Nontraditional Learning Management Systems in Higher Education

Classroom logoWhen I interviewed for an instructional designer position with Google a few years ago, I was convinced that they were looking to take their Classroom product wider and deeper. I thought that they were ready to take on Blackboard, Canvas et al and start to integrate their free LMS with student information systems, add a gradebook etc.  Mixed in with all their existing tools for video streaming (YouTube) and conferencing (Hangouts) plus Docs and the rest, I really expected them to offer a free LMS that colleges would use. It would be very tempting. Look at how many colleges switched over to Gmail as the official institutional mail system. 

"Nontraditional" learning management systems (I'm thinking of both paid and free ones) have increased in online courses. Much of that movement has come from MOOC use and also from companies who have created their own systems to promote training and course offerings.

A new article from EDUCAUSE looks at graduate student use of Google Classroom. If you were using Classroom for your course a few years ago, you were more likely to be teaching in K-12 than at the undergraduate or graduate levels.

The study looks at many of the areas that have been studied before: improving effectiveness, increasing students' interactions with each other and their instructors and building community online. The difference is the audience of grad students.

The earliest MOOCs were using nontraditional web applications like Facebook and Twitter for higher education. But their use has been more limited - perhaps for an assignment - and few educators would call any one of them or a combination to be the equivalent of an LMS.

The study also points out that products like Schoology have borrowed a lot of UI and design from sites like Facebook. 

This study is small - "When asked if they would use Google Classroom again, five of the seven participants said, "yes." I would consider using Google Classroom again as well, but only for a small course."  But it is a study worth conducting at other institutions and with larger classes, even MOOC-sized ones. 

The author, Stephanie Blackmon, feels "the stream can be a bit daunting for some students" and she is hesitant to rely on it for larger classes. I would be less hesitant, but I don't think Classroom is ready to be the nontraditional LMS for a traditional college-credit course.

But some company, perhaps Google, is going to offer that free LMS and that's when things will really get interesting.



An overview of Google Classroom features:

Information Wants To Be Free - but

scihub logoThis is a brief followup to my previous article about BitTorrent. That is because this post is about SciHub, which is self-described as "the first pirate website in the world to provide mass and public access to tens of millions of research papers".

Sci-Hub is a website with over 62,000,000 academic papers and articles available for direct download, bypassing publisher paywalls by allowing access through educational institution proxies. Sci-Hub stores papers in its own repository, and additionally the papers downloaded by Sci-Hub are also stored in Library Genesis (LibGen). A Russian graduate student, Alexandra Elbakyan, founded it in 2011, as a reaction to the high cost of research papers behind paywalls.

The site has had its legal problems. In 2015 academic publisher Elsevier filed a legal complaint against Sci-Hub alleging copyright infringement and the subsequent lawsuit led to a loss of the original domain.  legal to even access 

"If Elsevier manages to shut down our projects or force them into the darknet, that will demonstrate an important idea: that the public does not have the right to knowledge," says founder Alexandra Elbakyan in an interview with TorrentFreak.  

Elbakyan has been called a hero and "spiritual successor to Aaron Swartz for her creation of Sci-Hub and compared to Edward Snowden, because she is hiding in Russia after having "leaked" files in violation of American law.

Is she a modern-day "Robin Hood of science?"

The Internet As Café

caféI was quite charmed last year when I made my first visit to Prague in the Czech Republic. I had in my mind a Romanticized version of the city and its famed café culture. In my imagination, it was people sipping coffee on sidewalk table and talking about art and literature. When my wife and I went for coffee and dessert at the Café Imperial, it was certainly much grander than anything I had imagined.

We did find those little cafés too, so I was able to embrace my Romantic version of the city. There is also the well-documented role of  the coffeehouse in the Age of Enlightenment. These informal gatherings of people played an important role in innovation in politics, science, literature and religion.

Next year, I hope to visit the Café de Flore which is one of the oldest coffeehouses in Paris. Located at the corner of Boulevard Saint-Germain and Rue Saint-Benoît, it is known for its history of serving intellectual clientele. At one time, those tables overheard conversations from existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre,  writer Albert Camus and artist Pablo Picasso.

In science, breakthroughs seem to rarely come from just one person working alone. Innovation and collaboration usually sit at the table together. We are currently in a time when, at least in American politics, collaboration seems nonexistent.

This notion is what caught my attention in an interview I heard with Steven Johnson who wrote Where Good Ideas Come From.
He writes about how “stacked platforms” of ideas that allow other people to build on them.  This way of ideas coming together from pieces borrowed from another field or another person and remixing feels very much like what has arisen in our digital age.

One example he gives is the 1981 record My Life in the Bush of Ghosts by Brian Eno and David Byrne. It is an innovative album for that time in its use of samples well before the practice became mainstream. Eno was inspired by the varied voices and music and advertising on New York AM radio which was so different from the straightforward BBC radio he grew up with in England. He thought about repurposing all that talk into music.

We call that “decontextualizing” now – in this case a sound or words taken out of context and put in a new place. But this borrowing and remixing also occurs with ideas in culture, science and technology.

Unfortunately, ideas are not always free to connect with each other. Things like copyright and intellectual property law get in the way. We often silo innovators in proprietary labs or departments and discourage the exchange of ideas.

I didn’t know that Ben Franklin had a Club of Honest Whigs that would meet at the London Coffeehouse, when he was in England and they would hang out and exchange ideas.

Johnson describes these as “liquid networks” – not so much for the coffee, but for the fluidity in the conversation. These informal networks work because they are made up of different kinds of people from different backgrounds and experiences. Diversity is not just necessary as a biological concept but as an intellectual one.

The Internet was built on ideas stacked on top of ideas. A whole lot of code and ideas are underneath this post. At its best, when I write online I am connecting, if only virtually, with other writers, artists and thinkers, and connecting literally through hyperlinks to those ideas.

I know there are “Internet cafés,” but what about Internet as a café?

Why Create and Use Open Educational Resources?

open textbooksI'm currently working on redesigning courses to use only Open Educational Resources (OER). Ever since I have worked in higher ed, whenever I have discussed open resources that are offered for free some faculty will always ask "Why do people create these things for no money?"
Most of us do our work and create our "intellectual property" (some of which is called that isn't really IP) in order to make money, and in academia to gain promotion and tenure too.
Some of the main motivations for creating OER are the same as the reasons for using OER. In my current project at a community college, we are trying to create course that save students money. Ideally, the course has no cost after students pay their tuition. The biggest cost is almost always textbooks, so using free, open textbooks is important.
I feel that too much course design is based on the textbook used, so OER redesign offers an opportunity for real course redesign. 
On the pedagogical side, open textbooks solve the problem of students simply not buying the book and trying to get by without it. I taught in secondary school for years and all the textbooks were free and I will always say that a free book does not solve the problem of students who do not read the books.
We also know through many studies that students who are strapped for money often choose courses when possible based on low or no cost for textbooks.
Students get annoyed when a professor only uses a small part of the textbook. Using open textbooks allows us to select the sections that we really want to use. Many OER courses use portions of several texts - a few chapters from one and a few from another.
If you not totally happy with the content in an truly open textbook, you can edit it yourself. You can add your own content, add your own images. Of course, in most cases those edits also have to be made open to others to use. I think of an open textbook as a starting point.
Which brings us to the point that creating an OER course takes work. Finding resources is very time-consuming. Editing them is work. If you do it, you do it for your students, for education and for a love of learning that you want to share with the world.
OER creators don't usually make money from their efforts, although there are platforms that offer resources in printed formats for a price. But creators can get recognition and exposure for their efforts and that can sometimes help in the job-hunting and promotion and tenure processes.

Making Educational Content Accessible

disability symbols
You might have read earlier this year that the University of California, Berkeley started removing more than 20,000 video and audio lectures from public view that they had made freely available online. Why? It was the result of a Justice Department accessibility order requiring them to make the educational content accessible to people with disabilities.
UC Berkeley was one of the colleges in the forefront of posting to YouTube, iTunes U and their own site. Accessibility for people with a wide variety of disabilities has been an issue with online courses for many years. Mostly, schools have "gotten away with it" when it comes to following requirements that largely came into focus primarily after the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) became law in 1990.
It's curious that the Justice Department’s investigation did not look at how Berkeley actually serves students with disabilities, but only the accessibility of content it offers to the public. As a result of this order the university will also require users sign in with University of California credentials to view or listen to them.
This is a scary ruling for other institutions who have been "getting away with it" and now may have to do the same as UC. 
All it took was complaints from two employees of Gallaudet University, the world's only university designed to be barrier-free for deaf and hard of hearing students. The employees said that Berkeley’s free online educational content was inaccessible to blind and deaf people because of a lack of captions, screen reader compatibility and other issues.
Unfortunately, to remedy these issues any university would need to implement measures that are very expensive to continue to make these resources available to the public. Since they were offered for free, there is really no business model that applies here other than charity. So, the immediate solution was to make them "inaccessible" to everyone by removing them. 
Berkeley can continue to offer massive open online courses on edX. They also plan to create new public content that is accessible.
One concern that many educators have is that this ruling will result in the disappearance of much Open Educational Resources.

Moodle Goes MOOC With Academy

Academy home page May 2017

Academy is Moodle's version of a MOOC) platform, It's not that some people and institutions haven't gone done the MOOC road using the Moodle platform that was originally developed in 2002 by Martin Dougiamas to help educators create online courses. The Moodle platform was conceived with a focus on interaction and the collaborative construction of content and it has evolved over the past 15 years quite successfully. But it was not designed with the aim of hosting a course that contained tens of thousands of learners with different (and perhaps more limited) interactions and less emphasis on student-centered content creation.
There was an announcement about Academy in May 2016 and the Academy platform is still a preliminary version. As far as I have read, it is being used by only one institutional partner (Dublin City University) and for seven courses that are currently in the pre-enrollment stage).
At first mention, Moodle Academy was being compared to the Canvas Network because it seemed that Academy would be a centralized MOOC hosting platform run and managed by Moodle. This would be ideal for institutions (or individuals?) who wanted to offer a MOOC but needed not only a platform but the servers and bandwidth to deal with massive users and activity. I taught a meta-MOOC called "Academia and the MOOC" in the spring of 2013 in Canvas Network, and have used Canvas to teach undergraduate courses at a university since then.
I signed up for an Academy account and pre-enrolled for a course to test out the platform. (No start date listed yet.) The course is "21C Learning Design" and described as being for teachers who want to develop 21st Century skills in learning design. There is currently no content, but the platform itself looks very much like a Moodle course. For example, filling in my profile information, photo etc. was the same, and the home page with topics also looks the same as what I have used when I teach in Moodle at NJIT. 
AS with Canvas and Canvas Network, I suspect that Moodle and Academy will differ more behind the scene and screen and feel very comfortably similar for Moodle users.
If you want to try out Academy, go to and register. If you decide to take the 21C class, please message me there. It would be interesting to meet some Serendipity35 readers in a MOOC platform.