Why use the LMS for linear systems?

It’s been a bit of a whirlwind since the last post but I made my course website and “published” it. Rutgers has basically forced all courses into their preferred “Learning Management System” (LMS) Canvas. Even the term LMS has some weird connotations: is it a management system for learning or a system for managing learning? A system for students to (barely) manage to learn? Canvas in particular seems terrible for things math-related (one semester the entire LaTeX rendering engine crashed with no notice) or engineering-related, and in general the whole question management system is garbage.

So if Canvas is so awful, shouldn’t I use something else? Maybe. It helps to imagine (with some dramatic liberties) the evolution of the course website:

  • Everything’s on paper. There’s a book or lecture notes/a reader you buy from the bookstore or copy shop, assignments are physical handouts only (photocopies or dittos or something). Every class works this way. Scores for assignments have to be manually associated with students.
  • Same book or lecture notes/reader but homework files are on the web (or ftp or gopher maybe) in .ps (or later .pdf). A course website is some hand-coded HTML (like my current homepage!) Students can maybe pick up a printout or print it themselves in a computer lab or at home. We can call this the “bag of PDFs” model. Scores for assignments have to be manually associated with students.
  • The website design is somehow centrally controlled either via a template or something and now the book/notes are in .pdf but many students still print things out because lugging a laptop around feels annoying. Maybe a pretty bag of PDFs.
  • The dawn of the LMS: student rosters can get associated into a system where you can deposit your bag of PDFs and then organize them in some pre-specified way. Grades for assignments can be manually associated with students in the system and then you can submit them automagically!
  • The creep of the LMS: you can make quizzes/assignments (simple ones) that are auto graded, make your site look pretty, maybe embed some videos and provide other content, and generally automate some aspects of your class. To take advantage of “features” you have to change your class to meet the tools. The latter is appealing because some features help students learn better (at least according to some research). It’s an opportunity to try things new.
  • Late-stage capitalism LMS: Universities “mandate” that faculty use a particular LMS. Many faculty comply. Every year new edtech companies show up trying to get you to use their software (and sometimes steal student data). Some might be grifts, others are not. They heavily marketed and different ones are pushed by different teaching and learning centers. Many of them require you to change your teaching to fit the tool because they are one-size-fits-all: claims to works for all fields, all types of classes!

So why am I still using Canvas? The main reason is that it benefits the students, not because it is good, but because they have been using it for 2 years and they are used to it. They can see all their due dates on a single dashboard. If you are reading this and scoffing, think about how terrible and non-interoperable almost every calendar system is. If you say “you’re just bowing to peer pressure” you’re more or less right. If you say “but it builds character for students to have to manage their due dates” then I’d ask if the goal of your class is to teach the material or to teach time management. If you say “both” then does your class explicitly teach students time management skills? I’m guessing not.

In this new class format, there are 28 class sessions. In 26 of them there is a conceptual quiz students have to take before class as well as an in-class assignment for which they have to upload solutions. Then there are homeworks, quizzes, and projects/labs. Compared to the old 8 problem sets, two midterms, and a final, that’s more than a 6x increase in things to keep to track of for > 200 students. It behooves me, as someone who cares whether students learn the material, to try and make keeping track easier.

Ultimately a university “adopting” any LMS is coercive because if students use it for all their introductory classes then using something else is almost deliberately making their lives harder with no real benefit. I don’t think I’m going to William F. Buckley it up and stand athwart with my bag of PDFs (even if it is on github). Ultimately I think using the LMS the right thing to do by the students. I’m going to be super salty about it though.

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