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.


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


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….


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.

Three online class types

A draft of another tripartite idea, this time focused on online classes in general, across the board.

mcdonalds_fries The McClass

Run inside an LMS, or even better by Coursera or Udacity, and/or offered by proponents of the mass-produced course (U of Phoenix, Ashford, etc), the McClass features recorded lectures, an unmoderated internal discussion (if any), and grading by graduate students, peers or staff (and soon robo-graders). All xMOOCs are in this category, but so are classes created by teams of instructional designers or course developers and “content experts”, but facilitated (I hesitate to use the word “taught”) by less experienced instructors or program coordinators. Sartorial analogy: one size fits all.


The sub sandwich class

It’s a six inch or a twelve — you can change the mix of ingredients inside but the options are standardized. Sub sandwich classes are offered by community colleges and universities dependent on a single Learning Management System, the inherent design of which influences (and may determine) instructor pedagogy. Even built on a whole wheat system like Canvas or an in-house product, the defaults of the LMS are easy to adopt without requiring an examination of ones own pedagogy. Hallmarks include dependence on publisher-produced materials, and an internal, traditional moderated discussion of issues, usually lacking a constructivist focus. Quality varies and is partly dependent on the freshness of the ingredients.


The artisanal class

Created by the instructor, the artisanal class includes only those elements that help realize the instructor’s pedagogy. The design is developed based on knowledge and experience as an active, independent teacher. The artisanal class may exist inside an LMS, but when it does the LMS is substantially customized, and often external web elements are brought in to replace built-in features (blogs, wikis, etc). Hallmarks include a foundation in free and open or home-made formats, innovative assessment techniques, and a distinct lack of top-down control. Discussion may be distributed or focused on content creation. Flaws add character and provide opportunity for community creativity. Most cMOOCs fit this model, but so do classes offered by public institutions who allow faculty substantial control over the design and deployment of their work.