The illusion of the LMS/cloud-based/self-hosted solution

It happened all of a sudden. The feed from one POT Cert Class participant just wasn’t coming into the Pedagogy First aggregated blog. I spent hours trying to figure out why not – the feed finder screen would just go blank on only her feed. I Googled, I pounded, I went through what there is of FeedWordpress documentation. Mostly I wished I were Alan Levine  or Tim Owens.

I have mentioned before that technologies known for doing some really cool things are becoming unreasonably complicated. This particular technological problem rests on a self-hosted installation of the software WordPress (built and maintained by a wonderful community) and the FeedWordpress plugin (built and maintained by a wonderful coding person). When one gets updated, it often doesn’t play nice with the other. And I can’t fix it. I say again unto you, I am not a coder. I find code, I steal code, I envy code, but I do not code.

I finally asked that a new blog be created for this participant, and it seems to be feeding. For now. Of course, the other one had fed too, all of the first semester. Given my own significant limitations, we will not be able to do this again this way next year.

The recipe at the moment is this. Start with recent adventures with self-hosted Moodle, add this new self-hosted WordPress crisis, mix with a dash of cloud failure (Google abandoning Reader, Posterous closing shop, and SeesmicWeb being bought and killed by the inferior HootSuite ). Stir and cook with a big dollop of my recent participation in reviewing a publisher-created program for grading student essays, and you have the kind of disillusionment you get by realizing you have already been devoured by the whale but didn’t know it.

hydraThe monsters (big proprietary systems, cloud-based sites, self-hosting) appeared to be separate, but were actually all parts of the same beast.

Self-hosting, a domain of ones own, the path of ds106  and the noble D’Arcy Norman – this has been the antidote to the bullying tactics of the LMS and publisher-created content. I have held it up as the way to avoid both big proprietary monsters and the vagaries of the disappearing web apps and fly-by-night cloud offerings. I have scoffed (quietly) at those who said they could not run their own blog, it was too hard. While I have not been guilty of encouraging anyone to run their own Moodle installation, I have persisted in doing it myself as a bulwark against Moodlling ignorance and exterally-run systems.

All this begins to seem like folly, a folly based on desire. An example: I want nested discussion forums where students can post multimedia, so I have Moodle. I find out today that (cloud-based) Schoology has nested forums! Yay! No! Wait! They are touted around the web as a “start up” of four years or so who use proprietary code (cue John Williams’ Empire Strikes Back music). I will have a free class, but never be able to access it otherwise, years down the line.

Fact is, none of these options are perfect, or even sufficient. The big LMS systems (including Moodle) upgrade and you can’t restore old courses and actually view student work – they say you can, but in fact it doesn’t work. I have all my courses backed up as Moodle .zip files, but now they’ve changed to .mbz.  Out in the cloud, I can export my Posterous as they close down, but when I import it into WordPress a bunch of stuff is wrong or missing or ugly. These things weren’t built to be transferrable, or to cater to the archiving tendencies of the mere customer. Whether proprietary and exorbitantly priced, or open source and impossible to run without an IT degreee,  none of the options have a sense of history, only a blindered vision of a future fulfilled by profits, market share, or geeky street cred.

Perhaps I am dissembling now to be running a class encouraging faculty to plunge into explorations of web tools and new technologies. I cannot in good conscience suggest anyone build a course around any of them. My colleague Todd Conaway  says that it’s better to learn from creating, to meet the challenge of the occasional failure, to engage the technologies and learn from them even if they’re transient. I know that is true. But if you spend too much time in the belly of the beast (whether self-hosted, cloud-based, or LMSed) , things start to smell fishy.

 

8 thoughts on “The illusion of the LMS/cloud-based/self-hosted solution

  1. I’ve reached a really yucky place where I don’t trust anything anymore. Google Reader shutting down was a serious wake-up call for me, but instead of looking at the situation holistically as a learning opportunity I’m growing far more disillusioned and cynical. I don’t trust institutional infrastructure; I don’t trust free web services; and as you eloquently described, the requirements of maintaining my own system frequently exceed my capabilities to do so.

    Factor in the realities/pressures for academic staff facing an unreliable technical landscape in a publish or perish environment, and it’s increasingly difficult to find useful suggestions for them – I understand why they balk at new approaches.

    I’m hopeful a new strategy will present itself, but for now I’m feeling as little more than a tech apologist trying to explain why nothing seems to work. Quite a bitter pill, that.

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    1. That’s it in a nutshell – I too am struggling to see learning opportunities instead of a host of solutions I can no longer wholeheartedly (or in some cases even half-heartedly) recommend. It’s funny how often you and I land in similar places, half-way around the world from each other.

      Can we solve this? and if so, can we do it on the open/free/public end of the spectrum instead of the closed/commercial/private end?

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  2. I’m sorry to hear of the frustration, Lisa, it’s more than understandable. Feeds are fickle, I see them go haywire in Feedwordpress often. Sometimes a weird character in a blog post (often the result of cut and past from a certain product from Redmond) can make a feed become invalid.

    I wish you would have asked for help- the thing is, there is no reason why you or any teacher should carry the brunt of this; the way to do this on the open/free/public end is to leverage the connections of others. I rely on this all the time. The “solving” is in our human networking.

    Sadly these technologies will never carry a long amount of permanence. I am as incensed as anyone else about Google trashing Reader, but it’s a wake up call to realize that our use of free tools has nothing to do with the value we get from them. If we want technology permanence, maybe we should be building pyramids 😉

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    1. Hi Alan! Yes, it occurred to me to ask for help, but I’ve asked from you guys so often, and this time instead of an overall thing I could actually learn how to manage, it was pretty clear it was a weirdness in a single feed, so it didn’t feel like something I wanted to use up “open friend and colleague support tickets” for. 😉

      Permanence is not a solution, I don’t think. I couldn’t fix a pyramid if it broke either… Perhaps we seek systems that are simpler rather than more complex, more capable of being tended (if not created) by mere mortals.

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  3. Yes to all the same frustrations even if on a much more limited scale. The shut downs make me not just suspicious but paranoid. Plus rather than a clean coup de grace, Reader and Posterous seem to be rotting away as we watch the count down, going zombie, shedding parts and functions, jerkily shambling along.

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  4. Lisa, I enjoyed reading your post. I’ve been wondering about this kind of stuff for a year or so now. No wonder I can’t figure it out. It’s a beast. Helen

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