screen capture of a hierarchical organization chart

Of Flat Rubrics & Fake LMS

screen capture of a hierarchical organization chart
Screen capture from Dr. Christie Harrington’s webinar, “Promoting Critical Thinking Through Online Discussions – developing questions and managing conversations”

Online Discussions

I’m enrolled in a “CSU FLC”, or “California State University, Faculty Learning Community.” This particular CSU FLC is Critical Thinking through Online/Blended Discussion, a 6-week online course. In this 1st week we’ve read 2 articles, attended a webinar by Dr. Christie Harrington, and dialoged with faculty classmates from the CSU.

In addition to commenting on a number of my classmates great discussion posts, this week I also started two: Of Flat Rubrics, and Of Fake LMS. The text of my posts is below:

Of Flat Rubrics

Sharing my Rubric

Among the many great discussions in our 1st week is Allison’s Presence post where she attempted to include one of her rubrics. The rubric didn’t upload and she had to upload it to another part of our Moodle LMS. There were comments about this and others about converting to PDF or docx. I chimed in about couldn’t it just be a page on the open web. Allison explained that she’d just typed it directly into Blackboard and had had a bit of a challenge getting it out.

Just typing a rubric into an LMS like Blackboard is an obvious and appropriate thing to do. But then you want to share it with another group and you suddenly realize that you’ve unintentionally allowed your work to be locked in someone else’s proprietary silo.

Further, rubric generators are necessarily “kitchen sink” focused. By that I mean that since many educators will want to create many different rubrics your tool must allow – or almost encourage – complex rubrics with many cells. If you create a 5×5 rubric with 3 elements per cell, that’s 75 items of grading criteria! Are students really going to appreciate the nuance of so much information overload?

Why so Serious?

Why do faculty write such complex rubrics? Partly because these rubric generators are so encouraging of it. Perhaps also partly because after teaching a few years you’ve assembled a long list of ways students have tried to game the project, and the complex rubric is an attempt to close all of those holes.

Do we really need 75-criteria rubrics?

Wouldn’t a single criteria do? Something like:

Work your butt off, discover something powerful, and express what you’ve discovered in elegant prose.

Isn’t that what we actually want from students? Of course this wouldn’t work in a “real” classroom because many students wouldn’t understand what was expected and others would find ways to game such a simple statement. But does this mean that my sentence is a bad rubric? Or that we have a larger structural problem? Do we need larger rubrics? Or an educational paradigm that discovers more passion in more students? If you take attendance, are you already conceding that education requires coercion? What if instead of an attendance sheet there was a Fire Marshall at the classroom door to turn students away because too many others were already hungry for this knowledge?

Think Mobile First

I think one criteria is not enough. And I think 75 is too many. A smallish rubric can still skecth out the grading landscape, perhaps without closing every possible loophole, and be more comprehensible for many students.

When we make Tabular Rubrics, be they large or small, they can really only be easily viewed on desktops, laptops, and possibly tablets. Looking at a tabular rubric, especially a large one, on a phone is ridiculous. Yet we all know how much of their work our students do on phones. I’ve absolutely seen how grateful and engaged students are when I use platforms that are mobile friendly. And as I view more content on my own phone, it is always a pleasure when something loads and reads easily. When something loads and has microscopic type or miles of horizontal scrolling, I’m frustrated.

Your Challenge

Try making your next rubric as a web page or blog post that can be read by anyone on any device. Don’t make it tabular. Make it as concise as possible and make it linear. Check it on your phone. Check it on your kid’s phone. Ask your students to look at it on their phones. See if you get their attention.

Of Fake LMS

Mickey Mouse shapes reality

I’ve used the mantra

Sometimes fake is more real than real.

for a while now. It can mean many things. For me it starts as a consideration of place in Cyberspace. When a college student on the San Jose State campus walks the length of the campus while talking to a friend from high school on her cell phone, as that friend walks the length of the SDSU campus, where does that conversation take place?

San Jose? San Diego? Cyberspace? Cognitive space?

Is the place real? Or fake? Or virtual? What of the conversation?

What is an avatar in a virtual world? A fake identity? Or the product of creativity, imagination, and desire?

Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.

— Oscar Wilde

Standing in an art gallery in The Netherlands, Franco Mattes once asked an interviewer:

Isn’t Mickey Mouse real? Actual? This guy is raising much more interest and money and shaping reality much more than me and you together and all of the people in here and probably the whole country.

Platforms for Presence

There’s much more to say about the power of fake, but let me move on to our Week 1 discussion in this CSU FLC Critical Thinking through Online/Blended Discussion. I think we’ve all been inspired by the deNoyelles, Zydney, and Chen (2014) article Strategies for Creating a Community of Inquiry through Online Asynchronous Discussions. Much has already been discussed about the idea of Presence (social presence, cognitive presence, teaching presence). To remix my own mantra, I think I’d like to say,

Sometimes a fake LMS can have a lot more presence.

I should say upfront that I’m not much of an LMS fan. I agree with the edupunk opinion that LMS’ are the fluorescent-lit rooms of education. For sure LMS’ like Desire 2 Learn (D2L) which is used by my home campus CSU Long Beach, and Moodle which is used by our CSU FLC, do perform many important and useful day-to-day functions. It’s hard to imagine running a large university without an LMS platform like D2L, Moodle, Blackboard, etc.

Even so, and even though nobody declared me the arbiter of anything, I’m going to wave my magic UI/UX wand and declare that D2L, Moodle, and Blackboard are all clunky experiences. I’m not a fan for a lot of reasons, but I haven’t noticed students being any more enamored with these platforms. Students use them because they are the status quo on our campuses, but students are rarely excited by them. I don’t believe students are deeply engaged by them. There’s a reason that Apple Inc. is today the number one market capitalization corporation in the world, and it isn’t because they are purveyors of clunky design.

So, why not try a fake LMS?

Engage in the 21st Century

By fake LMS I mean why not explore a platform that isn’t in fact an LMS, that can’t do everything these kitchen sink LMS’ like D2L, Moodle & Blackboard, can do, but that might do what I need it to – engage students and foster critical discussion – better than our clunky LMS platforms of the quaint old 20th century? How about a communication tool that’s fun and easy to use? How about a platform that kicks ass on mobile, the way Desire to Learn definitely does not?

  • Blackboard, 1997
  • Desire to Learn, 1999
  • Moodle, 2002
  • Slack, 2013

This past summer I taught a 100% online course and skipped our Desire to Learn LMS entirely. I used several platforms to facilitate the class, with all discussion and communication being conducted on the Slack communications platform. I think the students were a lot happier with Slack vs their past D2L experiences, and I believe the discussions were deeper and stronger because the platform integrated mobile and laptop so well, and pushed student notifications when a classmate @-responded to them.

At the end of the course about half the students gave me feedback on their Slack experience. You can see their feedback here (note: when students refer to “BeachBoard”, that is the CSU Long Beach branded version of D2L):

In September I gave a talk at the Mobility & Modern Web Conference (MMWCON) at UCLA. I spoke about how Slack and other mobile platforms had helped created new levels of student engagement. The notes from that talk are here:

Slack isn’t anything like, and doesn’t claim to be anything like, a full LMS platform. In the case of a 25 student 100% online course, I found Slack to be a robust discussion tool that was easy, engaging, and helped create presence.


Comments? Questions? What great art did you see, make, or experience today?

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