If bell hooks Made an LMS: Grades, Radical Openness, and Domain of One's Own

This is the text of the presentation I gave at the Domains17 conference in Oklahoma City, OK on June 5, 2017. I co-presented with Sean Michael Morris. Here is a link to his half of the presentation.


“It is true, we shall be monsters, cut off from all the world; but on that account we shall be more attached to one another.” ~ Mary Shelley, Frankenstein

Radical openness isn't a bureaucratic gesture. It has to be rooted in a willingness to sit with discomfort. The learning management system is not a space built for discomfort.

Radical openness in education means recognizing the ways in which the work of teaching is a kind of activism. The learning management system is not a space built for activism.

Radical openness demands the classroom be a space for relationships and dialogue, at the expense of content, summative assessment, and so-called academic rigor. The learning management system is a space built to track and score students—to gather them into rows, arrange their work into columns, feeding them into a machine that spits out a grade on the other end. The LMS is designed to make grading students convenient for teachers—and designed to facilitate the systematic observation (and scoring) of teachers by administrators. These are not dialogues.

At OpenEd 2014, Sean Michael Morris and I offered a presentation titled, “If Freire Made a MOOC: Open Education and Critical Digital Pedagogy.” As we've continued to consider the intersection between critical and digital pedagogies, we've wondered at a follow-up question, “if bell hooks made a learning management system.” Our answers in turn: “she wouldn't” and, more importantly, “her learning environment is not our space to build.” Given how ubiquitous these systems have become in education, I think the better question to wonder at is whether the words (and pedagogies) of bell hooks can help dismantle the need for learning management systems altogether.

In our work on Freire and the MOOC, Sean and I wrote, “Ceding authority is an active endeavor. Dichotomies of leaders and learners, teachers and students, are only helpful when they facilitate rather than frustrate dialogue, and when we acknowledge these roles are permeable, transparent, and flexible.” Our learning management systems have been coded, marketed, deployed to do just the opposite. These are systems of control, systems structured for obedience, systems structured to assert authority over students, systems structured to center the instructor. For the same reason that we shouldn't presume to (even imaginatively) build the LMS for bell hooks, we should have never built these systems for students. We shouldn't pre-determine the shape of a student's learning environment before that student even arrives upon the scene. And I say “we” pointedly, because even if we aren't implicated in the code of the LMS, all of us in education are in some way implicated in its use.

bell hooks writes in Teaching to Transgress about her experience in graduate school, “nonconformity on our part was viewed with suspicion, as empty gestures of defiance aimed at masking inferiority or substandard work.” One of the problems with learning management systems is that they make students (and their experiences) interchangeable. And they do the same to teachers. The problem is that syllabi, lesson plans, assignments can’t be expected to work exactly the same with every set of students, with every teacher, or on every given day. Both teachers and learners must approach the classroom from a place of flexibility, willing to see the encounters, exchanges, interactions, and relationships that develop in a classroom as dynamic. Learning management systems stand as an immediate affront to this kind of classroom.

Still, we rail against learning management systems, poke holes at their flawed pedagogies, and even cuss at the particularly egregious ones, and we do nothing to chip away at their market share. Because the learning management system is a red herring, a symptom of a much larger beast that has its teeth on education: the rude quantification of learning, the reduction of teaching to widgets and students to data points.

Domain of One's Own

In 2012, I designed and launched a new hybrid degree program at a small liberal arts institution in Oregon. It was a digital humanities program, and I argued that since it was about the Web, the program should live on the Web, and not in Moodle, the institution's learning management system. I set up a multisite WordPress installation as a homegrown alternative to an LMS. For each online course, I added a site and worked with instructors to find themes and plugins appropriate to their pedagogies. Students built sites of their own and connected with each other across the network of sites and via a Twitter hashtag for each course. The whole thing was certainly more chaotic than what happens in a learning management system, but still more structured than the dynamic interaction in most of my on-ground classrooms.

When I left that institution, the program continued, but it retreated immediately back into Moodle. For two main reasons: Moodle made it more convenient to share and structure content, and Moodle had a gradebook. The failure of the program was not that I didn't build a suitable alternative to the LMS, but that I didn't sufficiently convince the instructors why they should use it. Most teaching practice is unexamined, because teachers in higher education are rarely asked to think critically about pedagogy. They structure learning as though students are interchangeable. They expect content mastery. They demand compliance with course policies. They wield expertise like a weapon. They grade. Because they've never thought not to. They've never had a reason not to. Because the problem is not individual teachers. The problem is systemic. We build systems that reflect our values, and that is what LMS-makers have done.

The challenge for me when I configured that multisite installation was to reflect a different set of values. This is also the challenge for UMW's Domain of One's Own project (and the other Domains projects it has inspired)—to reflect a different set of values. We can't expect that just building new systems will magically change our teaching practices. Pedagogical work in and around these new systems must continually poke and prod at their intentions, the assumptions we've baked into them. This work requires a tirelessness, a head permanently and inquisitively cocked to one side. This work requires awe and sometimes suspicion.

Who does the system serve? What data does it collect? Who profits? What hierarchies does it reinforce or disrupt? Who does it allow under the hood? What is it's default configuration? What pedagogies does that configuration make possible? Does it make visible to students the chinks in its own armor? What are the risks to students and teachers in subverting the system?

In Teaching to Transgress, bell hooks writes,

“My commitment to engaged pedagogy is an expression of political activism. Given that our educational institutions are so deeply invested in a banking system, teachers are more rewarded when we do not teach against the grain. The choice to work against the grain, to challenge the status quo, often has negative consequences.”

Teaching is always a risk. Learning is always a risk. But that risk is not distributed evenly. A gay male administrator experiences the classroom differently from a black teacher, a disabled staff member, or a female student. Even a system that invites subversiveness, like Domain of One's Own, can't single-handedly dismantle the institutionalized hierarchies of education.

I recently participated in a series of programmatic assessment conversations—aimed (in part) at considering the effectiveness of Domain of One's Own as a curricular tool. The discussion was invaluable and led, as I believe programmatic assessment should, to more questions than answers. During one part of the process, we looked at a handful of Web sites designed by students. As we worked through them, I quickly recognized that I could tell less about the individual students by looking at their sites and more about the assignment they had been given and how they were being graded. A year later, the next round of sites we reviewed showed different results, students genuinely engaged in the work of exploring their digital identity. But I continue to worry when I see students given the task of building a Web site as a kind of elaborate (and sometimes draconian) busy work. The goal of Domain of One's Own is to help students think critically about their place on the Web, and a series of point and click tasks with instrumental outcomes is not helping them move in that direction. “Post once, reply twice” in a discussion forum doesn't create dialogue or intrinsic motivation, nor does “add these five elements to your domain in order to receive full credit.”

I've increasingly wondered if the pedagogies of Domain of One's Own are better served when students create their domains outside the work of a course, on their own time, for their own purposes. Then, an assignment for a course might leverage the power of that space without pre-defining its parameters. Andrew Rikard writes, in “Do I Own My Domain if You Grade it?,” “Until students see this domain as a space that rewards rigor and experimentation, it will not promote student agency.” The best domains do not fall into the cracks of formal assignments and assessment; rather, they subvert and even defy attempts at schooliness. A domain at its most “academically rigorous” doesn't overtly betray its origin as a graded set of tasks assigned by a teacher. Andrew Rikard continues, “The domains project isn’t revolutionary to the traditional classroom, but it is revolutionary to a classroom reimagined around public scholarship, student agency and experimentation.” This is key. We don't need an alternative LMS. The LMS does it's job just fine. We need pedagogical approaches that help Domain of One's Own make the LMS irrelevant. When students take learning into their own hands, they have no use for learning management systems.

Radical Openness

bell hooks means something very specific when she talks of Radical Openness, and so far the Open Education movement has failed to tread that particular water. Domain of One's Own has flirted at the edge of Critical Pedagogy, but giving out free Domains isn't exactly the revolution Paulo Freire, bell hooks, or Virginia Woolf had in mind. It's a start. An important start, but it falls on us right now to inhabit this space in a decidedly different way than education has inhabited the LMS, the MOOC, or the traditional physical classroom, for that matter.

To be radically open, Domain of One's Own can't be another delivery device for content. It can't be a mechanism for turning in assignments. It can't be a mere replacement for the LMS or eportfolios. Those of us making these initiatives go need to provide support and room for students and faculty to build things we couldn't have anticipated when the project was founded. We have to let our own pedagogies stumble as we find new footing in this space.

bell hooks writes in “Choosing the Margin as a Space of Radical Openness,” “Spaces can be real and imagined. Spaces can tell stories and unfold histories. Spaces can be interrupted, appropriated, and transformed through artistic and literary practice.” We have to be willing to let new stories be told in education and to let students be the authors and co-authors of those stories. This means leaving policies, rubrics, grades, assignments, and other bureaucratic minutia at the door.

Static content, resources, learning objects. Everything that students have no hand in creating. What if dialogue were the stuff of open learning and not content? Radical openness means asking hard questions and having hard questions asked always of us.

hooks continues, “for me this place of radical openness is a margin—a profound edge. Locating oneself there is difficult yet necessary. It is not a 'safe' place. One is always at risk. One needs a community of resistance.”

For hooks, the risks we take are personal, professional, political. When she says that “radical openness is a margin,” she suggests it is a place of uncertainty, a place of friction, a place of critical thinking. This is not an Open pedagogy neatly defined and delimited.

Audrey Watters writes in “From 'Open' to Justice, “We act—at our peril—as if 'open' is politically neutral, let alone politically good or progressive. Indeed, we sometimes use the word to stand in place of a politics of participatory democracy.” When we use a word like “open,” or ones like “agency” and “identity,” these should not be just empty signifiers. We should be transparent, and even partisan, in our politics. Especially as educators. But we need not proselytize.

With a project like Domain of One's Own, supporting student agency means advocating for students as they make choices about their own work—what, when, and also whether. As Debra Schleef writes in “Who's Afraid of Domain of One's Own,” this means, “a choice to keep one’s domain, to change it significantly, or not to use it at all.”

When we acknowledge students make choices, we must also prepare for the possibility that they'll say “no”—that they'll hack our assignments—that they'll choose their own paths, rather than the ones we set out for them. Sometimes, their work, their thinking, their process won't be visible to us. As a teacher, how can I grade work I don't see, or even a domain that doesn't exist, because a student decides to remove it from the web?

Grades

Grading has become the elephant in almost every room where discussions of education are underway. And grades are the biggest thorn in the side of Domain of One's Own—and the biggest barrier to realizing its radical potential. As Peter Elbow writes, “Grading tends to undermine the climate for teaching and learning. Once we start grading their work, students are tempted to study or work for the grade rather than for learning.”

We have built an educational system that puts far too much emphasis on grades, and we shouldn't blame students for the failures of that system. Grades also motivate, in at least some small way, every tool developed by edtech software and hardware engineers. The grade has been coded into all our institutional and technological systems.

Prior to the late 1700s, performance and feedback systems in U.S. education were incredibly idiosyncratic. The one room schoolhouse called for an incredibly subjective, peer-driven, non-transactional approach to assessment. Throughout the 19th century, feedback systems became increasingly comparative, numerical, and standardized. An “objective” approach to grading was created so systematized schooling could scale—so students could be neatly ranked and sorted into classrooms with desks in rows in increasingly large warehouse-like buildings. And we've designed technological tools in the 20th and 21st centuries, like MOOCs and machine grading, that have have allowed us to scale even further. Away from human relationships and care altogether.

Ranking. Norming. Objectivity. Uniformity. Measurement. Outcomes. Quality. Data. Performance. Metrics. Scores. Excellence. Mastery.

When I first taught online, I encountered the horror that is the grade book inside most learning management systems, which reduces students (often color coding them) into mere rows in a spreadsheet. I've watched this tool proliferate into all the institutions where I've worked. Even teachers that don't use the LMS for its decidedly more pleasurable uses have made its grade book more and more central to the learning experience. To the point that, when I've chosen not to use the institutionally adopted LMS, students sometimes ask after the LMS in its absence. Not because the LMS has any particular life-sustaining power, but because they've come to expect it—to be comforted by the inevitability of its use. When grades appear there, we feel a sense of completion, acknowledgement. A reassurance of our place in the hierarchy, whether teacher or student. In Now You See It, Cathy Davidson calls the grade book a “prop,” the “symbol of pedagogical power.”

On its surface, the LMS grade book does not seem all that functionally different from an analog grade book, which also reduces students to mere rows in a spreadsheet. But most learning management systems now offer (or threaten) to automate a process which is, in fact, deeply personal. They make grading more efficient, as though efficiency is something we ought to celebrate in teaching and learning. The complexity of human interaction within a learning environment is made machine-readable.

According to its marketing, Angel's “automated agents save time.” Blackboard facilitates teacher-student “interaction” by “calculating grades.” Canvas calls it's tool “speed grader.”

The problem is not just the fact of grades but the fetishization of them. I find myself genuinely confused.

We've built an impenetrable phalanx of clarity, certainty, and defensibility. There is no air for student agency to breathe in a system of incessant grading, ranking, and scoring.

Can we find increasingly creative ways to scaffold out of a grade book, and not into one?

In “Civil Disobedience,” Henry David Thoreau writes, “Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine.” And, “if it is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then I say, break the law.”

I've foregone grades on individual assignments for over 15 years, relying on qualitative feedback, peer review, and self-assessment. My goal in eschewing grades has been to more honestly engage student work rather than simply evaluate it. Over many rears, this has meant carefully navigating, and even breaking, the sometimes absurd rules of a half-dozen institutions.

If I want students to feel empowered and free to do organic and genuine work on the Web, then I need to allow myself room to be a genuine reader of that work. Which means approaching that work as a reader would. If I want students to feel empowered and free to collaborate both within and beyond the class, then I need to also allow myself to be their collaborator. There is no room for grading students like beef inside these relationships. There is no room for pitting students against one another.

bell hooks advocates for “continual self-evaluation” both of a student by the student and of a teacher by the teacher. I would add that we should together evaluate our collective work, the class itself, in dialogue. We all rise and fall together. Inflation be damned.

Usually when I talk of grading, I do so with a caveat, and I point toward approaches that offer a middle ground. But I want to argue here that there really is no middle ground with Domain of One's Own. Put simply, no, you don't own your domain if I grade it.

For all kinds of reasons, I'd argue that grading a student domain, by any of our conventional academic metrics, undermines the work.

Grades are not good incentive. They incentivize the wrong stuff: the product over the process, what the teacher thinks over what the student thinks, etc.

Grades are not good feedback. They are both too simplistic, making something complex numerical (8/10, 85%), or offering so many gradations as to be nonsensical (A, A-, A/A-, 85.4%, 8.5/10).

Grades are not good markers of learning. They too often communicate only a student's ability to follow instructions, not how much she learned. A 4.0 or higher GPA might indicate excellence, but it might also indicate compromising integrity for the sake of a grade. Within this system, you would have to.

Grades encourage competitiveness over collaboration. And supposed kindnesses like curves or norming, actually increase competitiveness by pitting students (and sometimes teachers) against one another.

Grades don't reflect the idiosyncratic, subjective, often emotional character of learning.

Grades aren't fair. They will never be fair.

All of this demands exactly two pedagogical approaches, and these are what I see at the heart of Domain of One's Own:

  1. Start by trusting students.
  2. Realize "fairness" is not a good excuse for a lack of empathy.

Jess Reingold and I wrote about Domain of One's Own, “So much labor, and so much heart, have gone into this project.”

And as Martha Burtis has said, “there is still so much work we have to do.” More labor and even more heart.