Prescribed Word Order and the LMS

The usefulness of Learning Management Systems are lost on me. I know why institutions use them, at least I think I do – to fence-off content, to organize their own institutional processes, to guard the privacy of students, and perhaps to make it easier for non-tech teachers to use tech. They are used as LearnER Management Systems, endpoints in themselves rather than the starting points that would better serve learners, and because of this I feel that the bad outweighs the good that they provide. What they don’t do is much more glaring to me, especially because what they don’t do seems largely to go either unnoticed or ignored.
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With all the chatter about Change in Education (This video, for example) and preparing students for the practical skills of the futuristic future, you would think that more people would be concerned that the use of LMSs falls short in preparing students for communication in digital spaces. As a separated process, they climatize students, and educators, for one single system of communication that’s likely not going to be the one single system that they use once they leave enrollment status, in the unlikely case that any graduate of any school would use only one single digital space. LMSs train participants for one single type of digital literacy, while delivering content. What LMSs don’t do is prepare students, and educators, to create their own learning environments and to seek out contexts that best suit them.

As an example, I’m learning a new (to me) LMS at work, because this is the LMS that the institution has chosen, because institutions have to choose an LMS. I ask “Can we do this?” and support answers me “Unfortunately, no. The LMS wasn’t designed with that feature.” Fair enough, we all have to work within restrictions of technology, except that the particular thing I want to do can be done very easily outside the walls of the LMS. This thing that I want to include in my course design is similar to a skill like setting up a blog – a skill which, in my opinion, is the exact type of thing that advocates of the “Everything is Changing and we have to keep up or we’re failing our students” tagline should be worried about. Instead, working within and thus learning an LMS is considered a foregone substitute for skills like learning how to establish an online presence, learning how to manage information abundance, learning how to discern credible information.

The more I think about it, the more I hope that LMSs are just a unique side effect of the transitional era the world of education is currently undergoing – a result of a large population of adult practitioners that have not grown up with current technology, and thus need a highly structured, psychological classroom to guide them through digital content delivery.

Digital Literacies involve new and unfamiliar environments for many people that have to use them, and for many people they lack a familiar context. LMSs provide this context by taking geographically based structure and imposing it in a digital environment. A few centuries ago, people studying English (a young language at the time) would impose the structure of Latin on to English. This promoted the idea that languages fit some sort of ideal structure or set of standards, where reality is that Latin and English are two different sets of technologies, with different affordances and obligations. With LMSs, many institutions are making a similar mistake – imposing the structure of one medium onto another.

“Clearly, ‘natural’ is very much a matter of geography.” – Guy Deutscher on the idea of a “natural” word order for language. His point is that the Word Order of any given sentence depends on where you are and what language you speak. It depends on geography, as he says, or context.

Learning in digital environments separates geography from context. Yet, the way LMSs are used seems to impose a context into the learning process – they prescribe word order in the grammar of digital communication, so to speak. It’s not a fluid context, it’s not a context that allows for learner control. It’s not a context that originates in the learner. It’s a context because many people need a context given to them…which would be fine, if the context were to ween itself out of the picture, thus creating less reliance on that context. But, LMSs don’t do this, they pack gravitational pull, they command and teach a particular perspective. Everything’s not Changing, apparently, everything’s just shifting context.

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