Moving from Digitised Administration to Technology-Enhanced Learning

The educational landscape today

We are at a point in learning and teaching where the affordances of technology — what a product enables and encourages — are beginning to deliver on the promises made in the late 1990s. We can finally take the next step after the simple digitisation of content (uploading of lectures slides, taking administration, grades, calendars from paper to digital) has been more or less completed. The next step is technology-enhanced teaching, meaning actively using technology to enhance the way teaching is facilitated and learning is experienced.

The use of technology in education is not a new thing and neither are aspirations of ‘enhancing’ learning with technology. However, at an unprecedented scale, government policy and initiatives, institutional strategies (such as at UCL, Oxford and Exeter) and forward-thinking educators see digital technology as an important enabler of the teaching and learning experience.

The problem

Institutions and individuals within them face a problem: The core ‘infrastructure’, the learning management system (and emails but that is a subject for another day), was not built for this. Despite ongoing claims of UX improvements, learner-centred design, and integrated experiences, the learning management system (or VLE in the UK) evidently suffers from path dependency. Driven forward by ticking the boxes of ever-growing tender feature requests, LMSs were built as all-encompassing monolithic infrastructure applications to digitise educational institutions.

This is not breaking news and much has been written about the LMS: many hate it a lot (try to Google it), some hate it a bit less, some are tired of discussing it, some hack it, others keep the eye on the horizon. The main criticism was put most concisely in the EDUCAUSE article on ‘The Next Generation Digital Learning Environment’:

“What is clear is that the LMS has been highly successful in enabling the administration of learning but less so in enabling learning itself.”

The causes and the path to a solution: Design, pedagogy and conversational platforms

Why do learning management systems struggle to enable ‘learning itself’? Part of the answer lies in two fundamental design considerations.

First and most importantly, teaching and learning are complex activities that are fundamentally about people, not technology. As opposed to being the determining driver, technology should act as an enabler of certain ways of doing things. This means that what a product enables and encourages — its affordances— are crucial.

Secondly, there is often a design trade-off between usability and the number of features. By focusing on the few educators and administrators asking for the ‘marginal feature native to the system’ — the wiki, the blog, the e-portfolio, the devolved admin control rights and the tracking of everything — we end up with a very complex system that alienates many other educators in the process. By attempting to make everyone happy, usability is sacrificed.

In the case of learning management systems, the affordances are in favour of learning management rather than engaging and active teaching and learning, and features are prioritised over usability. Regardless of the amount of new paint thrown at it, the LMS is fundamentally an evolved all-encompassing student and educator-facing system of record. This is a recipe for alienating both educators and students, and ensuring that they use this core educational technology infrastructure only because they have to — and mainly for content management purposes.

There is an evident need to challenge the core assumptions of the LMS. To seek a more human-friendly solution that starts with the fundamentals of active, inspiring and engaging teaching and learning in digital spaces rather than with administrative problems that are now easily solved by good databases and powerful APIs (the building blocks that allow one piece of software to communicate with another). Communication platforms, here defined broadly as platforms ‘driven’ by conversations including ‘hybrid interfaces’, have the potential to do exactly that.

Why communication?

The unique thing about communication platforms is that they largely solve the design trade-off between features and usability. A communication platform is inherently intuitive, almost ‘frictionless’: humans already know how to communicate by nature.

Considering the unprecedented scale of interaction and interconnectedness happening through platforms like Facebook Messenger/Groups, Slack and WeChat, it is beyond doubt at this point that conversational platforms strongly afford communication. This is not just ‘technologically’ important, it is also pedagogically important — anyone aiming to enable active and engaging blended learning will have to start by with better communication.

With integrations and ‘API ecosystems’ acting as the glue between everything from blogs and lecture recording software to assignment software and chatbots, communication platforms offer flexibility without sacrificing usability. Conversational platforms have the potential to allow educational institutions to reap the benefits of the rich world of fit-for-purpose software — software that does something relatively niche extremely well. Conversational platforms enable what DeBaere and Weil (2017) in their vision for the ‘Next-Generation Digital Learning Environment’ call the “Lego approach of plugging in modules as needed for additional functions.”

Platforms such as Facebook Messenger, WeChat and Slack have proven that communication platforms and conversational UI have the potential to solve the usability-flexiblity trade-off. Aula is doing the samefor education.

Why now — and how?

Firstly, educators and students are already moving towards ‘conversational’ software— pedagogically and technologically. Recently, there has been an increase in the use of communication platforms, such as Facebook Groups and Slack. This is now happening at institutional scale — several further education colleges in the UK have adopted Google Classroom as an alternative to their LMS and BI Oslo even piloted Slack as an alternative to their LMS for 3,500 students.

Secondly, because the technology is at a stage where it is possible. Mobile is ubiquitous, voice assistants are getting much better, and API-powered communication platforms are supported by some of the most powerful developer communities. WeChat and Facebook Messenger have proven it for social. Slack and Microsoft Teams have proven it for enterprise. For education, the potential is immense and largely untapped.

That’s why Aula exists — to empower classrooms through conversations. Bringing students and educators together to create an engaging and active learning experience enhanced by technology and driven forward by conversations.

How? A communication platform that replaces learning management systems and reduces use of emails. Think of it as a ‘digital campus’ that connects students, staff, and educators.

Aula acts as the — pedagogical and technological — ‘glue’ between different applications. From lecture recording software and assignment software to chatbots and student record systems.

Join AULA’s Knowledge Factory on Driving Student Engagement by Replacing the LMS – An Aula Case Study on Friday Dec 7 from 12:00 – 13:00.

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