LMS Dogma

I mentioned in my last post that I recently was invited to talk to a group of students in Eddie Maloney’s Technology Innovation by Design course. This group are the pioneers of Georgetown’s new Masters program in Learning and Design. I was asked to talk about something, and I proposed a few things:

A Brief History of Learning Management Systems: I would take a course period to frame 20 years of Learning Management Systems and what they have meant to the field of educational technology in higher education. It would be a fun way for me to integrate the core principals of your program through the lens of the predominant systems we use to manage learning in Higher Ed. I like this cause it frames how we understand learning design, where we capture analytics, what passes for innovation, and how leadership understands all these things. The LMS is a perfect refraction point for so many issues at the heart of the program.

Future Visions: Hosted Lifebits and the Personal Cloud
This talk would provide an overview of existing technical infrastructure much of the innovation in higher ed has relied on since 2003 (LAMP stacks for self-hosted apps like WordPress, MediaWiki, etc.) while framing what will come next. It will look at the changing nature of cloud infrastructure that started with APIs at Amazon and led to Amazon Web Services, a cloud-based infrastructure that effectively changed the nature of how we imagine the basic plumping of the web. The implications for future innovations are remarkable given access to various technologies beyond the LAMP environment are increasingly just one-click way, not to mention the implications for managing and hosting your personal digital “lifebits” on your own cloud. This ties into practical work we are doing at Reclaim that builds on the Domains project.  In fact, I would love to teach an entire course about this topic.

The Problem with Analytics in Higher Education:
This would be a bit more of a provocation (although well grounded in the current reality of big tech) that would trace the discussion around analytics (much like I propose with the LMS) in order to lay bare some of the assumptions and problems with the promise of analytics as an excuse for unfettered data collection on the part of the various systems that we subscribe to in higher educational institutions (and beyond). I will discuss this in light of alternative models for imagining data collection and control on the part of the individual using “personal  APIs” and designing a system that gives  students and faculty far more control over their data—which should be a central concern given “data is the new oil.”

Practical Innovations: An Idiosyncratic History of Learning Design:
This would be a bit of the greatest hits of work we did at UMW to focus on practical ways in which you build a culture of innovation around learning technologies. This would cover UMW Blogs, ds106, Domain of One’s Own and move to Reclaim Hosting. I’ve done versions of this many times, and it will really focus on learning design and innovation, but will touch tangentially on the other two core tenets of the program.

I find it is easier to propose things than to do them, but when you commit to showing up you have to have something. We settled on the history of the LMS proposal, and I was happy to dig in. But once I started to prepare I remembered I’m not much of a historian, rather I’m just a lowly blogger. So I started searching around, and I started at the Learning Management System Wikipedia article. This led me to E.M. Forster’s story called “The Machine Stops”, which struck me as fairly bizarre starting point for distance learning in the 20th century. Wild to think the same writer behind novels like Passage to India, Howard’s End, and Room with a View could have a hand in the beginnings of the LMS. But that’s what’s remains compelling about the field of edtech: it’s a strange mix of Edwardian nostalgia, technological imperialism, and speculative science fiction. 

Around the same time I was reading Forster’s story, Audrey Watter’s published her review of Brian Dear’s The Friendly Orange Glow—a history of the “the first generalized computer-assisted instruction system.” After reading her review and following up on both the Brett Victor 1973 2013 “Future of Programming” talk (which I had not previously watched)  as well as a deeper dive into PLATO. And after that I had the preparatory reading/viewing for my class visit: E.M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops,” Brett Victor’s “The Future of Programming,” and Audrey Watter’s PLATO review. I liked the way the idea of dogma weaved its way through all three pieces, and it resonated with the students as well.

As I imagined we spent most of the time talking about Forster’s short story, which was fine by me. I came up teaching literature and I can’t get enough of it.  The parallels in that work are pretty striking, and it seems quite fresh more than 100 years after it was written. Folks make a lot of the idea of the everyone lectures and there is a distance ed machine, but for me the theme of dogma and the growing cult of technology as the next religion seemed far more interesting—not to mention the concomitant historical amnesia. Passages like the following meditation on the machine was pretty powerful for me:

Cannot you see, cannot all you lecturers see, that it is we that are dying, and that down here the only thing that really lives in the Machine? We created the Machine, to do our will, but we cannot make it do our will now. It was robbed us of the sense of space and of the sense of touch, it has blurred every human relation and narrowed down love to a carnal act, it has paralysed our bodies and our wills, and now it compels us to worship it. The Machine develops – but not on our lies. The Machine proceeds – but not to our goal. We only exist as the blood corpuscles that course through its arteries, and if it could work without us, it would let us die.

This may bleed uncomfortably close into artificial intelligence for many folks, but for me the sense of having lost control over the systems and online spaces we have helped champion was poignant. The idea of these systems existing somehow external to our collective will maps onto my experience with the LMS. A meek acceptance of this as the decided upon future for computer-mediated teaching and learning was always the worst part of instructional technology, a theme which both Brett Victor and Audrey Watters nail in relationship to the dogma of programming languages and the ahistorical dogma of edtech served up by Silicon Valley. In fact, the second half focused on Victor and Watters, and in the end I spent far more time talking about our current dogma of technology and the narratives we weave rather than anything resembling a history of the LMS. I tried to save myself by quickly running through the Wikipedia page on the History of virtual learning environments, which I got thanks to a Tweet from Audrey and turned out to be a real gem.

It was fun to do, and it gave me an idea for a fun presentation wherein one gives 2004/2005 era edtech talk in relationship to all that’s changed in the last 15 years when it comes to promise and possibilities of Web 2.0. I still think it is a bit too close, and unlike some I don’t think that work was for naught—but it does take on a different valence 15 years later. Anyway, I wanted to try and get out some of these thoughts down before they vanished, and say a special thank you to Eddie and the students in the course who made me feel so welcome and tolerated my two and a half hour indulgence. 

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5 Responses to LMS Dogma

  1. Eric Likness says:

    Dude! Hold onto this bit, that’s copyright Jim Groom all the way:

    “But that’s what’s remains compelling about the field of edtech: it’s a strange mix of Edwardian nostalgia, technological imperialism, and speculative science fiction.”

    absolutely right,…

  2. Aaron Davis says:

    Jim, I love Victor’s presentation on programming, as much for the style as the message (can they be seperated?) However, I was left rethinking it in light of Victor’s take on making makerspaces more ‘scientific’ seeing space. It had me thinking how sometimes we can trivially end up picking and choosing between ideas and thinkers. For example, I would love to know Watters’ take on Seeing Spaces.

    • Reverend says:


      Thanks for the link to that video, I just watched it and it seems to be the roadmap to Victor’s Dynamicland: https://dynamicland.org/

      I think Dynamicland as way of re-thinking how we computer is pretty compelling, I have to say I am not fully clear how it all fits together, but this idea of seeing seems essential. Everything is interactive, recorded, and then visualized. It’s pretty cool, in terms of the presentation it seems pretty geared towards scientists and engineers (which makes me feel a bit on the outside), but it is certainly an interesting vision for the future of maker spaces. When I was in the Canvas headquarters they had there server infrastructure running on AWS visualized, and it was deeply compelling to me. Watching an entire infrastructure spike and lull over the course of time does teach you a lot, especially if you can capture and compare over time—not to mention explore different possibilities.

      I would want to see a space here for those who tell the story of the explorations and narrate the process. i think Victor is quite a storyteller, and that does carry over from The Future of Programming, as well as the idea of trying to break free of the dogma of how we compute currently.

      Out of curiosity, what part of this talk made you rethink the programming talk? Did this talk seem incompatible with the ideas in his other talk?

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