The myth of rationality in the selection of learning management systems/VLEs

Choices

Over the last 10 to 15 years I’ve been able to observe at reasonably close quarters at least 3 processes to select a learning management system/virtual learning environment (LMS/VLE) for a university. During the same time I’ve had the opportunity to sit through presentations and read papers provided by people who had led their organisation through the same process.

One feature that the vast majority of these processes have reportedly had was objectivity. They were supposedly rational processes where all available data was closely analysed and a consensus decision was made.

Of course, given what I think about people and rationality it is of little surprise that I very much doubt that any of these processes could ever be rational. I think most of the folk claiming that it was rational are simply trying to dress it up, mainly because society and potentially their “competitors” within the organisation expect them to be, or at least appear to be, rational.

I don’t blame them. The vast majority, if not all, of what is taught in information systems/technology, software development and management automatically assumes that people are rational. It’s much easier to give the appearance of rationality. This really is a form of task corruption, in this case the simulation “type” of task corruption.

The reality?

So, if it isn’t rational and neat, what is it? Well messy and contingent and highly dependent on the people involved, their agendas and their relative ability to influence the process. And I’ve just come across probably the first paper (Jones, 2008 – and no, I’m not the author) that attempts to engage with and describe the messiness of the process.

It’s also somewhat appropriate as it provides one description of the process used by the Open University in the UK to adopt Moodle, the same LMS my current institution has selected.

The paper concludes with the following

There is no one authoritative voice in this process and whilst the process of infrastructural development and renewal can seem to be the outcome of a plan the process is one that is negotiated between powerful institutional interests that have their roots in different roles within the university. Negotiation is not only between units and the process of decision making is also affected by the sequence of time in taking decisions, for example by who is in post when key decisions are taken. Decisions taken in terms of the technological solutions for infrastructural development have definite consequences in terms of the affordances and constraints that deployed technologies have in relation to local practices. The strengths and weaknesses of an infrastructure seem to reside in a complex interaction of time, artefacts and practices.

Implications?

If we know that, even in the best of situations, human beings are not rational, and we know that in situations involving complex problems involving multiple perspectives, that the chances of a rational, objective decision is almost possible then:

  • Why do we insist on this veneer of rationality?
  • Why do we enter into processes like an LMS evaluation and selection using processes that assume everyone is rational?
  • Are there not processes that we can use that recognise that we’re not rational and that work within those confines?

Comment on Moodle

The paper includes the following quotes from a couple of senior managers at the Open University. When asked about the weakness of the approach the OU were taken, one senior manager responded

Weakness ? …the real weakness is probably in the underlying platform that we’ve chosen to use, Moodle. That’s probably the biggest weakness, and I think we made the right decision to adopt Moodle when we did. There wasn’t another way of doing it.

Then a senior manager in learning and teaching had this to say, continuing the trend.

Where Moodle was deficient was in the actual tools within it, as the functionalities of the tools were very basic. It was also very much designed for – in effect – classroom online. It’s a single academic teaching to a cohort of students. Everything’s based around the course rather than the individual student. So it’s teaching to a cohort rather than to an individual, so a lot of the work has gone in developing, for example, a much more sophisticated roles and permissions capability. There really are only 3 roles administrator, instructor, and student, but we have multiple roles…

This is particularly interesting as my current institution has some similarities with the OU in terms of multiple likely roles.

Of course, given that organisations are rational, I’ll be able to point out this flaw to the project team handling the migration to the new LMS. They will investigate the matter (if they don’t already know about it), and if it’s a major problem incorporate a plan to address it before the pilot, or at least the final migration.

Of course, that’s forgetting the SNAFU principle and the tension between innovation and accountability and its effects on rationality.

Addendum

It has been pointed out to me that the penultimate paragraph in the previous section, while making the point about my theoretical views of organisations and projects, does not necessarily represent a collegial, or at least vaguely positive, engagement with what is a hugely difficult process.

To that end, I have used formal channels to make the LMS implementation team aware of the issue raised in Jones (2008).

I have also thought about whether or not I should delete/modify the offending paragraph and have decided against it. There will always be ways to retrieve the original content and leaving both the paragraph and the addendum seems a more honest approach to dealing with it.

I also believe it can make a point about organisations, information systems projects and the information flows between users, developers and project boards. The SNAFU principle and various other issues such as task corruption do apply in these instances. Participants in such projects always bring very different perspectives and experiences, both historically and of the project and its evolution.

To often, in the push to appear rational the concerns and perspectives of some participants will be sidelined. Often this creates a sense of powerlessness and other feelings that don’t necessarily increase the sense of inclusion and ownership of the project that is typically wanted. Often the emphasis becomes “shoot the messenger” rather than deal with the fundamental issues and limitations of the approaches being used.

The push to be a team player is often code for “toe the company line”, a practice that only further increases task corruption.

I have always taken the approach of being open and transparent in my views. I generally attempt to retain a respectful note when expressing those views, but sometime, especially in the current context, that level may not meet the requirements of some. For that I apologise.

However, can you also see how even now, I’m struggling with the same issues as summarised in the SNAFU principle? Should I take more care with what I post. To an extent of avoiding any comments that might be troubling for some? Since, if I’m too troubling, it might come back and bite me.

Or is it simply a case of me being rude and disrespectful and deserving of a bit of “bite me”?

What do you think? Have your say.

References

Jones, C. (2008). Infrastructures, institutions and networked learning. 6th International Conference on Networked Learning, Halkidiki, Greece.

3 thoughts on “The myth of rationality in the selection of learning management systems/VLEs

  1. bradmarshall

    Hi David,

    As part of the project team working on this complex issue, thanks for the clarification. It is a very tough issue that we are trying to get our heads around, and there is no intention to not include anyone, or to run over anyone.

    Personally I am always glad of feedback and ideas to show a new way of doing things or if we are doing things wrong. I’d like to think someone would tell me if I was doing something wrong. I’m quite aware that we don’t know the whole answer, and this will take representation from the whole uni to get it done.

    With respect to the roles issues, I’ve been quite aware of this issue from the start. We are trying to get a good idea on what roles are needed for the university, and will hopefully have this fairly automated when things are locked down.

    If you have any specific ideas about this, please, let me know.
    This is an area I’m quite interested in, I want the administration side of things to be as seamless and trouble free as possible for academics so they can work on the side of things that they’re good at and waste as little time as possible on the others.

    Personally, I have no issues with you bringing up the hard issues that perhaps nobody else has done before, but a little less adversarial would be nice. We’re all on the same side here (I think?) working towards a solution.

    Thanks,
    Brad Marshall.

    1. G’day Brad,

      First, I should apologise for being loose with terminology. I’m not formally involved with the project at all, part of the reason for my ignorance. When I used “project team” I did not intend for that to be limited to just the techos doing the implementation, but the broader collection of managers and folk associated with the entire project.

      Also, it wasn’t meant to reflect specifically on any of the individuals, or to a large extent on the specific groups. In my experience, as is borne out in the literature I’ve been reading and posting about, such teams are prone to avoid dealing with difficult issues and/or often given the appearance of irrationality. The apparent irrationality is often due to the very different perspectives of the individuals involved.

      It’s also due to the fact that a number of players in those teams not fully appreciating the complexity of the others experiences.

      As a historical precedent take the issue of online assignment submission (OASM). I’ve known, because of my heavy involvement in OASM, since before Blackboard was implemented that its OASM faciltiies were poorly suited to CQU and would cause a lot of wasted effort on the part of academics trying to manage the system.
      This belief has been borne about by the experiences of a number of CQU staff.

      However, I know of some technical folk, who still seem to think that OASM can be a simple extension of document management. i.e. a quick extension to a content management system and you have an OASM.

      It’s not.

      However, from their perspective, or at least my version of it, developer resources are limited, there’s other requirements for a content management system, some existing systems that might provide that functionality, so it seems rational to leverage that solution to “kill two birds with one stone”.

      Obviously, I have an opinion which perspective is correct. However, the point I’m trying to make here is that there are always (at least) two sides to every argument, both sides think they are right and the context and processes used in these sorts of projects are usually not conducive to building bridges and a consensus.

      These projects tend to become about “implementing the system” within the time frame allowed and anything that makes this too difficult is sidelines.

      You can trace the origins of “Staff MyCQU” back to this type of decision in the original Peoplesoft implementation.

      One of the many reasons that I’m fundamentally against this type of process as a vehicle for e-learning. As my many blog posts attest.

      Seeing the same mistakes again and again and again, can be frustrating and lead to at tendency to sounding arrogant and dogmatic. And I tend not to need too much help in those areas.

      Sorry, this reply is getting ridicuously long. Time to stop.

      David.

  2. Pingback: PhD Update #5 - a new low « The Weblog of (a) David Jones

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