Hardly surprising news, but very significant in my view. The FLOSSE blog in Finland points to a student from Capella University filing a lawsuit against the university for its use of an LMS (WebCT) that the student believes to be inaccessible and therefore discriminatory…

The student who filed the lawsuit, Jeffrey La Marca, says …

He took courses from Capella as part of a master’s program in information-technology-system design. After he completed one quarter at the university, in 2004, the administration installed a new software system, made by WebCT, for managing online courses. Mr. La Marca says he found the new setup confusing and difficult to work with. “It was just a navigational nightmare,” he says. “It made it impossible for me to study.”

Before the switch, he says, he received A’s in the two courses he completed. With the new software in place, he says, he had trouble doing his assignments.

“I have a lot of educational experience, and I have never seen anything like this,” says Mr. La Marca, a California resident who had already earned a master’s degree in education — taking traditional courses rather than online ones — from California State University at San Bernardino. “Something needs to be done immediately about the accessibility to online courses.”

Surely it is only a matter of time before the same activism happens here in Australia. Many of us have argued til blue in the face that Learning Management Systems are unusable and inaccessible, and place unnecessary pressure on a student.

When I did my DipEd at Uni of Newcastle a few years ago, at least half my time at the computer labs was spent trying to help my classmates get their head around the LMS. The LMS being used there was Blackboard. About 3 people in that class of around 15 – 20 I reckon dropped out because of the LMS! I believe it had a lot to do with just not being able to handle the LMS on top of everything else about orientating into a uni course, and so not being able to keep up with the very demanding 1 year course. The LMS was unnecessary extra pressure!

So, what’s the alternative? Open network learning of course! While there is still a technological hurdle for students to get over, it is more gentle – and what they learn this way can help them learn anywhere! Unlike the LMS model where each institute is using a different platform that does very little towards empowering the student to take control of their online learning.

Here’s what I plan to do with my students next term.

  1. Collect emails, faxes numbers and mobile phone numbers from the students.
  2. Explain the open and public communication strategy I intend to use, suggest ways to maintain privacy by using an alias. Get each student to nominate all or some of these contact details to communicate with them about the course.
  3. Set up an email group, an SMS mailing list, and a fax list.
  4. Set up a course blog, and set it to send me an email everytime I post notes and resources.
  5. Using both the audio post feature and the text editor, announce on the blog the first lesson as a face to face orientation day, forward it from my email to the eGroup (can’t seem to set it up to do it automatically but is very easy to forward manually), use the SMS list to announce the headline and blog link, and group fax the post to those who rely on fax. Maybe I’ll even do a snail mail out seeing as its the first and most important communication.
  6. On the f2f day get feedback on the communication method and make sure everyone understands how the eGroup communication works. Show them the course blog and demonstrate how each week’s resources will be available in both audio and text (plus what ever media happens to be used each week – loaded to ourmedia.org). Explain how each week’s blog post will be forwarded to the eGroup, with headlines to SMS, and fax if need be.
  7. Assist each student in setting up their own blog/learning journal to keep their own notes, links and pictures. Show how to audio and moblog.
  8. In the next week – subscribe the eGroup and each student blog to my Bloglines, and set up a Del.icio.us tag for the class, adding its feed to my bloglines as well.
  9. Post to the course blog the public Bloglines for the class and del.icio.us tag page, and announce the next face to face lesson. Forward to eGroup, SMS and fax.
  10. At the next face to face, review the course blog, and the workings of the eGroup (and student emails), SMS and fax; review the use of student blogs; introduce the Del.icio.us tag page and explain how Del.icio.us can be used to save good links and build a class resource; Have each student set up a Del.icio.us account and save their blog to the class tag; Demo how Del.icio.us can be used to find good links and have each student find a good link to add to the class tag; Demo how RSS works into Bloglines and have each student set up a bloglines account and subscribe to each other’s blogs and the class delicious tag resource. Demonstrate again how bloglines can be used to track each other’s work. (BTW each class session goes for 3 hours in case you were worried)
  11. 2 weeks later [comment: this class runs 3 hrs, one night a week, for 9 weeks] the class should be ready to start learning how to learn about the topic they have enrolled in. Each week I will post the week’s notes and resources to the course blog, send it to the eGroup, remind everyone via SMS, and fax out the sheet if need be.

Many of the students will still be very unsure about how blogs, social bookmarks, and web feeds can work for them, so I’ll need continue to offer face to face support each week in the context of what and how they’re learning. But with the online options, the other students have the option to work flexibly.

The main point in the post is that there are viable and better alternatives to the LMS model. This strategy does not impact too much on my workload, it simply extends the reach of my normal lesson preparation and notes. The methods being used are more universal in that students (an me for that matter) can use the communication methods in many different contexts. The LMS model can only be used in the context of the organisation offering the LMS!

I should add of course that my doing this has cost the organisation I work for very very little. If the SMS and fax support continues to be needed, then that cost would amount to less than the photocopy bill in an average class. I haven’t added pressure on already over stretched internal IT services, and instead used an array of free services that achieve the flexible learning goal more effectively.

For more insights to this model check out the links that Sean and I point to in our recent presentation Knowledge Sharing with Distributed Networking Tools