The meaning-structure of the LMS

OPINION: Nicola Parkin
Learning Designer – CILT

It has been interesting, from a design perspective, to engage across multiple different learning management systems (LMSs) at the same time. It is a rare chance to take into consideration some bigger – or perhaps deeper – questions about the nature of the LMS, and how it constructs, constrains and makes possible different forms of educational practice, by its very architecture.

What meanings are configured?

One way to think about the inherent ‘designed in’ architecture of the technology is to recognise it as a ‘meaning-structure’, by which I mean both the ‘designed in’ meanings which are ‘given’ to the user by the technology itself, as well as the way that the user brings their own kinds of meanings to bear when they use the technology (or: we create as well as encounter meaning). The point is that the technologies configure meanings in their very structures, and it is good to notice them – as much as we are able! – so we choose our way within those constraints and possibilities, rather than being ‘subject’ to them (remembering that ‘constraints’ are just opportunities to be more creative, perhaps?).

With this in mind, I set about playing with the different platforms with two eyes open: with one on the practical ‘affordances’ of the technologies; and with the other, trying to penetrate more phenomenologically their meaning-structures.

From teaching to learning narrative?

The first thing that struck me was how used to our current LMS (Moodle) I had become, and how its architecture had indeed conceptually ‘shaped’ for me the central concept of the ‘teaching narrative’ which seems to say ‘start at the top, work your way down’. While there are options for the topic site format, in its default mode the platform is set up to arrange a sequential cascade of activities and resources, glued together with text that describes and guides, as if a teacher’s voice is captured in the site itself. The teacher has a visual presence too (top right ‘welcome block’) that overlooks, if you like, the topic.

The other platforms seemed to lack this straightforward teaching narrative. The narrative was there but was more distributed. To get the ‘flow’ of the topic, it was necessary from a student perspective to switch between tasks, communications, and content. It dawned on me that the ‘lack’ (or so I first felt it to be) of a clearly joined-up narrative on the page opened another possibility which while obvious had never occurred to me, was to flip the responsibility for the narrative to the student. The possibility for this rests though not in the architecture of the technology itself, but in the educational strategies. Yes, the student must find their way, but could we not ask the student to show the way that they made sense of it all and their developing understanding as a ‘learning narrative’ (for instance a journal, blog or portfolio)? The ‘glue’ of the topic is then not so much the teaching voice, but the demonstrated story of the learning, in the voice of the student.

What the layouts make possible

Canvas, Brightspace and Open LMS all seemed to share an architectural logic insofar as their layout was concerned, with the modules stacked on the left side and opening to the right, in the style of electronic book chapters. All well as being arranged like chapters, items were also grouped in the top menu according to type (assessments, for instance), effectively providing an alternative navigation option to the student. The dual navigation, together with calendared items, allows for the student to use the site in the way that makes sense for them. The sense-making, then, falls again to the student as user of the site, rather than the teacher as builder of the site.

It struck me that Learn Ultra had a markedly different layout and structural logic from the other three. In this LMS, the student and their tasks are firmly in the centre, rather the topic, per se. All the topics and other types of cohorts (‘organisations’) that the student is enrolled interleave into a central spine of tasks, which is organised according to date due, suggesting a workflow based on what is due next. This is a radical departure from the ‘container’ type topics that we are used to with Moodle. Ultra also allows for ‘conversations’ – forums – to be associated and dedicated to a particular activity, and adds a ‘layer’ of discussion that stays with the activity – before, during and after the activity, opening up new temporalities to play with. Interestingly, the activity page allows the student to build their assignments straight into the site, rather than uploading a document created ‘elsewhere’ (although this is still possible). With this configuration, the activity is a ‘space’ rather than a tool, a page consisting of activity description and instructions, activity submission point, and activity discussion.

The Canvas set-up also opens up ideas about what a topic can ‘be’. In Canvas you are able to choose the ‘home page’ for your topic, potentially enabling each topic to have their own bespoke meaning-structure. It is possible, even, to build a completely customised webpage and set this as the home page for the topic. Once a page is created, Canvas gives the creator an option to allow students to edit the page; this setting can be applied across the entire topic or restricted to certain pages only. The paradigm-changing net effect is potentially a topic co-created by staff and students. Think of the possibilities!

For these reasons and probably many more that I didn’t have time to discover, I encourage you to have your own play in the platforms with an eye on the meaning-structures as well as the practical constraints and affordances.

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