Where does the LMS sit in the reusability paradox

This post continues the adaptation of the original work of David Wiley around the reuse and remixing of open content and applying that knowledge to the LMS and other institutional e-learning systems and practices. The idea is that explicitly ignoring the distinction between the “content” and the digital systems (and perhaps also the physical equipment) that are used in contemporary learning/teaching spaces is useful in identifying problems with current practice and identifying alternatives.

The Reusability Paradox

The inverse relationship between reusability and pedagogical effectiveness

The graph to the right represents “The Reusability Paradox” from David Wiley. Developed in the context of learning objects the paradox proposes that there is an inverse relationship between the reusability of a learning object and its pedagogical effectiveness. That is, the more easily you can re-use it in different course, then the less impact it will have on student learning (and vice versa).

Wiley argues that this paradox arises because “humans make meaning by connecting new information to that which they already know”. The more elaborate the connections that a learning object has to my context, the easier it is for me to see and make connections with it. It’s easier for me to learn. However, those more elaborate connections make it more difficult to take that learning object and use it in another context. Those elaborate connections don’t make sense in a different context, they cause confusion.

Thus to make a learning object portable, you have to minimise those elaborate, context-specific connections. You have a vanilla or standard object that is usable in more contexts. The cost, however, is that it’s now harder for the human being to make a connection to that learning object. They have to do much more work to connect the object to their existing context and knowledge. They have to do much more work to learn.

What’s good for “open content” is good for the LMS

My last post sought to apply Wiley’s 5Rs Framework to the LMS. The aim here is to explore what might be revealed by applying the Reusability Paradox to the LMS.

The Learning Management System (LMS) is designed to be general. To be reusable across different institutions and people. For example, the Moodle LMS is described as

Powering tens of thousands of learning environments globally, Moodle is trusted by institutions and organisations large and small, including Shell, London School of Economics, State University of New York, Microsoft and the Open University. Moodle’s worldwide numbers of more than 65 million users across both academic and enterprise level usage makes it the world’s most widely used learning platform.

The Reusability Paradox would imply that in order to achieve this level of successful reuse, the LMS must be focusing a bit more on reusability than pedagogical effectiveness. It would imply that at the level of individual learners and teachers that there should exist some difficulties in making connections. The learners and teachers much be engaged in some additional effort to connect to and learn with the LMS. It doesn’t take a lot of looking to find evidence of this. At the institutional level there will be training sessions run to help people understand the system and overcome the gap between what they’d like to do and what the system can do. At a more invisible level is the ad hoc social connections linking people who aren’t quite as technically literate (able to connect with the general tool) with the sprinkling of technically literate people – every academic organisational unit has at least one of these.

More recently you can see evidence of the code being written by people to make these connections. Some recent examples include:

  1. @palbion’s creation of a Greasemonkey script last weekend to add important functionality to the Moodle assignment module.
  2. The 10 (so far) Perl scripts I use to manipulate Moodle and other institutional systems to achieve the learning outcomes I want with my course.

    Including those required to implement the process analytics I’ve added to my course.

  3. The work @damoclarky has done to replace a more useful reporting mechanism for Moodle with MAV.

At this point, I should strongly point out that the problem here is not Moodle. The problem is the implications that the Reusability Paradox has for systems like a LMS that are trying to be reusable across contexts. Almost by definition such systems will have a gap between what they offer and the requirements of the context. Someone or something has to make those connections, and sadly most institutions don’t seem to be doing a good job of it.

What can be done?

David Wiley identifies four choices in terms of open content

  1. create highly decontextualized resources that can be reused broadly but teach very little;
  2. we can build highly contextualized resources that teach effectively in a single setting but are very difficult to reuse elsewhere;
  3. we can shoot for the mediocre middle; or,
  4. allow and enable for contextual modification of the learning object.

In terms of open content, Wiley talks about the open license as being the great enabler, he argues

The way to escape from the Reusability Paradox is simply by using an open license. If I publish my educational materials using an open license, I can produce something deeply contextualized and highly effective for my local context AND give you permission to revise and remix it until it is equally effective to reuse in your own local context. Poof! The paradox disappears. I’ve produced something with a strong internal context which you have permission to make fit into other external contexts.

Problem fixed, not!

So the problem is fixed, at least for Moodle, because it has an open license and

can be customised in any way and tailored to individual needs. Its modular set up and interoperable design allows developers to create plugins and integrate external applications to achieve specific functionalities. Extend what Moodle does by using freely available plugins and add-ons – the possibilities are endless!

But it’s not quite as simple as that. Once Moodle is adopted, installed, and used by a University the institution must now attempt to make its instance of Moodle reusable across the entire institution. It’s to inefficient to do otherwise. The learners and teachers at that institution are only allowed to use the institutional instance of Moodle as it stands. They are typically unable to make changes to Moodle. They do not have the access necessary to make such changes. They are stuck in the Reusability Paradox.

Of course, learners and teachers won’t sit still in this paradox. They won’t accept the need to continually overcome the lack of contextual appropriateness of these systems. They take steps, like those outlined above. The evolution of technology (LTI, JSON, Greasemonkey etc) is making it easier for individuals to modify systems for their own purposes (e.g. @palbion’s creation of a Greasemonkey script).

One university and minimum course standards

At the same time, there is a growing trend for institutional management to promulgate ideas such as minimum course standards. Where it is argued that it is better for students and the institution if all course sites look the same and have – at least at some minimum standard – the same functionality. A level of consistency that smacks head long into the Reusability Paradox and causes no end of trouble. Especially for those of us expected to step backwards to meet the minimal standard.

Allow and enable for contextual modification of the learning object

If institutions wish to improve the quality of their students’ learning, then it would appear that some consideration of the Reusability Paradox is required. In particular, it appears sensible that they adopt Wiley’s fourth choice for dealing with the paradox

allow and enable for contextual modification of the learning object

Where, in this case, the learning object is the LMS and other digital systems.

The problem I see is that institutions are reliant on a mindset that I’ve labelled the: Strategic/Established/Tree-link (SET) Mindset. Such a mindset is going to find it incredibly hard to “allow and enable for contextual modification” because it assumes that:

  1. there must be one plan and one aim (Strategic).
  2. digital technologies cannot be cost effectively changed (if at all – Established).
  3. the world is best understood through logical decomposition into hierarchies (Tree-like).

The big question is how to help organisations adopt more of a BAD mindset. A mindset that is all about allowing and enabling for contextual modification (i.e. learning).


David Wiley, The Reusability Paradox. OpenStax CNX. May 25, 2013 http://cnx.org/contents/dad41956-c2b2-4e01-94b4-4a871783b021@19.

5 thoughts on “Where does the LMS sit in the reusability paradox

  1. When I’ve talked to institutional leadership about enabling context-sensitive modification, the response has been consistent: won’t somebody think of the students? Everyone then produces a story about a student who minded having two different experiences on two different platforms and thought this was typical of everything that was wrong with their university. But if we’re relying on anecdotes, we might as well point out that those same students are happy to lash together FB, Instagram, YouTube and Snapchat. In other words, they can handle complexity.

    I think it would be helpful to have some concrete evidence on this fairly precise question, so that we don’t just meet story with story. My hunch is that the story about consistency of customer experience works in some industries, especially retail and service, and we take for granted that it transfers to education.

    This is a great post, thanks so much. I find your SET mindset a really helpful framework.

  2. Thanks Kate. I’ve had the same talk and used the same point.

    Management here have tended to point to student surveys (of questionable method) with mentions of students not being able to find information on course sites. This gets magically transformed into a need for every site needing to look the same. Over looking the absence of a search engine in the LMS, the difficulties students (and all of us) have when trying to find something that is looking at us in the face, that some academics have really crap websites, and that making the course sites all look the same isn’t going to solve any of those problems.

    For a long time I’ve wanted – but never had the time – to do research evaluating students finding information in different course sites that have been designed well and come with the full stock of web functionality (i.e. a search engine) and compare it against those that look the same.

    Reminds me of a @cogdog piece about the difference between being “of the web” and “on the web”.

  3. Pingback: The role of “coding” in learning and teaching | The Weblog of (a) David Jones

  4. Pingback: Should coding and design be essential skills for an academic? | Student Reflections

  5. Pingback: Design of a BAD approach to developing TPACK | The Weblog of (a) David Jones

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s