Reading the LMS against the Backdrop of Critical Pedagogy, parts 1 and 2

This essay was originally published on the blog for the Office of Digital Learning at Middlebury College, in two parts.

"The pupil is thereby 'schooled' to confuse teaching with learning, grade advancement with education, a diploma with competence, and fluency with the ability to say something new."
~Ivan Illich


What if we were to theorize that the learning management system (LMS) is designed, not for learning or teaching, but for the gathering of data? And what if we were to further theorize that the gathering of data, as messaged and marketed through the LMS, has become conflated with teaching and learning?

Part of the work that I do as an instructional designer and critical pedagogy agonist is to ask questions of the tools used in digitally mediated education. Because critical pedagogy encourages us to consider carefully the assumptions handed to us, a critical instructional designer begins first not by learning the tools before them—most digital tools work essentially the same way, with few exceptions, and are designed to be easily adopted—but by stepping back and looking at those tools from a distance. The critical instructional designer ask questions like:

  • Why was this tool created? What is its primary objective? What are its other objectives?
  • What assumptions about education and learning lie behind the design of this tool? Where do those assumptions come from?
  • How does this tool offer what Freire might call a determinant, or something that seems to resist our agency to change or resist?
  • How do the objectives and assumptions of this tool measure up against my own? How effectively does it resist my capacity to resist it, to change or hack it?

There are other considerations as well. How does this tool represent a politics of oppression—the surrender of privacy, data, authorship, authority, agency, as well as issues of representation, equity, access? Who owns the tool and what are their goals? How is the production of this tool funded? What influence does the maker of this tool have on culture more broadly writ? What labor is rewarded and what labor is erased? What is the relationship between this tool and the administration of the institution? Who must use this tool and who is trained to use this tool, and is that labor compensated? These are all important questions to ask, and the answers may play a role in the adoption of any given tool in a classroom or learning environment.

But in many cases, and especially with the LMS, adoption comes regardless of consent. In only a minority of situations are faculty and students part of the discussion around the purchase of an LMS for an institution. In those situations, we must abide by the use of the LMS; however, that doesn’t mean we must acquiesce to its politics or its pedagogy. In order to intervene, then, we must step back and rather than learn the tool, analyze the tool.

When we do that with the LMS, we find that its primary operation is the acquisition of data, and the conflation of that data with student performance, engagement, and teaching success. As Beer, Clark, and Jones cheerfully report in their article, “Indicators of Engagement,”

A fortunate effect of the almost ubiquitous adoption of LMS for online course delivery in universities, is their ability to track and store vast amounts of data on student and designer behaviour (Heathcoate & Dawson, 2005) . Typically, LMS record all actions made by users once they are logged into the system and this data is subsequently stored in an associated database. The process of analysing institutional data captured by an LMS for decision making and reporting purposes is called academic analytics (Campbell, Oblinger, & DeBlois, 2007) and it has been shown that analysis of captured LMS data is directly relevant to student engagement, evaluating learning activities and can usefully answer other important questions (Shane Dawson & McWilliam, 2008).

And earlier in that same report, the authors write:

It could be said that the online learning environment facilitates the interactions required for learning and therefore have an influence on student engagement. It could also be said that measuring student participation within a learning environment and contrasting this measure with student results can provide an approximation of student engagement.

In other words, usage becomes engagement and engagement gets equated with successful learning and expert teaching. But we cannot let ourselves believe that usage is anything besides usage—and even that assumption is subject to a certain questioning.

But when we assume that data points to behavior, and that points to the means to control behavior, we become authorized to create methods, approaches, and technologies that fulfill that promise. I offer as exhibit A this promotional video for Hero K12 a student monitoring system that gathers data from student behavior in on-ground learning environments (aka, the augmented reality LMS).

I’ve shared this video out on Twitter (with a nod to Audrey Watters, who originally shared it here, and the overall response was one of horror. My network was concerned about this level of monitoring, about the reduction of students to data, about the fact that Jill’s home or family situation, her access to transportation, nor any other factor outside of her name and grade level are considered by the Hero K12 human management system. For myself, I am most concerned about the inability of students to fully understand and to resist or change the system. While I have no doubts students are capable of breaking the system, or making it work for them, Hero K12 represents a determinant, one which students must adapt to, one which requires a surrender of their agency. They become their data, and while they may find ways to feed certain data into the system, they have no power to resist their own reduction to numbers, patterns, and statistics.

The LMS threatens the same reduction of human complexity to simple data. I say “simple” because even when data is nuanced and complex, it fails to be an accurate representation of a human being. This is not to say data cannot indicate certain behaviors, nor that it is useless, only that it has limitations. But it is not those limitations that are advertised, not those limitations that we’re trained to observe; instead, we are encouraged to see data as descriptive, not just indicative. And when that happens, a surfeit of data erects a barrier between students, teachers, and administrators. But most importantly, and least spoken about, data as a determinant erects a barrier between a student and themselves.

Most LMS data isn’t different from website data. Pageviews, time on page, number of posts in a discussion, the number of announcements a teacher sends out in a semester, the number of modules, quizzes, assignments, and files in a course, etc. And like with website data, pageviews and time on page are equated with engagement. The “hits” on a given course indicate the quality of the teaching taking place, and can be aligned with the number of assignments, quizzes, files, and more in that course to point the way to best practices.

Except they don’t and can’t. Any more than Jill showing up late for school can be equated with the kind of learner she is, or whether she will learn anything from detention mandated upon her by her data. And yet it is the use of data that makes the LMS so potentially destructive, especially as that data is used to punish or correct behavior.

B. F. Skinner, an innovator of the behavioral psychology that most positivist approaches to education is founded on, wrote that “behavior is shaped and maintained by its consequences”. He believed that, by controlling the environment in which learning happened, learning could be made more efficient, more effective, and that outcomes could be guaranteed. Put simply (too simply, I admit), a belief in Skinner’s approach has led to evidence-based teaching, which uses data to determine the effectiveness of certain pedagogical practices based on whether students achieved the desired outcomes.

This is precisely the same as testing the reactions of a rat in a maze. In Skinner’s own words: “Comparable results have been obtained with pigeons, rats, dogs, monkeys, human children, and psychotic subjects.” Shall we repeat part of that? Rats, monkeys, human children, and psychotic subjects. Collecting data has always been part of the “science” of education, control has always been the end to that effort, and learners have necessarily been equated with rats and pigeons all along.


There is an essential difference between the ‘science’ of education, positivism, evidence-based teaching, and behaviorism (which I see as coterminous within the LMS) and the ideas of education forwarded by critical pedagogy. The two are, in effect, almost impossible to engage in a dialogue because their aims for and perspectives on learning are fundamentally different. Whereas the LMS (and all that the technology implies) provides a data-driven means of controlling student behavior—modifying it through methods of reward and punishment—critical pedagogy’s primary aim is the liberation of students from systems that oppress them. To achieve this, critical pedagogy engages in operations of analysis and inquiry focused on structures like the LMS—but also grading, assessment, and more—that are normally assumed quantities in the equation of education.

But more than that, critical pedagogy is pedagogical precisely because its efforts are not solely trained on school. Rather, school becomes the site where students’ critical apparatuses can be explored and applied. The classroom becomes a lab for critical pedagogy, where, in discussion with a teacher, learners come to recognize the shape and content of the means of oppression—both at the school and in society at large. Henry Giroux writes in On Critical Pedagogy,

I expand the meaning and theory of pedagogy as part of an ongoing individual and collective struggle over knowledge, desire, values, social relations, and, most important, modes of political agency …
For me, pedagogy is part of an always unfinished project intent on developing a meaningful life for all students. Such a project becomes relevant to the degree that it provides the pedagogical conditions for students to appropriate the knowledge and skills necessary to address the limits of justice in democratic societies. (Loc. 92 & 103)

In other words, becoming critical in a classroom is preparation for remaining critical when students enter the mainstream of work, consumerism, politics, and, increasingly important, the digital society of social media, entertainment, news media, and more.

The LMS was not designed to, as Giroux puts it, “address the limits of justice in democratic societies.” In some of my talks with leadership at Instructure in the early days of their Canvas LMS, they seemed very much in agreement with me about ideas like student agency, identity, empowerment, student-centered classrooms, and the like. They hoped that their LMS made room for teachers to adopt all kinds of pedagogies, including critical pedagogy. These were exciting discussions, and the first I’d heard of an educational technology company that was truly interested in education and not just technology.

However, in those discussions we were skipping upon the surface of the water. In order for an LMS to function, it must assume itself integral to the learning process, must operate as a determinant in education. The makers of Canvas couldn’t look at their product as optional, couldn’t market it as a by-product of a philosophy that reduces students to “rats and pigeons,” nor could they build a container for learning that invited students to question the notion that learning can be contained.

At all levels, the LMS is a capitalist structure that participates in the idea that education is about production. The LMS must, as Illich says in the epigraph above, “confuse teaching with learning, grade advancement with education.” If it fails in that project, it fails to be saleable. And in the end, the LMS is for sale. As with anything that’s for sale, the user (in this case, the institution, then the teacher, then the student) must be convinced that the product is essential.

Critical pedagogy never assumes any product is essential. It assumes that human agency is essential, identity formation is essential, justice is essential, and the human will and capacity to resist and create change are essential. Paulo Freire writes, in Pedagogy of Indignation:

To the extent that we accept that the economy, or technology, or science, it doesn’t matter what, exerts inescapable power over us, there is nothing left for us to do other than renounce our ability to think, to conjecture, to compare, to choose, to decide, to envision, to dream. (33)

By choosing to inspect a product—in our case, the LMS, but this can apply to any educational technology or teaching practice touted by ed tech makers (e.g., the Google certified educator whose practice is supplanted by product placement)—we enter into a critical relationship with our tools and practices, stripping them of their mystique and unassailability, and can come to conclusions about them that are not foregone, not written by an advertiser.

All of that said, the ubiquity of the LMS must be dealt with. We cannot simply wish it away, nor wish it to be different. It’s not the approach of critical pedagogy to ignore the tools and systems that oppress, nor to engage in wishful thinking. Rather, critical pedagogy focuses on the way things are in order to construct an understanding of the way things can or should be. Giroux writes “education has a responsibility not only to search for the truth regardless of where it may lead but also to educate students to make authority politically and morally accountable" (Loc. 261). We cannot see our way clear to justice if we don’t see clearly the systems that obscure justice.

Yet, one of the objections I encounter often when talking about critiquing and confronting the LMS and other educational technology is that it is mandated for use by an institution. Especially for adjunct teachers—an academic population that’s persistently increasing and whose continued employment is precarious—butting heads with the LMS and the administration that supports it is too risky. Similarly, teachers whose authority in the classroom is less immediately visible because they are not straight, white, cisgender men are understandably cautious to engage the work of critical pedagogy when simply asserting presence can be a challenge.

So, how do we face off with the LMS in ways both critical and which might yet allow us to cooperate with our institutions and reasonably succeed as instructors? Is it necessary to stop using the LMS? Or are there ways to invite students into an inspection and critique of this tool even while they are asked to use it?

For example, in many online courses the designer or teacher will ask students to complete a “syllabus quiz,” an over-architected assessment of a student’s willingness and ability to uncover the requirements of a class. What if instead, students were invited to talk about their assumptions about the LMS—about discussions, about how assignments are submitted, about grading—and to say openly both what they like and find problematic about the platform? What if students were asked to research the LMS itself, the company that created it, the politics behind it, its pedagogical assumptions? Or, what if a teacher confided in students the ways in which their teaching philosophy aligned or did not align with the pedagogies baked into the LMS?

When I enter a physical classroom, the first thing I look for is the arrangement of chairs. I want moveable chairs, seats that can be formed into a circle, that don’t necessarily situate learners in rows in front of a podium. Podiums have their use at times, but I want options. Perhaps inviting students (and teacher) into an inspection of the LMS right at the start of the term is a way of “rearranging” the chairs by calling out the architecture of the digital room we find ourselves in.

A step beyond this initial inspection might find us offering students the opportunity to participate in digital education in new ways. Do they want to “meet” somewhere besides the LMS? Twitter? Slack? Facebook? What are the affordances and problems with those platforms? What happens to grading when we leave the LMS (and what role does grading play in learning)? Is there a desire for more synchronous interaction, and how can that be facilitated; similarly, what are the affordances of asynchronous interaction?

While this sort of exploration and inquiry may seem to interfere with the curriculum of a course (the learning objectives, required materials, mastery), I argue that they could be the first, most important steps when teaching online or in a digitally mediated environment. This is critical thinking—divorced of assessment, divorced of learning objectives—that aligns with the goals of a critical pedagogy. Giroux provides that

Critical pedagogy asserts that students can engage their own learning from a position of agency and in so doing can actively participate in narrating their identities through a culture of questioning that opens up a space of translation between the private and the public while changing the forms of self-and social recognition. (Loc. 287)

In fact, in a classroom where success will be measured by the mastery of specific material, a critical inspection of the learning environment may be students’ only opportunity to “actively participate in narrating their identities.”

It’s possible that the single most important action we can take as digital educators and critical instructional designers is to ensure that learners have laid before them the capability to both know how the LMS exerts control over their learning, and to intervene upon that control to change it.

Put simply, I do not believe that the LMS is a useful or productive tool for learning. Its structure and infrastructure are too deeply biased by a “scientific” approach to teaching. It is built upon research and best practices, and its aim is the collection of data, the control of student behavior, and the production of narratives of power. Freire offers:

Our testimony … if we dream of a less aggressive, less unjust, less violent, more human society, must be that of saying ‘no’ to any impossibility determined by the ‘facts’ and that of defending a human being’s capacity for evaluating, comparing, choosing, deciding, and finally intervening in the world.” (37)

I would like to imagine a less aggressive, more human digital learning, even if that seems impossible.