In a post titled “The LMS for Traditional Revolutionaries,” Instructure’s VP of Research and Education for Canvas Jared Stein responded to my LMS rant with some numbers and some thoughts about the role of the vendor in encouraging progressive teaching practices. First, the numbers on the use of open education features in Canvas:
- 3.8% of courses are “public”; you don’t need a login to see them.
- 0.6% of courses are Creative Commons-licensed.
- 4.0% of assignments are URL submissions (suggesting that students are completing their assignments on their blogs or elsewhere on the open web).
On the one hand, as Jared acknowledges, these percentages are very low. On the other hand, as he points out, 4% of assignments is close to 250,000 assignments, which is non-trivial as an absolute number. And all of this raises the question: What is the role of the vendor in promoting progressive educational practices?
Let’s take the best-case scenario. Suppose you’re a good person and a thoughtful educator who happens to work for a vendor at the moment. (For those of you who don’t know him, Jared enjoys just such a reputation, having spent a number of years as an excellent academic ed tech blogger and practitioner before joining Instructure.) What can you do? What is your role? On the one hand, you will get criticized by educators who want more and faster change for being too conventional. I certainly have leveled that sort of criticism at vendors before. And maybe those criticisms will sting particularly hard if you were one of those educators yourself before you joined the company (and maybe still are, in your heart of hearts). On the other hand, you are likely to be criticized as arrogant, high-handed, and unwilling to listen to your customers if you put yourself in the position of lecturing to educators (or, at worst, bullying them) about what you, as a vendor, define as best teaching practices. I certainly have leveled this sort of criticism as well.
So what’s a vendor to do? Jared writes,
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These [open education features] are just a few examples of capabilities in Canvas that we believe add flexibility and encourage different approaches to teaching and learning. I recognize that sharing this data is a little risky; some may use it to argue that Canvas shouldn’t worry so much about the small percentage of educators who may take advantage of these fringe capabilities. After all, won’t teachers who are actually invested in open educational practices just eschew the LMS for their own platforms anyway?
Focusing only on “users like us” and ignoring the others may work in the short-term, but for long-term success you have to build bridges, not walls.
To help education improve itself for all teachers and learners we have to try to connect with those teachers who aren’t comfortable with radical shifts in pedagogy or technology. We believe that the best way to encourage positive change in educational practices across the broad landscape of content areas, learning objectives, and teaching philosophies is by providing tools that are easy-to-use, flexible, and comfortable to the majority of teachers and learners. The door to change must be open and the doorkeeper must be deposed.
Some of the ways we do this is by having an open community, engaging with people who disagree with us, and investing in the open platform aspect of Canvas. We need both traditionalists, critical pedagogues, progressive researchers, and open educators to contribute to Canvas.That doesn’t have to be done through pull requests or by building LTI apps or integrations, though that’s a brilliant way to build solutions that are right for your context. But by dialoging what works in teaching and learning and what doesn’t. By debating what technology is best for, and when it leads us away from our shared goals of teaching and learning better in an open and connected world.
Shorter Jared: We put capabilities to support progressive practices in our product in the hopes that our users will discover, adopt, and promote them, but it’s not our place to push our preferred educational practices on our customers.
In many cases—particularly with a platform that serves a large and heterogeneous swath of the campus community—that’s the best attitude you can get from your vendor. That’s the most they can do without rightly pissing off (more) people.
All of which brings me back to a single point: If you want better educational technology, then work to make sure that your colleagues in your campus community are asking for the things that you think would make educational technology better. If 40% rather than 4% of assignments created by your colleagues were on the open web, then learning platforms like LMSs would look and work differently. I guarantee it. Likewise, as long as most educators tend to use the technology to reproduce existing classroom practices, LMSs will look the same. I guarantee that too. And that’s not a vendor thing. That’s a software development thing. Community-developed open source learning platforms generally haven’t broken the mold, and the few that have tend to be the ones that you probably have never heard of because they don’t get adopted. They build what their community members ask for and what they think will attract other community members. So if you want better tech, then the best thing you can do to get it is to create demand for it among your colleagues.