There’s nothing wrong with Blackboard, except in the way that there’s something wrong with all of it.

At InstructureCon 2012, we noticed a lot of hate being directed at Blackboard, a bit of indifference about Moodle, and cheer after cheer offered up for Canvas, the learning management system (LMS) created by Instructure. That there was enthusiasm for Canvas at a Canvas-based event wasn’t unexpected; however, the conference spurred us to dive deeper into this LMS to see what it’s really about, and whether it’s as flexible and progressive a tool for education as Instructure says it is.

Canvas offers functionality not usually found in “walled garden” LMSs. Its ability to network with Facebook and external blogs, as well as its mobile applications, led Mark Suman, lead iOS developer at Instructure, to call Canvas a “learning platform” rather than a learning management system. The architecture of Canvas opens opportunities to teachers and students to interact with the platform in the same ways they interact with the rest of the Internet: creatively, socially, dynamically. It’s encouraging to see a tool that has an eye toward open adaptation — and toward learning out in the world, rather than only behind computer screens or inside brick-and-mortar classrooms.

This sort of open functionality is increasingly important in an educational world that includes hybrid classes, MOOCs, and more; but is functionality pedagogy? Is pedagogy driving functionality, or is it the other way around? Devin Knighton, Director of Public Relations at Instructure, assured us over lunch, “Thinking and talking about pedagogy, and not just product, is important.” It’s clear that Instructure is doing this thinking; but which comes first, pedagogy or software? Does the LMS begin with functionality? Where does teaching end and software begin?

Josh Coates, CEO of Instructure, offered during the InstructureCon 2012 opening keynote: “Good technology saves time and gets out of the way so you can do your job.” True enough. This is the pedagogy of technology — both its philosophical and practical approach. Tech isn’t supposed to do the job; it’s supposed to support the job. So, if the LMS wants to get out of the way, then it needs to stop being at the center of the class.

Perhaps the problem with the LMS isn’t with the technology, but with the user. Technology is only a tool — a hammer or a screwdriver, albeit a very complicated, evolved hammer or screwdriver. How it’s used is up to the person operating the tool: the administrator, the teacher, the student. All tools can be used creatively by the tool-user. Even the screwdriver can be hacked. It may not be that the LMS places itself at the center of the class, but that we place it there.

In ”Technological Panic,” Jesse writes:

When we gather to discuss our experiences in online and hybrid classes, we often end up talking more about technology than about the subjects we’re studying/teaching. For me, it’s like sitting down to write an essay with pen and paper and becoming distracted by ruminations about the nature of No. 2 pencils and loose-leaf paper. Likewise, discussions of digital pedagogy can quickly become preoccupied with best practices for using technology and not best practices for teaching. So often, we allow the bells and whistles of new-fangled technological tools dictate our pedagogy, rather than having our pedagogy arise organically from a critical interrogation of those tools and the subjects and students of a particular course.

We need to begin using the LMS not to build courses but to organize thinking about courses. The first LMS, PLATO (Program Logic for Automatic Teaching Operations), was developed in 1960 to electronically disseminate a series of “lessons.” The idea here, implicit in the name, is that teaching can be rendered automatic — that pedagogy can be digitally processed by a computer to deliver understanding to students via a computerized interface. This just isn’t true. Computers have written poetry, but they can’t be pedagogues.

Pedagogy requires second-order thinking, i.e. thinking about thinking. Peter Elbow writes, in “Teaching Thinking by Teaching Writing,” “Thinking carefully means trying to examine your thinking while using it too.” We would argue that computers can think, but they can’t (at least not yet) think about thinking. Good teaching depends on good pedagogy, which requires careful and repeated moments of meta-reflection, not just on the act of teaching, but on the act of thinking about teaching.

Good teaching doesn’t happen by accident, and it can rarely be scripted. It requires planning, improvisation, and on-the-fly course-correction. The LMS is dangerous for good teachers that aren’t also good pedagogues. It determines too much in advance by presenting an interface that asks the user to approach it in very particular ways. What’s on the upper left when you enter an LMS determines what you do first, what you do second, and what you don’t do. It’s very very difficult to resist the cunning pull of a web-based interface. No matter how hard we try for creativity, randomness, or chaos (all of which drive classroom-based teaching), we are repeatedly lured in by the carefully-controlled design of the standard LMS.

Canvas offers us the shapes and conventions we’re used to encountering in the LMS. What it does differently, however, is to strip the LMS to a spare — and much less intrusive — form. It makes the interface invisible which keeps the focus on content (for students and teachers). But that same invisibility tempts us to forget how much the interface is influencing that content. So, Canvas is both a better tool for the active pedagogue, and a more alluring siren.

The siren song can start as early as your first look at the interface. Cool and simple, lacking the usual drill-down menus of Blackboard, D2L and other, more familiar LMSs, with a minimalist structure that allows you to get deep into the course without clicking, clicking, and reclicking, the interface is almost musical. Further, the wildly open environment of a Canvas course allows almost anything to happen within its shell. Blogs, interactivity with social media, Google Docs — the possibilities seem to demand a pedagogy that encompasses (and, sometimes, reinvents) all of them.

But we need to remember that the LMS is meant to help us think about teaching, not to do the teaching, or to tell us what teaching needs to occur. The LMS is not the course; it’s the launching pad for the course. As we continue to modify how we interact with the technology available in Canvas and other systems, we need to remember to think about the tool as something we use, and not something that tells us how to use it. Likewise, as innovators like Josh Coates, Mark Suman, and others push the “learning platform” into the future, they need to keep an eye on the pedagogue; and never forget their systems are designed to allow learning to happen, to “get out of the way”, and to create environments that inspire creativity.

[Photo by Stéfan]