6 If bell hooks Made a Learning Management System

Radical openness isn’t a bureaucratic gesture. It has to be rooted in a willingness to sit with discomfort. The learning management system is not a space built for discomfort.

Radical openness in education means recognizing the ways in which the work of teaching is a kind of activism. The learning management system is not a space built for activism.

Radical openness demands the classroom be a space for genuine relationships, at the expense of content, summative assessment, and so-called academic rigor. The learning management system is a space built to track and score students — to gather them into rows, arrange their work into columns, feeding them into a machine that spits out a grade on the other end. The LMS is designed to make grading students convenient for teachers — and designed to facilitate the systematic observation (and scoring) of teachers by administrators. These are not dialogues.

At OpenEd 2014, Sean Michael Morris and I offered a presentation titled, “If Freire Made a MOOC: Open Education and Critical Digital Pedagogy.” As we’ve continued to consider the intersection between critical and digital pedagogies, we’ve wondered at a follow-up question, “if bell hooks made a learning management system.” Our answers in turn: “she wouldn’t” and, more importantly, “her learning environment is not our space to build.” Given how ubiquitous these systems have become in education, I think the better question to wonder at is whether the words (and pedagogies) of bell hooks can help dismantle the need for learning management systems altogether.

In our work on Freire and the MOOC, Sean and I wrote, “Ceding authority is an active endeavor. Dichotomies of leaders and learners, teachers and students, are only helpful when they facilitate rather than frustrate dialogue, and when we acknowledge these roles are permeable, transparent, and flexible.” Our learning management systems have been designed, marketed, deployed to do just the opposite. These are systems of control, systems structured for obedience, systems structured to assert authority over students, systems structured to center the instructor. For the same reason that we shouldn’t presume to (even imaginatively) build the LMS for bell hooks, we should have never built these systems for students. We shouldn’t pre-determine the shape of our students’ learning environment before meeting the students. And I say “we” pointedly, because even if we aren’t implicated in the code of the LMS, all of us in education are in some way implicated in its use.

Many of us rail against learning management systems, poke holes at their flawed pedagogies, and even cuss at the particularly egregious ones, but most of us do little to chip away at their market share. Because the learning management system is a red herring, a symptom of a much larger beast that has its teeth on education: the crude quantification of learning, the reduction of teaching to widgets and students to data points.


Alternatives to the Learning Management System

In 2012, I designed and launched a new hybrid degree program at a small liberal arts institution in Oregon. It was a digital humanities program, and I argued that since it was about the Web, the program should live on the Web, and not in Moodle, the institution’s learning management system. I set up a multisite WordPress installation as a homegrown alternative to an LMS. For each online course, I added a site and worked with instructors to find themes and plugins appropriate to their pedagogies. Students built sites of their own and connected with each other across the network of sites and via a social media hashtag for each course. The whole thing was certainly more chaotic than what happens in a learning management system, but still more structured than the dynamic interaction in most of my on-ground classrooms.

When I left that institution, the program continued, but it retreated immediately back into Moodle. For two main reasons: Moodle made it more convenient to share and structure content, and Moodle had a grade book. The failure of the program was not that I didn’t build a suitable alternative to the LMS, but that I didn’t sufficiently convince the instructors why they should use it. Most teaching practice is unexamined, because teachers in higher education are rarely asked to think critically about pedagogy. They structure learning as though students are interchangeable. They expect content mastery. They demand compliance with course policies. They wield expertise like a weapon. They grade. Because many have never thought not to. They’ve never had a reason not to. Because the problem is not individual teachers. The problem is systemic. We build systems that reflect our collective values, and that is what LMS-makers have done.

The challenge for me when I configured that multisite installation was to reflect a different set of values. This was also the challenge when I oversaw the evolution of the Domain of One’s Own project at University of Mary Washington — to reflect a different set of values. At UMW, the institution asked students to build their own sites on the Web, dynamic places for their learning to inhabit, where the work from one class might blur into another. But we can’t expect that just building new systems will magically change our teaching practices or the cultures at our institutions. Pedagogical work in and around these new systems must continually poke and prod at their intentions, the assumptions we’ve baked into them. This work requires a tirelessness, a head permanently and inquisitively cocked to one side. This work requires awe and sometimes circumspection.

Who does the system serve? What data does it collect? Who profits? What hierarchies does it reinforce or disrupt? Who does it allow under the hood? What is its default configuration? What pedagogies does that configuration make possible? Does it make visible to students the chinks in its own armor? What are the risks to students and teachers in subverting the system?

In Teaching to Transgress, bell hooks writes,

My commitment to engaged pedagogy is an expression of political activism. Given that our educational institutions are so deeply invested in a banking system, teachers are more rewarded when we do not teach against the grain. The choice to work against the grain, to challenge the status quo, often has negative consequences.

Teaching is always a risk. Learning is always a risk. But that risk is not distributed evenly. A gay male administrator experiences the classroom differently from a black teacher, a disabled staff member, or a female student. Even a system that invites subversiveness, like Domain of One’s Own or the WordPress multisite I launched at Marylhurst University in Oregon, can’t single-handedly dismantle the institutionalized hierarchies of education.

While I was at University of Mary Washington, I participated in a series of programmatic assessment conversations — aimed (in part) at considering the effectiveness of Domain of One’s Own as a curricular tool. The discussion was invaluable and led, as I believe programmatic assessment should, to more questions than answers. During one part of the process, we looked at a handful of Web sites designed by students. As we worked through them, I quickly recognized that I could tell less about the individual students by looking at their sites and more about the assignment they had been given and how they were being graded. A year later, the next round of sites we reviewed showed different results, students genuinely engaged in the work of exploring their digital identity. But I continue to worry when I see students given the task of building a Web site as a kind of elaborate (and sometimes draconian) busy work. If we are to genuinely push back on the constraints of the learning managements system, our goal must be to help students think critically about their place on the Web, and a series of point and click tasks with instrumental outcomes is not helping them move in that direction. “Post once, reply twice” in a discussion forum doesn’t create dialogue or intrinsic motivation, nor does “add these five elements to your course site in order to receive full credit.”

Andrew Rikard writes, in “Do I Own My Domain if You Grade it?,” “Until students see this domain as a space that rewards rigor and experimentation, it will not promote student agency.” The best learning spaces should not fall into the cracks of formal assignments and assessment; rather, they should subvert and even defy attempts at schooliness. A domain of one’s own, or a portfolio of any sort, at its most “academically rigorous,” doesn’t overtly betray its origin as a graded set of tasks assigned by a teacher. Andrew Rikard continues, “The domains project isn’t revolutionary to the traditional classroom, but it is revolutionary to a classroom reimagined around public scholarship, student agency and experimentation.” This is key. We don’t need an alternative LMS. The LMS does its job just fine. We need pedagogical approaches that help make the LMS irrelevant. When students take learning into their own hands, they have no use for learning management systems.


Radical Openness

bell hooks means something very specific when she talks of Radical Openness, and so far the Open Education movement has failed to tread that particular water. Projects like Domain of One’s Own have flirted at the edge of Critical Pedagogy, but giving out free Domains isn’t exactly the revolution Paulo Freire, bell hooks, or Virginia Woolf had in mind. It falls on us to inhabit the space of the Web in a decidedly different way than education has inhabited the LMS, the MOOC, or the traditional physical classroom, for that matter.

To be radically open, online learning spaces can’t be delivery devices for content. They can’t be mechanisms for turning in assignments. They can’t be a mere replacement for the LMS. We have to let our own pedagogies stumble as we find new footing in these spaces.

bell hooks writes in “Choosing the Margin as a Space of Radical Openness,” “Spaces can be real and imagined. Spaces can tell stories and unfold histories. Spaces can be interrupted, appropriated, and transformed through artistic and literary practice.” We have to be willing to let new stories be told in education and to let students be the authors and co-authors of those stories. This means leaving policies, rubrics, grades, assignments, and other bureaucratic minutia at the door. Along with static content, learning objects, and mere resources. Everything that students have no hand in creating. What if dialogue were the stuff of open learning and not content? Radical openness means asking hard questions and having hard questions asked always of us.

hooks continues, “for me this place of radical openness is a margin — a profound edge. Locating oneself there is difficult yet necessary. It is not a ‘safe’ place. One is always at risk. One needs a community of resistance.”

For hooks, the risks we take are personal, professional, political. When she says that “radical openness is a margin,” she suggests it is a place of uncertainty, a place of friction, a place of critical thinking. This is not an open pedagogy neatly defined and delimited.

Audrey Watters writes in “From ‘Open’ to Justice, “We act — at our peril — as if ‘open’ is politically neutral, let alone politically good or progressive. Indeed, we sometimes use the word to stand in place of a politics of participatory democracy.” When we use a word like “open,” or ones like “agency” and “identity,” these should not be just empty signifiers.

Supporting student agency means advocating for students as they make choices about their own work — what, when, and also whether. When we acknowledge students make choices, we must also prepare for the possibility that they’ll say “no” — that they’ll hack our assignments — that they’ll choose their own paths, rather than the ones we set out for them. Sometimes, their work, their thinking, their process won’t be visible to us. As a teacher, how can I grade work I don’t see, or even work that doesn’t exist, because a student has discarded it as part of their process?


Grades Are a Technology

Grades motivate, in at least some small way, every tool developed by edtech software and hardware engineers. In too many of our institutional and technological systems, every road leads back to the grade book.

As Peter Elbow writes, “Grading tends to undermine the climate for teaching and learning. Once we start grading their work, students are tempted to study or work for the grade rather than for learning” (“Grading Student Writing”).

Ranking. Norming. Objectivity. Uniformity. Measurement. Outcomes. Quality. Data. Performance. Metrics. Scores. Excellence. Mastery.

Over the last 20 years, I’ve watched the LMS proliferate into all the institutions where I’ve worked. Even teachers that don’t use the learning management system for its other decidedly more pleasurable uses have made its grade book more and more central to the learning experience for students. To the point that, when I’ve chosen not to use the institutionally adopted LMS, students sometimes ask after the LMS in its absence. Not because the LMS has any particularly useful magic, but because we’ve come to expect it — to be comforted by the inevitability of its use. When a grade appears there, we feel a sense of completion, acknowledgment. A reassurance of our place in the education hierarchy, whether teacher or student. In Now You See It, Cathy Davidson calls the grade book a “prop,” the “symbol of pedagogical power.”

According to marketing statements on their public Web sites, Angel’s “automated agents save time,” Blackboard facilitates teacher-student “interaction” by “calculating grades,” and Canvas calls its tool “speed grader.” The problem is not just the fact of grades but the fetishization of them. There is no air for student agency to breathe in a system of incessant grading, ranking, and scoring.

Can we find increasingly creative ways to scaffold out of a grade book, and not into one?

In “Civil Disobedience,” Henry David Thoreau writes, “Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine.” And, “if it is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then I say, break the law.”

If I want students to feel empowered and free to do organic and genuine work on the Web, then I need to allow myself room to be a genuine reader of that work. Which means approaching that work as a reader would. If I want students to feel empowered and free to collaborate both within and beyond the class, then I need to also allow myself to be their collaborator. There is no room for grading students inside these relationships.

Usually when I talk of not grading, I do so with a caveat, and I point toward approaches that offer a middle ground. But I want to argue here that there really is no middle ground with a project like Domain of One’s Own. Put simply, no, you don’t own your domain if I grade it.

For all kinds of reasons, I’d argue that grading public work that students do on the Web, by any of our conventional academic metrics, undermines the work.

And as Martha Burtis has said, “there is still so much work we have to do.” Work reimagining what learning and teaching can look like on the Web. More labor and even more heart.


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Undoing the Grade Copyright © 2023 by Jesse Stommel is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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