There Be Dragons

BY JONATHAN REES800px-dragons_on_a_wall

I’ve been reading a lot of books about the history of maps and mapmaking lately. Apparently, one of the great myths of cartography is that medieval maps would label sections of unexplored territory “There be dragons” in order to discourage people from going to those places. Of course, even had this actually happened it wouldn’t have worked. The human spirit of exploration is so great that somebody would have gone there before too long, wherever there happened to be. Yet even today there seems to be a concerted effort to stop professors from exploring the worldwide web outside the learning management systems (or LMSs) on their campuses.

I’ve been obsessed with mandatory LMS usage since I wrote this article for Academe about two and a half years ago now. My concerns about this practice center not just upon inhibiting the wonderful resources available to faculty on the web at large, but also on how this practice steps on faculty autonomy, specifically our prerogatives to set up our classes however we think most fit to achieve our respective educational goals.

Yesterday, I noticed that City College of San Francisco (CCSF) has taken this sort of heavy-handedness to the next level. This is from an audit of online courses taught there (via E-Literate, the semi-official blog of the LMS industry):

Based on our interviews we noted that the District began moving more towards online learning prior to 2011. As part of that movement to provide education in the methods students were requesting, the District began a defined process to determine how to standardize the management of these types of courses across its operations. The District decided to use the Learning Management System (LMS) software to centralize the tracking and management of these types of course.

Steps on faculty prerogatives? Check. Big Brother? Check. Paperwork nightmare? Check.

Actually, the paperwork nightmare part is the headline of this story. This is from the San Francisco Chronicle (again via e-Literate):

City College of San Francisco, struggling for every dollar it can muster, must repay the state nearly $39 million because it can’t prove that instructors taught thousands of students in hundreds of online classes from 2011 to 2014, an audit revealed.

City College has been unable to verify teaching about 16,000 students in 587 online courses — from Accent Improvement to Cardiorespiratory Emergencies — over the three-year period, according to the state-commissioned audit that ended in September.

No fraud is suspected. State officials say the college simply bungled the way it tracked course participation and will give the college a decade to repay the money. But having to give up $3.9 million a year exacerbates City College’s budget woes, brought on by what the college says has been a severe plunge in enrollment due to its ongoing accreditation troubles.

If you teach an online course outside the LMS, is it really there?

I have a shocking suggestion: Track online courses the same way schools without mandatory LMS usage track in-person courses. After all, both kinds of courses leave a perfectly adequate paper trail (grades and things), or maybe just ask the students who took the courses whether they learned anything.

Faculty teaching online courses deserve the same control over educational decision-making that face-to-face faculty get. Phil Hill notes in that same e-Literate post, 92% of courses (on campus and off) didn’t comply with the college’s mandate to use the learning management system.

Maybe that’s because the LMS at CCSF stinks. Maybe that’s because the faculty there had really lousy training. Maybe that’s because the faculty at CCSF don’t want to be tracked. Or maybe it’s just because CCSF faculty aren’t afraid of dragons. Every professor who wants to explore online resources outside their LMS should have the option of doing so, even if it’s not convenient to the people who are trying to check up on them.

One thought on “There Be Dragons

  1. One could compare being afraid of “the dragons” to the thought processes of those sacred of what their country would become if outsiders would be let in. Unfortunately the way things are going, maybe being sacred of the dragons isn’t too far in the future if trends continue.

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