such as Canvas, Moodle or Blackboard. In higher education in particular, these LMS are designed to scale up the distribution of course materials — by default they are configured to distribute syllabi, course readings and assignments. Student contributions are usually limited to discussion forums and assignment submissions.

Since these are institutionally managed spaces, students can lose control over what they submit to the LMS. At many universities, after three or six months, the sites are deleted, and all of the intellectual contributions that students are asked to make to forums or assessments are washed away. While LMS offer certain advantages for scaling standard experiences, these spaces are homogenized, transient and disempowering. As Jim Groom and Brian Lamb argue in "Reclaiming Innovation," their critique of learning management systems, the fundamental problem is that learning management systems are ultimately about serving the needs of institutions, not individual students.

Breaking Out of the LMS

Last fall, I taught T509- Massive: The Future of Learning at Scale, a course at the Harvard Graduate School of Education that examined a variety of large-scale learning environments with many learners and few instructors. The course design was inspired by the values of other educators who have congregated under the banner of Connectivist or Connected Courses. In these kinds of courses, how students learn is as important as what students learn. An explicit goal is for students to learn to build networks of learning resources — people, readings, websites and communities—that can help them continue learning in a domain long after a course ends.

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This is a different and potentially quite radical vision of the purposes of schooling. In his manifesto on Connectivism, George Siemens writes that in Connectivist learning environments, the “pipes” of a course are more important than what flows through those pipes. The networks that students build are durable structures of lifelong learning, and they are more important than whatever I could teach students about large-scale learning in the 12 three-hour sessions that we had together.

Stephen Downes, a co-creator of the first Connectivist learning environments, offers an even more radical framing: he argues that the content is a MacGuffin, the plot device in a Hitchcock movie that starts the story but ultimately proves unimportant. For many professors and teachers, the notion that the content is a trick to get people to start learning together is an affront to the profession. But these kinds of provocations are wonderful places to rethink what teaching and learning can look like in a networked world.

Tools for Connected Learning

For Massive, then, we needed to develop a technology-mediated learning environment that could support connected learning. This begins by having students own their learning spaces and democratize the means of production. Rather than forcing students to log in to an institutional LMS, I asked them to create their own websites, blogs, Twitter accounts and spaces on the open Web. In these spaces, students could curate links and connections and share their evolving ideas. Whatever they create is owned and maintained by them, not by me or by Harvard. They can keep their content for three months, three years, or the rest of their lives, so long as they continue to curate and move their published content as platforms change.

While empowering, the challenge of this model is that everyone’s creations are spread across the open Web. The way that most courses deal with the problem of distributed production is by forcing all students to post in the same place, in the password-walled, institutionally controlled LMS. The way that Connected Courses deal with this challenge is by aggregation, sometimes also called syndication. All of the content produced on student blogs, websites, Twitter accounts and other social media accounts is syndicated to a single website.

For Massive, we had a website, t509massive.org, where student contributions flowed together. When students created posts tagged with the hashtag #t509massive, their content was aggregated together on the t509massive.org site. On the Flow page, every piece of content created by students, myself and teaching staff was aggregated into one place. We also had Blog and Twitter Hubs that displayed only long-form writing from blogs or microposts from Twitter. A Spotlight page highlighted some of the best writings from students.

Some Advantages

This online learning environment had three important advantages. First, students owned their means of production. They weren’t writing in discussion forums in order to get 2 points for posting to the weekly prompt. They wrote to communicate with audiences within the class and beyond. Second, everyone’s thinking could be found in the same place, by looking at hashtags and our syndication engines on t509massive.org. Finally, this design allows our learning to be permeable to the outside world. Students could write for audiences they cared about: fellow librarians or English teachers or education technologists working in developing countries. And as our networks grew, colleagues form outside our classroom could share with us, by posting links or thoughts to the #t509massive hashtag.

Even though the class has ended, students still share on the hashtag, still write on their blogs and still enjoy the benefits of the connections that we’ve built together. As a teacher, it’s thrilling to look at the Blog Hub a month after class has ended and to see that people are still posting and sharing.

So what did students do with all of these spaces and connections? My students come from all over the world, geographically and intellectually. After their one-year master's program, they are going back to classrooms, libraries, district offices, policy shops, edtech startups, engineering firms, medical schools, divisions of continuing education, community colleges and more. It would be impossible to design assignments that served all of them well. Rather than proscribe specific assignments for students, I asked them to take up the challenge of determining what would be useful to them, to their classmates and to the wider world.

I gave students structures for doing so: students wrote and then revised a rubric that defined how they would contribute to our networked learning commons and what excellent work in this space might look like. But ultimately, the students determined what and how they wanted to write. For some, this was the greatest challenge of all. Accustomed to trying to figure out what “the teacher wanted to hear,” many of my students struggled to figure out what they might want to say in their own voice, and what kinds of contributions they could make to their own learning, their classmates and to the wider world.

In my mind, this is exactly what the future of lifelong learning looks like. We will be learning constantly throughout our careers as workers and citizens, and once young people graduate from formal institutions, much of that learning will be self-directed and unstructured. What I hope that students could take away from my Connected Course were the skill sets to participate in that kind of learning out on the open Web, and the belief that lifelong learning can be most powerful when we intentionally build networks of people to learn with us.

On the first day of my course, I tell students that they have three responsibilities: to advance their own learning, to advance the learning of their classmates and to advance the learning of their wider communities. If they are successful as students, they’ll benefit not only themselves, but their classmates and colleagues beyond.

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Justin Reich is the Richard L. Menschel HarvardX Research Fellow, and an Adjunct Lecturer in the Technology, Innovation, and Education program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

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