Saturday, July 18, 2015

Hacking the LMS: Breaking Out of the Defaults

I tend to take a very broad view of "technology." So often when we hear that word, we immediately go digital: computers, tablets, the Internet, 3D printers, wearables, etc. are "technology," right? But could a hammer also be considered “technology?”

What if we instead define "technology" as any tools designed to solve a particular problem? In his prescient (1992) book Technopoloy: The Surrender of Culture to Technology, Neil Postman describes technology as “largely invented to do two things: solve specific and urgent problems of physical life…[and]…serve the symbolic world of art, politics, myth, ritual, and religion…” (p. 23). When viewed this way, hammers, stethoscopes, plungers, and the Internet can all be considered technologies, though probably all in the former category rather than the latter.

Frankly, in the realm of educational technology, we are quick to think of computers first, aren’t we? But I have argued before that even a pencil is an educational technology: a tool designed—or appropriated—to solve a specific problem for education (borrowing from Postman’s language.)
It is important to remember then that tools are generally designed for a particular purpose, and form generally follows function. When you need a plunger, a hammer just won’t do! Or, as the old adage says, when the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem begins to look like a nail. And while it may sometimes be possible to use different tools to do the same job (e.g., either a pair of pliers or a crescent wrench might be able to tighten that nut onto the bolt), sometimes this might require a little “hacking” to make it work out well.

A learning management system (LMS) is clearly a technology: it is a tool designed to solve a specific problem. And, like all tools, it has constraints built in to the design. Lane (2009) explains that these design decisions actually impact instructional decisions faculty will make. (The title of her article, “Insidious Pedagogy: How Course Management Systems Impact Teaching” is telling.) Specifically, Lane indicates:
Today’s enterprise–scale systems were created to manage traditional teaching tasks as if they were business processes. They were originally designed to focus on instructor efficiency for administrative functions such as grade posting, test creation, and enrollment management. Pedagogical considerations were thus either not considered, or were considered to be embodied in such managerial tasks. (2009, paragraph 3)
In practice, this means that most faculty, and in particular faculty members least at ease working with this technology will simply use the default settings. Thus the pedagogies selected will be steered in a particular direction simply because of the design of the tool.
However, because it is a digital tool, an LMS is much more open to hacking than an analog tool would be. And this matters, because if educators are empowered—through training and support—to take ownership of the LMS and understand how to make their course page uniquely their own, they will have much more control over their own teaching practice. While Morris (2013) goes so far as to claim, “The invention of the LMS (Learning Management System) was a mistake” (paragraph 6), I am not yet willing to go so far. I am more inclined to take Lane’s approach; she admonishes educators that “those willing to play around with the features tend to discover new directions for their teaching” (2009, paragraph 13).
I recognize that not all instructors have this exploratory mindset. Morris (2013) gets at this with his point, “Not all teachers are pedagogues, nor need they be. There is a place for all styles of classroom practice, I think, just as there is a place for learners of all capabilities and approaches” (2013, paragraph 5), and even Lane submits, “Novices, as any tech support person will tell you, approach technology differently than experts” (2009, paragraph 9.) Institutions using an LMS must then be aware that different faculty members will use the LMS differently, and must plan for this by providing ongoing training and support for those using the LMS for teaching their courses. While there may well be a number of instructors actively seeking ways to push the LMS into the shape their pedagogy demands, many others will not, and will allow their pedagogy instead to be shaped by the LMS.
Applying a hacker mindset to teaching with an LMS at the institutional level may be just what is needed. And supporting all instructors at their level of need is essential for making this happen.
Lane, L. (2009). Insidious pedagogy: How course management systems impact teaching. First Monday, 14(10). Retrieved from
Morris, S. M. (2013). Decoding digital pedagogy, pt. 1: Beyond the LMS. Hybrid Pedagogy. Retrieved from
Postman, N. (1992). Technopoly: The surrender of culture to technology. New York, NY: Vintage Books.

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