On Learning Platforms, Legos, Reclaiming Domains, and Scaling Down

There’s a great piece out from the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative (ELI) entitled “The Next Generation Digital Learning Environment: A Report on Research” that, if you haven’t yet, is worth a read (and it’s thankfully not embargoed like so many EDUCAUSE publications).  The piece articulates some things we’ve been grappling with here with regards to the LMS.  We’ve realized that learning can’t be managed, it needs to be guided (who guides it is a topic for another time).  We understand now that what we need is a common framework in which many different tools can work.  So as we look to replacing our current LMS, we’ve been very intentional to talk about finding a learning platform, NOT another LMS.
The ELI piece analogizes the next generation environment with legos (that must be a really good analogy, because it’s the exact same one we’ve been using here for the last year to describe the thing for which we are looking).  In this new environment the various tools faculty and students want to use snap together to make a learning experience, and just like with legos, you can make lots of different things from just a few basic blocks.  We’ve been thinking of the learning platform as the foundation for this process, the big green lego panels, if you will, of the instructional design world.  The learning platform becomes the canvas on which the course is created, not the shell (which implies outside borders) of the course.

I think this idea of a learning platform can fit well into the expanding narrative of what I’m going to call “faculty empowerment” (student empowerment probably fits in here too).  There are a number of voices online talking about empowering faculty and students by giving them the freedom to document and evaluate learning as they would like.  Jim Groom’s Domain of One’s Own is perhaps one of the most interesting (it’s at least one of the most notable) examples of this.  From the site:

A Domain of One’s Own is a project at the University of Mary Washington that, starting Fall 2013, will provide all incoming freshmen with their own domain names and Web space. Students will have the freedom to create subdomains, install any LAMP-compatible software, setup databases and email addresses, and carve out their own space on the web that they own and control.

Initiatives like Domain of One’s Own are creating new blocks that can be used independently or snapped together with other tools to create interesting and meaningful online learning experiences.  It’s a very exciting time to be working in instructional technology/support.

As I start looking at how an institution like mine can embrace these exciting times, I struggle with the apparent resource requirements for this new world.  Domain of One’s Own is a laudable and valuable service, and it’s very exciting that the University of Mary Washington can do a project like that.  UMW also has six times the instructional support staff as my institution.   Look also at EduAppCenter (a list of LTI enabled tools) there are 192 things available that can snap-in to most modern learning management systems.  Sure, faculty and students have lots of choices, but my institution doesn’t have unlimited personnel to support them all.  I was describing this conundrum at a faculty senate meeting recently, and one faculty member stood and asked why I thought all the support has to come from the “administration.”  This faculty member continued by saying that I was ignoring the ability of faculty to support themselves.

That is completely fair.  I’m certainly starting to think about ways we can build communities of support within the faculty for various tools, and I want to find a way to communicate to the community the way in which various tools are supported.  But as a sit and listen all day to my instructional specialist on the phone helping faculty (including 400 adjuncts) upload documents to our LMS, or create quizzes, or manage discussion boards, or any of 50 other daily support issues, I wonder if the instructional support staff, faculty, or even students have the time and expertise to support All the Things.  It feels like this new world we’re building isn’t going to scale down to institutions like mine.  I’m not giving up, but I am acknowledging the daunting task in front of my institution (and al the other small institutions like mine).

pile of different colored legos

flickr photo by m.p.3. https://flickr.com/photos/lemonpixel/15681077423 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license

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