A Better Learning Platform

There is a story (probably apocryphal) that shortly after the Soviet Union collapsed, a fax arrived at the office of The Economist. “Dear sirs,” it read, “Now that Ukraine is independent capitalist country, we wish to create stock market in Kiev, and earnestly hope you will help by answering questions.

  1. How many chairs will we need?
  2. What then?”

I’m reminded of this joke almost every time a new learning management system or course creation platform shows up. They all allow people to create courses or to enrol in existing ones, and they all have message boards and ways to create assignments or share work (depending on how dirigste they are). And they’re all created by people who are passionate about education; it’s what they don’t have that depresses me:

  1. There’s nothing in their course creation guides about modern evidence-based teaching practices, or about effective learning strategies. I don’t expect a software project to teach this stuff, but it should at least mention it and explain how it incorporates those ideas, just like cooking sites give at least a passing nod to nutritional science.

  2. All of their options for sharing knowledge would be instantly recognizable to someone from the early 1990s. (Slack is just IRC is just the old Unix talk utility…) There are dozens of other ways for people to share knowledge, and dozens of effective teaching techniques that could be implemented online but never have been.

  3. Most of them allow course creators to label their offerings with keywords but go no further than that. Structured glossaries can help make materials more findable and more connectable, and are just one of the many techniques that every trained librarian is familiar with (but most programmers aren’t).

  4. Most provide the same handful of tired options for creating exercises when so many other approaches are available in general and for coding.

  5. They invariable have a “one explanation fits all” model for course design, even though every programmer I know would be helpless without sites that provide a chorus of explanations.

  6. Shared annotation is going to have as much impact on teaching as video conferencing, and has been around long enough that there’s no excuse not to have integrated it.

I believe very strongly that technology can make teaching and learning more effective and more accessible. I believe just as strongly that if programmers want that to happen, they have to learn a few things about education that they won’t have picked up simply by sitting in other people’s classes. I’m really, really glad some programmers care enough about teaching to create platforms to support it; I just wish I could do more to help them make platforms that would actually make a difference.

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