I’ve recently been involved in two conversations at an institutional level around the implementation of an LMS to support formally provided programmes of learning. In each case I am very supportive of the direction the organisation is headed, and the general intent and vision that is driving the decision making.
In both cases, however, the institution has already made an investment in an LMS and the task of implementing it now lies in the hands of a mix of people – with the final decisions in each case being made by those responsible for IT. It’s a scenario I’m becoming all too familiar with, and it causes some concern.
The following observations characterise the experiences I’ve had either directly or indirectly with a number of organisations implementing an LMS:
- an emphasis on expediency – ‘we’ve invested in this so we want to get some use made of it quickly’
- investment decision driven primarily from concern about cost – (which is inevitable, and an important consideration – both in terms of up front cost as well as total cost of ownership over time.)
- limited involvement of teaching staff in the decision – apart from, perhaps, a response to a cry of “we need one”
- implementation left to the IT dept. who exercise some degree of ‘control’ over what happens based on ongoing concerns about issues of security, data integration and network integrity etc.
- once the LMS is implemented, individual teachers are provided with maximum choice and flexibility in how the create the ‘look and feel’ of the interface for their course (usually as a means of gaining buy-in from staff)
What I see less frequently are the following:
- an intensive period of facilitated discussion with teaching staff (as the end users) to develop a shared perspective on the linking of pedagogy to online learning space design.
- a significant modification of the LMS interface to reflect the pedagogical decisions of teachers, and to provide a coherent experience for all users across the various courses that are provided by the organistion/institution.
- a strategic integration of the LMS with other applications to provide the full range of online learning services required to provide the optimal online learning experience.
- a significant stream of input from learners to provide user-feedback on usability and the user experience.
- a period of negotiation with staff to develop a set of principles to underpin the interface design so as to achieve a coherent user experience across the range of course options provided by the organisation.
The decision to implement an online learning environment (of which an LMS is likely to be one part) at an organisational level is probably one of the most significant decisions an educational organisation will make – similar in significance to the decisions around the actual building of the physical school buildings in the first instance.
Consider how that process works out. We spend a huge amount of money on urban planners, architects, interior designers etc. to achieve what it is that we want for the buildings we construct for new schools. If the process is a good one, it will include a significant amount of consultation with teachers to identify what it is that they want to achieve – both individually and as a team (school). In this process the conceptual design of the buildings may be altered to reflect the thinking of the teachers, and at similarly, teacher’s views will be altered because they will come to appreciate the perspectives of the architects and builders who have to take account of things such as the overall look at feel of the building (not just the individual rooms inside), the linking of services that means all rooms have electrical outlets providing 230V service and connectivity to the outside world etc, and standardisation of features such as the height of door handles or the position of electrical switches so that visitors to each of the rooms throughout don’t have to hunt for these in different places. At the end of the process we end up with a building that is unified in its design, providing a coherent experience for all who move around and work/learn in it. Individual teachers can create all sorts of differences in the way they decorate the interior of rooms, and in the programmes they offer inside the rooms – but they can’t move the position of doors or windows, or raise the roof, change the location of fixtures such as light fittings and power outlets etc without considerable effort and expense – often impacting on what is happening in other parts of the building. Similarly, if we neglect to incorporate these features at the outset, the experience of people using the building will be impacted and we won’t realise the potential that having a well designed building from the outset would provide.
If we accept that the same thinking is important as we move from a physical environment for teaching and learning to a virtual, or online, environment, then the same principles apply. The consideration of teacher’s views and opinions are strategically (and professionally) very important – but for the most part, that’s exactly what they are – views and opinions. They may be expert in their particular field of teaching, and may also be specialists in pedagogical knowledge and application, but they don’t naturally translate into an online environment. Moving into the online world brings us all into an ‘unknown’ to some extent, where it’s simply not acceptable to assume a transfer of knowledge from one domain to another (the “additive” effect that Neil Postman talks about). The design of effective online learning spaces must inevitably take into account the identified needs of teachers – but it requires a two-way conversation. The teachers must come to appreciate that there are things about how environments online are architected and developed that they may not be aware of, and that decisions they make now may impact negatively on their ability to act with agility or innovatively further down the track.
I’m a huge supporter of educational organisations venturing into the world of online learning – but the lessons we’ve learned from poor building design in the past should provide some sense of important about the way we should approach the development and implementation of an online learning environment.