The LMS and the End of Information Literacy

Having worked with the Canvas system deeply for several months, and then worked closely with an online student who needed help at various levels, I have concluded that the underlying philosophy of Canvas (and OEI in California) is to remove the information literacy requirement for online learning.

Canvas’ defaults encourage a simplistic, linear course with step-by-step navigation for all tasks. The features for instructors to customize extensively, have students collaborate, and make grading meaningful, are conspicuously missing. When requested in the community, such features meet with success mainly when they adhere to the basic philosophy of simplicity.

computerizedlearningThe implication is that any depth must exist within the instructional materials accessed through the system. At the top level, the environment in which the student must work, the danger of cognitive overload is mitigated by providing as few options as possible. It is a clear return to 4th grade “computerized learning”, the kind that takes place in a lab. Pupils sit at stations, and the software guides them step-by-step by pressing as few buttons as possible. With visual and touch-screen interfaces, this is now even easier. Complete a small task, get instant feedback, press ‘Next’.

The fact that such interfaces prevent branching, distributed, or complex learning is considered to be a feature, not a bug. All information is “chunked” for easy understanding and assessment.

Back in the early 1990s, we were all excited about the open web and its possibilities for the exploration of human information. We were able to look up things that had previously been inaccessible before, and we developed pedagogies designed to use that easy-to-access information. To do so meant designing our own pathways through the material, to help students turn their study into knowledge.

With the coming of the read-write web, it became possible for users to interact with the software in online spaces. IRC and other forms of synchronous chat had been available, but required some technical knowledge. Web-based interactions, which required little technical understanding, became simpler and easier to use. With the development of private web spaces like Facebook and Google, companies came to control the interfaces, simplifying even further what we needed to know to use the tools, and pruning the content we could access easily.

wikinoAlthough at first there had been plans to teach information literacy as a school requirement, this trend has tapered off because of such ease of use. In many places, information literacy is still articulated as a goal, but is not implemented in any meaningful way. The result has been students who have no idea what to type into Google when asked to find, for example, information about American imperialism in the late 19th century. We already are aware of the challenges of distinguishing between good and bad sources of information, and want students to distinguish between a scholarly source and a pop culture source. But instead of increasing skills, the fear of bad websites has led to banning certain things, through filters in grade schools and syllabus dictates in college. (When I encouraged my student to use Wikipedia to find primary sources, she was aghast, telling me it had been drilled into her head for years never to use Wikipedia for school.)

Increasing numbers of students have no conception of what constitutes a website, or a link, or a browser. With no understanding of how to navigate a complex web page or database, students have become unable to comfortably navigate a complex online course, regardless of the LMS. It is possible that only students with more sophisticated web skills are able to benefit from the learning pathways we design. As instructional designers remove more and more of our responsibility to construct these pathways ourselves, the “best practices” encourage computerized learning goals such as chunking, instant feedback, and tightly controlled pathways at the expense of discovery, integration and community.

While I would prefer, for the sake of our democratic society, a metacognitive awareness of the control exerted on us by our tools, I have to admit the temptation to follow the larger trend. We have successfully trained an entire generation not to think while using an electronic tool. We may no longer be able to expect them to do so for the sake of their education.

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Results from 131 students

It’s only taken me 17 years of teaching online to develop a student survey that is both broad enough to cover all my classes and narrow enough to give me good feedback.

Just sharing a few things here. Total students responding was 131. Most students responding were passing the class.

ClassElementsRestuls

They still like my lectures the most, and textbook readings the least. They still like posting their own primary sources.

AddtlElementsResults

Hours and hours of work on that Help Page and – no surprise given what they email me about – they don’t use it. They do like seeing the whole course on one page (so I won’t switch to showing only the current week, an option in Moodle) and they like my comments and the audio of my lectures (I’ll read it for you!). The None category is a little depressing….

EngagementResults

The engagement results are clear, too. They like the lectures and posting their own source. They don’t like reading much. But they really liked what I added this year – the completion checkboxes on the Moodle page. I will be sad to lose that. But note: they like seeing each other’s work, but don’t require contact with other students. I’ve been saying that for awhile – collaboration and teamwork is online classes is not always needed. For my class, engagement with the work and posting what you find may be taking the place of “interaction” among students. They can learn from each other without necessarily engaging in forums in response to each others’ posts.

Retention and the affective domain

I hate emotions. Yes, I know that’s an emotional thing to say, but they get in the way of learning more than any other thing.

I struggle to understand why students drop online classes. I’m not getting much help from the research. Compared to the traditional classroom, we know that online students get lower marks (Fonolahi 2014). But we’re also thinking that they need greater social interaction (Boston et al 2009), want more direct instruction and feedback (Gaytan 2015), and apparently do not need to experience a locus of control (Cui 2015).

Couple this with the article in the Atlantic on Starbucks helping baristas go to college. What’s working to keep students enrolled, the article points out, isn’t just the money for tuition. Contracting university ASU has in turn contracted with a company to provide personalized monitoring. Students are called and encouraged to stay on track. Most need assistance with their confidence as much as working their way through bureaucracy.

The undercurrent here is emotions, the affective domain. I suspect a great deal depends on how students feel. If you feel comfortable in a class, you stay in the class.

On-campus classes often have a built-in comfort/affective boost, because students have been in that environment for 12 years of school. We remove that when we go online – I understand that. And we assume that because students communicate with each other and with parts of society on cell phones and computers, that the environment is familiar, but we know that for learning it really isn’t.

So we worry about the social online environment. Will students feel isolated? Will they feel they aren’t really in a class?

But now I have to add: will they feel it’s too much work? will they feel they don’t have time to do this class? will they feel that other classes are easier than mine so they’ll drop mine?

My classes are friendly, I’m friendly, I reach out, I email when people are struggling. I use their names. I track all these students. I contact them. I do not phone them or go to their house, though (I’ve had an admin suggest that, but there are many reasons students take online classes, and one is privacy).

Since this post in 2009, my drop-out rate has increased. I have done surveys on why they drop, and asked them. In response I’ve reduced the workload, especially the number of writing assignments. I’ve considered publisher cartridges and programs. I’ve even considered switching from Moodle to Blackboard or Canvas, but if I switch, then my very best pedagogy (the History Lab) won’t work because the LMS won’t let me batch grade posts.

And then I start to wonder, why is all the pressure about retention put on faculty? Some newer studies suggest that retention in courses students take for online breadth-requirement classes (like mine) is 64%, about 10% lower than on-site (Wladis et al 2015). If I had more history majors, it would be closer to 81%. All the studies acknowledge “external factors” (reading level, GPA, online class experience, jobs, family support, etc.) and yet all the advice is that faculty should do things to make the classes more inviting, more engaging, more relevant to their current lives regardless of the subject (Park and Choi 2009)

Could the institution help? Yes, I think so, but how they could help would be controversial:

1. Create a barrier. Students attempting to enroll in an online class would have to do something to force understanding of the self-direction and commitment required. Perhaps this would be an interactive tutorial, but it should be something that keeps popping up throughout the semester as a reminder. This might help students feel like this will be hard, this will be a challenge, this will require effort.

2. Have the college contact them. Not the teacher, the college. According to this article, at the University of West Georgia, retention increased when faculty reporting students they couldn’t reach to academic advisers who tracked them down and offered cheerleading services.

I have more research to do, of course (I’m stashing all my Diigo bookmarks here). Many of the studies are based on student surveys, and I know from faculty evaluations that these seemingly “objective” surveys are usually based on how students feel when they respond to them. Some of the research (Croxton 2014) is tying together student satisfaction and retention in terms of theory. In a world where some students want trigger warnings and controls on free speech in order to protect their feelings, any focus on how students feel, and how their feelings affect their decision to drop the class, would be helpful.