The LMS as Portal: InstructureCon Keynote

My boyfriend Kin Lane, "the API Evangelist," and I gave this morning's keynote at InstructureCon. So yeah, I had to go on stage after MC Hammer opened the event last night. Tough act to follow. But I didn't cuss. Below are our slides and a rough version of what I said...

It is quite strange for me to be standing here, giving the keynote this morning. For one thing, it’s too damn early, and I can’t think of any appropriate MC Hammer jokes to make about education and can’t touch-iness.

For another – and this is the biggie – it’s the first time that Kin and I have been asked to share the stage, and for reasons that I hope our talk will make clear, I think it’s fairly significant – not just for our relationship, but for Instructure to have recognized the important overlap in our work. Me: a writer about education and ed-tech, someone who cares about open learning, learner agency. And him: the API evangelist, someone who pays close attention to opening data, infrastructure, technologies, and the ways in which these reshape our business and political practices.

But it’s also very strange for me to be up here because I’m not a fan of the idea of the learning management system. I’m also known to be pretty tough, in general, on education technology startups. Take, for example, the headline I wrote when Instructure launched in 2011:

“Why I’m Not That Excited About the New LMS Instructure”

One of the things I often harp about in my writing is the lack of knowledge about education – its histories, its theories, its practices – among many startup entrepreneurs. True, many say that their decision to pursue an ed-tech company because they want to “make the world better” or to “fix education.” But many will also tout the negative experiences they’ve had with ed-tech as students. And frankly that’s often code for the bad experiences they’ve had with an LMS. Indeed, that’s why, year after year, startups are launched that claim to “rethink” or “disrupt” the LMS market even though very, very few do. Instructure may be the exception that proves the rule.

And honestly, I can appreciate their dissatisfaction. Like most people who’ve been to school or taught school or worked in education in the last 15 years, I too have a long list of frustrations stemming from my LMS usage. But for me, these frustrations weren’t simply my “user experience” as a teacher or as a student. It wasn’t about missing features or a clunky interface. It wasn’t about downtimes. These frustrations stemmed from my usage of – my love of – the Web at large and my belief in open learning, open source, and open access.

When I first started teaching as a grad student in the late Nineties, my university hadn’t yet adopted an LMS. All students, faculty, and staff did however were given access to Web storage and hosting. I downloaded a free copy of Claris Home Page, learned a little HTML, and made all my syllabi and course hand-outs available online.

I did so at the time mostly out of convenience. Even as a novice instructor, I’d already grown weary of students coming into class during the second week of term asking for another copy of the syllabus. And as I was a novice instructor, one that was teaching a class that many, many novice instructors – not just on my own campus, but all over the world were teaching – the freshman writing requirement College Composition – it just made sense to me that I’d post everything on the Web so that others could see what I was doing. I sorta hoped others would do the same, so that I could learn from them, so that I could re-mix and reuse their handouts and adopt their course ideas in turn.

But all that changed when the university adopted a learning management system.

We were encouraged to move all our course content there, post all our syllabi and all our handouts there, conducts all our chats there, manage our grades there. And that was the big sell that IT had for us instructors – the learning management system would link to the student information system so that you could retrieve your roster at the beginning of the term and export your grades at the end of the term.

The LMS was, I think it’s fair to say, designed merely as a Internet portal for the student information system. This was the late Nineties after all. And so it’s not surprising that this particular learning management system looked a lot like the Internet portals of its time period and acted like a “walled garden” for online educational content. Instead of pointing to resources and services outside the wall, the LMS would buy the services and bring them inside.

This approach suited the desires of many university administrators – those who wanted to keep access to content to only those enrolled and tuition-paying students. And it suited technology of the time.

But that technology – Internet technologies writ large, but Web technologies in particular – has changed tremendously over the past decade and a half.

I’ll turn it over to Kin to talk about that history…

[Kin spoke here about the history of APIs and what APIs do.]

So the technology enables this. Cloud. Commerce. Mobile. Social. Data portability. Interoperability. Sharing.

The technology makes it possible for us to no longer live in those desktop-bound, Internet portals of the Nineties. Our LMSes need no longer look like or, god forbid, work like AOL, where you got the warning message any time you tried to go outside the walled garden.

But I still think education struggles culturally, not just technologically, with some of these very “warning message” issues. In many ways, the Internet portal of the Nineties remains a comforting model to those who don’t believe that educational content like syllabi and handouts should be freely and openly available on the Web. The Internet portal of the Nineties remains a comforting model to those who believe that the Web is dangerous and there are predators and trolls just waiting to steal your intellectual property or hijack your forums. The Internet portal of the Nineties remains a comforting model to those who believe that students’ work should be private, shared only with the instructor-of-record. The Internet portal of the Nineties remains a comforting model to those who believe that they are in charge of a learner’s online experience – that they can dictate where learners go, what they see, what they read, and at the end of the semester, they control when access to all that goes away.

Recently, Stephen Downes – one of the originators of the MOOC and one of the people I admire most in open learning – commented that he thought that Coursera was the last gasp of the educational walled garden, noting with some irony that even the learning management systems have recognized that they cannot and should not seal themselves off from the rest of the Web.

The technology of APIs allows the LMS to be much more than a Internet portal or a walled garden. APIs allow it to connect to other apps, allow the movement of data between applications (not just between the LMS and the student information system), allow embedding, enable social learning, enable mobile accessibility, allow us to offer badges through the Mozilla Open Badges infrastructure, and so on. The technology of APIs fosters the creation of platforms whereby third-party app developers can build on top of larger tech companies’ systems.

But a final word of caution about platforms to bring this full circle and to make the argument once again that we need both a technological and a cultural shift in education.

Kin and I have spent a lot of time talking a lot lately about the OAuth and OpenID specifications. I realize that might sound anywhere from too geeky to too sad. I’ll add here: he’s been talking about these as authentication and identity technologies; me, I am more likely to think of these as metaphors.

OAuth and OpenID are the open technology standards that allow users to be authenticated with certain websites. OAuth, for example, lets a user grant access to their digital resources on one site to another site. The classic example perhaps: you can sign up for an app using Facebook Connect so that you don’t have to supply a username and password.

Often when developers sketch out these specifications, they’ll represent the exchange of data between the three legs — the platform, the app provider and the user as some describe it, or the server, the client and the resource owner — as an equal relationship. Lots of arrows that map out the requests and the movement of data. But it’s almost always drawn as an equilateral triangle or a circle — as though the relationship there between the platform and the application and the end-user is balanced. But it’s not.

The platform owner wields a great deal of power and controls a great deal of data and makes many decisions that impact users immensely. This is why everyone in Silicon Valley wants to build or become a platform.

And after a while, platforms start looking less like the open Web and more like Internet portals and walled gardens once again.

The portal, as my friend Jesse Stommel said yesterday in his workshop, isn’t about silos or reservoirs. It isn’t about closing the door for learning. It’s about opening it.

How do we move forward with our education technologies in such a way that we think about our responsibilities to sharing, the accessibility, to mobility and most importantly to the use – to the learner?

How do ensure that we think critically about the technologies we adopt? Because while we must take advantage of modern Web APIs in order to offer data portability and interoperability and mobility, we also need to think about the culture that matters for us in education. And we must examine how that culture dovetails with a Web-connected future, whether we like it or not. We must ask ourselves, ask our institutions, ask our instructors and ask our students: how can these technologies serve that open connected accessible interoperable future, so that we don’t find ourselves trapped in something that’s just the latest version of AOL.

Thank you.



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