Walled garden

From ivory tower to walled garden

Reda SadkiThinking aloud

Question: “So what learning platform do you use?”

Answer: “The Internet.”

I first remember hearing the phrase “Everyone hates their LMS” from a defrocked priest of higher education.

That made so much sense. At the time, I was wrestling with a stupid, clunky corporate learning management system designed for the most paranoid kind of HR department, touting its 10,000 features, none of which could do what we actually needed. Moodle seemed equally clunky, its pedagogical aspirations lost in the labyrinth of open source development.

The first breakthrough happened when, inspired by connectivist MOOCs, I figured out we could run an open learning journey without an LMS, using nothing more than a blog and a Twitter account. (That defrocked priest dubbed it “FrankenMOOC”, but he was also trying to sell me on using his preferred LMS.) There was something profoundly liberating about working outside the confines of a platform. However, the connectivist ideal proved to be a different kind of labyrinth, with only a chosen few who enjoyed wandering around or getting lost in it.

Digital market share is often measured by the size of your walled garden. By that measure, Facebook rules them all. In education, Moodle must certainly have the largest, albeit balkanized, walled garden.

This is not about the merit or demerit of an LMS or a learning theory. You are missing the point. And my vantage point sits outside of higher education.

Google’s ubiquitous search provides an interesting exception. By default, its “garden” is the entire Internet. This is how I understand the failure of Google+ as a missed opportunity. Why build a wall when search results could have gone social? (There are smatterings of this in search, for example when results show you reviews or enable you to connect with your search results.)

There is no parallel to this in higher education, where the market is driven by aggregators who partner with universities to leverage, as Burck Smith summarizes it, the “‘iron triangle’ of input-focused accreditation, taxpayer subsidies tied to accreditation, and subjective course articulation”.

It is a fundamental mistake to start building a digital learning system with the choice of platform, for at least two reasons.

First, there is no one platform that will do the job. This is especially true if you are interested in doing more than offering “high-quality learning” and competencies but want to fully leverage the potential of the digital transformation to drive change to tackle complex, global problems. The “course” is the commencement, not the end point. Implementation and impact are no longer the horizon. They are the rational goal that justifies investment in professional education.

Second, focusing on the platform inevitably devolves a learning initiative into a technology project. This is what happened to Moodle. It is akin to e-learning development in which media production metastizes into costly bells-and-whistles.

I know of only one platform that is the pure implementation of a strong pedagogical model. Unfortunately, despite the relevance of its pedagogical model for our future, its technology framework was also built on assumptions of the past, and it is just as proprietary as otherwise inferior commercial platforms.

What few saw coming was the digital transformation that, ironically, has made learning technologists and their learning platforms obsolete.

As technology embedded into the fabric of our cultures, it makes increasingly little sense to refer to a learning initiative as “digital” or “online”. It is just learning. The platforms used to support it should be either those that are already embedded in daily work or whatever the best available product happens to be at the moment, except where specific processes can be automated or facilitated by a specialized tool.

So, what about assessment, credentialing and record-keeping?

The first two benefit from being uncoupled from the process that supports knowledge acquisition and capability development. Sure, we can build separate assessment and credentialing based on direct observation and other forms of testing. This is where subject matter experts can be useful. However, dedicating resources to assessment in an artificial environment may not be nearly as good as figuring out how to do assessment in situ, in line with a philosophy of education that is about fostering leadership and innovation to drive change. Getting results and achieving impact should be the new credential of value.

Why are badges and other forms of micro-credentialing going nowhere fast? First, cracking the armor of accreditation is difficult given the capacity of higher education to resist change. Second, credentialing skills, knowledge, and competencies is no longer the signal that carries value.

The last one is a data problem. Build a modern database. Figure out how to get the data you need in and out. You do not need a learning management system to do that.

Image: Walled garden. Personal collection.