IT IS never a good feeling to open a new piece of software and realise that something terrible has happened. The kind of terrible that results in dozens of instructional videos, hundreds of entries in the FAQs and multiple, contradictory warnings from people online purporting to give “simple introductions” to the software in question.
All of this and more happened to me when I found myself subjected to a learning management system (known not-so-fondly as an LMS) for teaching university classes in media studies. In a year when the US higher education system is imploding (more on that later), my journey through the wilds of this LMS felt practically allegorical.
Before I became a writer, I was an academic in American studies and I spent several years teaching at a university. I have always wanted to teach again, but I wound up taking almost two decades to get back to it. Hence my sudden LMS shock. I am the Rip Van Winkle of pedagogy, who fell asleep in a pile of smudgy photocopies and woke up in a world ravaged by plague-induced distance-learning platforms.
Back in the mists of time, I would create a syllabus and hand it out on a piece of paper on the first day of class. In a few rare cases, we had class websites and used some janky old chat software for online discussions. Mostly, there were books and photocopied “readers” full of supplementary materials. Exams were handwritten in “bluebooks”, sheafs of lined paper stapled into flimsy blue covers.
I am not trying to evoke halcyon days. Books and readers were far too expensive and there was pretty much no way for students to collaborate, ask questions or turn in their work online. LMSes have gone a long way towards fixing those issues. In the department where I am teaching now, most course texts are cheap to access online. Students can chat with me and each other in the LMS and turn in exams and assignments online.
But now there is a new set of problems. An LMS is a commodity, which means it has to be something managers can buy for corporate instruction and on-the-job training. It has to be everything for everyone, which leads to redundancies and misnomers. “Don’t ever use ‘syllabus’, ” a colleague warned. “Use ‘new syllabus’ instead.” Of course the drop-down menu includes both. Also, don’t use “pages” or “files”, I was told – use “modules”. There are at least 50 videos on YouTube about how everything in this LMS (one of hundreds out there) has to be done with modules because everything else is broken. Which – yes, can confirm.
And then there are all the distance-learning features grafted onto an already bloated system in early 2020. I think this might be the source of a lot of problems in the LMS, which was converted from an already-messy system into a video streaming service that hosted thousands of professors broadcasting from home. That is a lot to ask of any piece of software.
Lurking beneath the tomfoolery is a stark reality: an LMS places educators and students under surveillance in a way that was quite shocking to me in my Rip Van Winkle state. I can see all my students’ names, sure, but also their profiles, some of which include personal information. I can see when they logged in and what they did on the class site. And anyone the student shares their account with can see everything I am assigning in class, comments I have made in chat and more.
I like the idea that an LMS could lead to transparency and accountability. But I worry that isn’t how this kind of detailed classroom information is being used. In the US, there is a backlash against higher education right now. Recently, conservatives proudly proclaimed that their anti-diversity activism led to the resignation of Claudine Gay, the first Black woman to become president of Harvard University. Parent groups are banning books in school libraries and pointing at “woke” syllabi to accuse professors of brainwashing students by teaching the history of slavery, for example. People who hate the idea of liberal education are selectively surveilling classrooms and weaponising what they find. Of course, parents and activists could always find out what was being taught in school, but LMSes make it far easier by collecting it all in one place and putting it online.
Needless to say, the texts that an educator assigns are just a small part of what they teach. I would hate for my classes to be judged purely on what students are assigned; sometimes I teach texts I want to question or eviscerate in order to model critical thinking. That is the problem with peeking at a class in an LMS and assuming you know what is being taught.
This brings me back to the LMS as an allegory for education in the US. It has been commodified, it is messy and it is full of surveillance features. Luckily, it works just well enough for us to teach – and we have to hope that is enough.
What I’m reading
The Sentinel State by Minxin Pei, a terrific deep dive into the Chinese surveillance state.
What I’m watching
The Brothers Sun, a hilarious series about a dorky guy who discovers his mother is actually the head of a Taiwanese gang.
What I’m working on
Finishing my “new syllabus” for Intro to Media Studies in the learning management system.
Annalee Newitz is a science journalist and author. Their latest novel is TheTerraformers and they are the co-host of the Hugo-winning podcast Our Opinions Are Correct. You can follow them @annaleen and their website is techsploitation.com