I’ve been enjoying the series of posts by Jim Groom inspired by The Internet Course. His dip into the language of 2001’s Using the Internet to Strengthen Curriculum perfectly captures the prevailing attitudes of many online educators around the time this book was written.

Jim reproduces this page, so loaded with revealing language that it may serve as an edu-historical Rosetta Stone to decode early stages of the nightmare from which we may never awaken.


Somebody should do a dissertation on the values embedded in guides like these.

Jim notes the language of “taming” and “managing” that dominates the text, and the jaw-dropping assertion concerning the “hazards” of “serendipity”. Faced with a novel environment of “immense potential” and “immense challenges”, the response is not to investigate and to understand, but to assert authority and control. Not for any self-serving reason of course, but “for our students”.

Jim suggests this mindset lies at the heart of the command-and-control nature of learning management systems that became a dominant medium around the time when this book was written. Speaking for myself, I was transported back to my experiences as an educational technologist during this period. Back then, I was involved with the development and implementation of a number of “learning object repositories”, which might best be described as platforms designed to promote the sharing of learning resources — but only proper learning resources, and only shared with the right sort of people.

It can be fun in a dreary sort of way to bash the LMS. But it would be unfair and incorrect to simply blame the vendors for the many disturbing values built into these systems. I took part in a lot of conferences, workshops and focus groups with higher education people who attended those “learning object” sessions because they were interested in reusing materials using the as-yet untapped power of the world wide web. I listened as “serious” educational leaders dictated that the platforms require users to adopt unfathomable and complex metadata to ensure that no tangential learning materials be encountered by mistake. I took part in meeting after meeting where technology leaders and faculty representatives demanded strict access controls to limit sharing within elite consortia or collections of funding partners, or even within faculties or departments. Later on in the process, I would try to facilitate workshops with other groups of working educators that rightfully complained that the resulting systems were unwieldy and useless. I took part in evaluations that tried to divine some value from these costly efforts, and watched the project grants run dry.

Then I’d go for beers with the poor coders and developers who were trying to build and support these systems, and commiserated with them on the thankless and impossible nature of the task. Around this time, I started to keep in touch with some of these people via the new-fangled technology of blogs, which seemed to work pretty well as platforms to support sharing of resources and to stimulate cooperative discourse. And we had fun. Maybe that’s why the serious people rarely saw much value in these trifles.

It was around then that I began to distrust the serious people in educational technology.

15 thoughts on “Tamed

  1. Funny, I came at it from the other end. We were building these simulations as courseware. Neat stuff. Learn Business English by simulating working through a business problem. Learn macroeconomics by playing role of a governor. Learn history of art by detecting forgeries.

    These were coherent end-to-end experiences with not a whole lot of serendipity. But they were beautifully constructed, with every interaction obsessively thought out and precisely targeted to engage specific conceptual gaps. We had hundreds of hours of experts filmed, answering every conceivable question students might ask, all indexed to come up as just-in-time instruction.

    And they worked. Your success in a course was flight-simulator like — make it to the end and you’re pretty sure you get it at a deep level.

    And then the Learning Content Management Systems and Object Repositories came in. Suddenly the questions were all SCORM and AICC and OMG-here-comes-IMS. Could you take this 30 hour experience and slice it up into 60 objects please? And could each feed back granular data so the LCMS so that they could feed data to this Crystal Reports 12-column monstrosity?

    The problem was that our experiences were TOO coherent. It was sort of the opposite of the web problem — you couldn’t tame these things by chopping them up. So we couldn’t sell them into any institutions, because they couldn’t be boxed. It was ridiculous. For me one of the big lessons was LCMS’s eroded coherence and authenticity.

    So it’s kind of funny to think about — what do you say about a system that kills both serendipity AND coherence? It would seem impossible, but somehow they managed.

    I left after the bottom fell out, 2003 or so. And I started to blog for other reasons shortly thereafter, first as a creative writing endeavor, then as a political one. And like you I got very excited about how quickly one could learn in this authentic setting in these networks of common interest. I started to think about the work I’d done in the mid-90s, having students write articles on the web — and it seemed like all the things that had made that really hard to scale back then were now made easy.

    Given that, we’d see broad adoption any day, right?

    In any case, I’ve been thinking a lot about why that didn’t happen, and I really appreciate the writing everyone has been doing. I’m actually OK with tightly controlled courseware and OK with wild open serendipity-driven pedagogy. But we somehow keep making grand bargains where we get neither of those things.

  2. Ooops — last line should read:

    “I’m actually OK with tightly *designed* courseware and OK with wild open serendipity-driven pedagogy. But we somehow keep making grand bargains where we get neither of those things.”

  3. I could watch those elephants jump all night.

    Not to rationalize the perspective, especially since it’s a desire to want to ask the author if they ever explored the other books down the shelf in a a library, or maybe browsed random articles in an encyclopedia. Serendipity has always been a part of the learning process, just maybe never to the level we’ve seen possible on da web.

    “Tame” and “control” are certainly laden terms, but it does not shock me all that much given how redically different from any other media or environment even that early web was. Most of the effort I recall from the early mid 1990s, and even letter, was a whole lot of people (I did plenty) trying to organize list of links based on topics/interest. Now that shine it all up as content curation, but there was an incredible amount of link listing going on, much of it manually edited HTML. Maybe not T&C but really it was crude information filtering.

    Still, the idea of being too exposed to information as being a hazard is ludicrous, but we do have that perfect hindsight perspective.

  4. I wonder if it isn’t innovation that drives a lot of these things, but the LMS and the repos are “big money” projects. When you’re rubbing pennies together you get a different kind of spark

  5. Michael – it’s always a bit weird when you get a comment that is more detailed, better thought out, and better written than the original post. You do raise an additional question for me… If the instructor is so concerned about students being pulled off-task, maybe the response should be to strive for ” coherent end-to-end experiences, …beautifully constructed …precisely targeted to engage specific conceptual gaps.” (I would ascribe those words to Rocksmith BTW, so I don’t think those arts have disappeared.) Your observations on “a system that kills both serendipity AND coherence” have given me a lot to think about.

    Alan – again, important perspective. And yes, perhaps unfair to single out passages of writing with the benefit of 13 years of experience, when the author is clearly struggling with a new medium with overwhelming possibility and uncertainty. Seems to me that primitive content curation you describe could also be used to describe a lot of the impulses driving early ed tech blogging. Certainly, my first ed tech blog (which would not do well under an unsympathetic reading like the one we subject this poor author to) could be characterized that way.

    Pat – Based on my experiences in the LO trade, there’s no question that the impetus for a lot of the efforts was driven by the dark arts of funding. One thing I should add, I almost certainly owe my career to the opportunities created by these projects, even if my work on those exact projects never amounted to much. Another thought, I was discussing with a longtime mentor my plans to secure some funding for collaboration on open platforms here in British Columbia. His advice was that I was more likely to get funded if I asked for 10X as much money as my initial proposal was asking for.

  6. I always thought Abject Learning was a brilliant name for your blog, but I have a new reverence for the title after seeing the title of your original blog was Object Learning. Reading your memory of that time here & now makes me understand the reason for the name change :).

    And this caveat made me howl “What is Metadata? Those foolhardy enough to enter that particular quagmire are invited to check out a fine Intro to Metadata. After that, you’re on your own. “

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