But will they let you? On MS Teams, the VLE/LMS

5 min read
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Photo by CMDR Shane on Unsplash

Recently we began using Microsoft Teams within the Open Education team at BCcampus, and I have been following with interest some of the discussions in my network about the potential educational applications of Teams.

Much of the narrative has been around Teams as LMS/VLE replacement, and I can certainly see why many are framing it that way. Right out of the box, you can see Teams is geared to education. When I go to create a team, the choices I have are oriented specifically to education.

I am sure I see these constructs as the default options because we have an education specific installation of teams and that the default options for, say a Fortune 500 company would be quite different.

Lawrie Phipps blogged recently about Teams, and made the point that Teams as LMS/VLE replacement isn’t really the right question. Instead, we should examine what Teams represents; an enterprise manifestation of the shift in how we think about digital learning environments.

What Teams highlights for me is the move toward more integrated thinking around digital, and this focus on integration has left us with something that, when we step back, could be used as a VLE.

It is a shift that is also represented in other, less corporate projects like Domain of One’s Own and the OpenETC where the digital learning environment becomes flexible and extensible because of tools like cPanel (in the case of Domain of One’s Own) and Sandstorm (in the case of the OpenETC).

If you have not used Teams before, one of the really powerful features of Teams is how malleable it is, and how easy it is to extend it’s functionality using third party apps. Indeed, right within the user interface there is a button labelled Apps. Click on that and you have at your fingertips dozens and dozens of apps that can extend the functionality of your Teams environment.

Install with a single click. Seamless. Integrated.

This is exactly the type of functionality that attracted me to the open source Sandstorm project a few years back. One click app installation that put a lot of technology autonomy in the hands of the user. It was this type of flexibility that also originally drew me to WordPress many, many years ago. The plugin ecosystem allowed you to bend and shape the WordPress environment in many different ways to suit many different teaching & learning constructs.

These are all generative systems that have the ability to be shaped into different structures by the end user.

While it can be argued that the VLE/LMS hasn’t really changed much in the past 10 years, I actually think that it has, at least in this specific regard. VLE/LMS providers are making their systems more inter-operable all the time and making it easier to integrate third party apps into their platforms. While the pedagogical tools of the VLE/LMS may not have evolved all that much, when it comes to being able to plug in third party apps to extend the functionality of the VLS/LMS, that has definitely become easier to do in the past decade. But how much of that flexibility has made its way into the hands of instructors and students?

Don’t take this as a rousing defense of the VLE/LMS. It is still problematic. But I wonder how much of the problem of making the VLE/LMS more flexible lies with the actual VLE/LMS, and how much of the problem might be with the way it is tightly controlled by centralized I.T. shops? This has (at least in my experience) been problematic with ANY extensible learning system that requires support from a centralized I.T. department. I.T. departments, who ultimately have the final say in whatever technology gets deployed at an institution, are by nature and necessity, risk averse. In my experience, highly generative systems that give a high degree of flexibility to the end user to add in components has always been a show stopper for all but the most well equipped IT departments.

This is where Teams may have an advantage in institutions as a potential generative learning technology ecosystem, especially if the app market is tightly vetted by Microsoft. For better or for worse, most I.T. departments I know trust Microsoft and will tend to default to Microsoft.

But regardless of how Microsoft-friendly an I.T. department may be, at the end of the day if that level of control is not passed on to the instructors & students to be able to add and configure their own learning environment to fit their pedagogical needs, then any advantage that a generative system has is lost.

I realize that this may all be sounding quite rah-rah for Teams as learning ecosystem, but it is not just Teams. My point is that there are many of these types of systems out there, enterprise and open source, that give instructors and students more control and autonomy over their digital learning environments. WordPress, cPanel, Sandstorm, Canvas, Teams. All of these digital learning tools have the potential to be generative at the user level and put more control of the digital learning environment in the hands of instructors and students. One of the significant challenges, however, is convincing I.T. departments to pass that level of generative control onto the end users.


Anne-Marie Scott September 20, 2019

Lots to think about in there Clint – thanks for posting.

One of my concerns with the NGDLE vision from Educause is the extent to which it appeared to be realisable only by big well provisioned institutions. Smaller places with more constrained resources would never be able to afford the complexity and risk and we’d end up with a real 2 tier of provision.

You rightly flag that MS Teams is one of a number of options (you should also check out Tsugi – another app-store like framework built on LTI) now that helps provide additional flexibility beyond the LMS, but in a way that’s more manageable and palatable to a wider range of institutions.

So what is it that stops IT departments being willing to pass an element more of control on to end users? Sometimes it’s going to be fear of an unmanageable support burden, which I can totally understand. Nobody wins prizes when students get a crappy experience. However, I do think there’s a strong tendency to see edtech as commodity IT in institutions these days, rather than value-add and integral to the academic mission. We’ve got a VLE, an ePortolio, and some TurnItIn – put a check in the “done” box for edtech.

How do we make a compelling case that more complexity in support of diversity when it comes to teaching with technology is worth it? How do we show that the value outweighs the cost? And in a way that isn’t just about developing digital skills competencies for employment, but also about better learning, and development of higher order skills?

Clint Lalonde September 22, 2019

Thanks Anne-Marie. Really one of the best comments I’ve had in a long time, and much to dig in here as well from your extending the convo.

That muti-tiering is something I definitely see in my work across 25 institutions that run the gamut in size. You are so right. Larger institutions that are better provisioned can often spend more time and resources on having more nuanced conversations around education technology and what tools to deploy. Small institutions where there may be 1 or 2 people running the entire department have many fewer options and are likely more predisposed to a more commodity approach to education technology. Not that larger institutions are not immune to treating edtech as commodity, but as a general rule I think that is a fair assessment of the role that scale has in edtech deployment decisions.

How do we combat the commodification of edtech in our institutions? Well, my approach is to advocate for a raising of the profile of Education technologist within institutions. As you know, I am a big fan of CMALT and think that having professional designations like that can help to open doors in institutions to contribute to more strategic decisions around edtech.

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