Covid has forced pretty much everyone teaching in higher and K-12 education to become at least proficient in online teaching and learning. The learning curve is steeper for some than it is for others and the it’s not reasonable to look at the spring semester as indicative of where we are or where we’ll be. This semester, though, we can’t continue to use the excuse that we weren’t ready, because we had the summer to get ready for the fall. To be sure, if we’re still in the grips of Covid a year from now (please, no), the arc of our success with online teaching and learning will be bending ever further toward good and away from just okay.
Lots of people–faculty, students, administrators, academic developers/curriculum designers–have done heroic work to get us to just okay and everyone deserves some applause. But now we’re in a different reality, one that will be with us probably forever–higher education where the majority of colleges and universities deliver a large share, if not the majority, of their courses in either a fully online or a hybrid mode.
Now that we’ve gotten through the panic phase, at least at my campus we are looking toward that future and trying to figure out the best ways to create innovative online courses that aren’t just last year’s F2F course stuffed into a laptop screen.
The problem is, at least here, that we’ve decided to put all of our eggs into one LMS basket–in our case, BlackBoard. I suspect most campuses around the world are similar for the simple reason that it’s much easier and more practical to try to limit faculty to one LMS. That way, when faculty or students have problems with an online course (there are always problems), a well-trained cadre of IT specialists can help resolve those problems based on their knowledge of one system. I get that.
But, and this is a really big but, limiting faculty to one platform for delivering online courses means that faculty are also limited to whatever innovations are possible within that platform. And it’s a fact that LMS platforms are designed to be the mid-sized sedans of the learning world. Everything works reasonably well, the system doesn’t break too often, and a certain amount of customization is possible.
Innovation? Not so much.
This is especially problematic when we consider the different learning styles of different segments of our student populations. For example, scholars of indigenous education in North America have emphasized how indigenous student learning styles are socially-oriented, while LMS systems are predicated largely on task-oriented course structures.
At my own institution, faculty who want to try different modalities, different platforms, are not prevented from doing so. However, we also cannot get any support from our dean’s office or our academic developers, because they are all in on the one LMS we’ve chosen to support. If I wanted to convert one of my courses to online with BlackBoard, I could join a cohort of colleagues and receive a $4,000 summer stipend to support that effort. If I want to do something outside the BlackBoard realm, best of luck to me.
I’m not suggesting that we should install three or four different LMSs on our campuses. That’s obviously not practical. But by not supporting faculty innovators working at the margins, we place upper limits on what might come of their work.
Many years ago, legendary IBM Chairman Thomas Watson wrote, “In IBM we frequently refer to our need for ‘wild ducks.’ The moral is drawn from a story by the Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard who told of a man who fed the wild ducks flying south in great flocks each fall. After a while some of the ducks no longer bothered to fly south; they wintered in Denmark on what he fed them. In time they flew less and less. After three or four years they grew so lazy and fat that they found difficulty in flying at all. Kierkegaard drew his point: you can make wild ducks tame, but you can never make tame ducks wild again. One might also add that the duck who is tamed will never go anywhere any more. We are convinced that any business needs its wild ducks. And in IBM we try not to tame them.”
Alas, these days we don’t seem to be so interested in wild ducks.