Critical Exploration of Learning Management Systems

Contributors: A. Nicole Pfannenstiel, Tenie Zarifian, Jordan Watson
Afilliations: Millersville University, Northern Arizona University, Northern Arizona University
Emails: ambernicole.pfannenstiel at millersville.edu, tz56@nau.edu, jw2248@nau.edu
Released: 11 January 2017
Published: Spring 2017 (Issue 21.2)


We either learn to use these technologies, or they will use us. (Shumow, 2015a, p. 202)

This webtext describes a pedagogical model developed from the idea that assignments should “attempt to navigate a middle path of practical engagement and thoughtful resistance” to technology in learning environments (Losh, 2014, p. 46). The instructor for the course, Nicole Pfannenstiel, frames this text by describing the research and pedagogical methods inherent in this assignment approach. Two students from the course under discussion, Tenie Zarifian and Jordan Watson, provide example critiques of learning management systems (LMS) produced within the class.

Much has been written about designing online composition courses (Warnock, 2009), integrating LMSs into courses and programs (Chen, Guilbaud, Yang and Tao, 2012), designing content management systems (CMS) for learning (Fischer, 2007; Wichadee, 2014), and using LMSs in online composition courses (Bourelle, Bourelle, Spong, Knutson, Howland-Davis and Kubasek, 2015; Remley, 2013). These scholars discuss course design and development ideas with the expectation that instructors have options in tool selection and deployment within the university-delivered LMS. In addition, composition studies provides a rich discussion of social media sites and social media theory in the classroom. Previous researchers have discussed using social media as an LMS (Parker, 2012), while others have discussed ways of implementing social media in the classroom (see, e.g., Shepherd, 2016; Miller, 2015; Tess, 2013). These researchers draw on students' composing practices on the Internet in social spaces to develop academic writing practices. With this research in mind, the assignment discussed in this Praxiswiki asks students to consider the tools and affordances of an LMS without any university-imposed restriction of technological choice. In an assignment for a Digital/Social Media graduate course, students considered social media tools, affordances, and practices in their LMS design. Through the course-assigned reading, students explored how Internet users engage and resist existing popular social media spaces as a way to discuss provided tools, their affordances, and ways around expected use.

In their article "Teaching and Learning with Social Media: Tools, Cultures, and Best Practices," Liza Potts and Alice R. Daer (2014) argue for the inclusion of social media in classrooms when “its champions are thinking strategically, not just tactically” (p. 22). Through this online graduate course, students read, discussed, and created assignments to explore ideas of digital rhetoric by emphasizing critical reflection on existing and student-designed multimedia, creation of various multimedia and traditional assignments, agency in technology choices, awareness of audience and purpose (in language and design choices), awareness of digital genres (including learning management systems), exploration of traditional and digital power relations (especially technology and education), and exploration of these ideas through technologies (Holmevik, 2012; Losh, 2014). Potts and Daer ask “what can we do to help users of social media maximize their critical use of these spaces” (p. 27). In this project, I (Nicole, the instructor) further their questioning by asking, “what can we do to help users of social media and LMSs maximize their critical use of these spaces?” This rephrasing draws on students' experiences as social media users and their familiarity with theories of digital rhetoric in the course, as well as their experiences with the LMS of this course and others completed as part of their graduate program. The goal of the assignment is to help students critically engage with LMSs and social media use and design, especially the ways affordances of social media spaces could better support composition practices in LMS.

For the first half of the semester, students used BBLearn Discussion Boards (the university-provided LMS), Twitter, word cloud platforms, infographic platforms, and Prezi to engage with questions of power, ideology, content creation, and use of Internet spaces. I required students to post individual tweets and discussion board posts on course readings and to respond to peer posts in both technologies to encourage community building through course technologies (Warnock, 2009, p. xix). Students were aware that the course was divided into a five-week theory section and a five-week group-project section. During the theory section, I regularly reminded students of the importance of community in the works they read about social media, and the curricular need for drawing connections between theory and course design. I specifically designed the first half of the course to aid students’ familiarity with various technologies available for free on the Web, in line with Stuart Selber’s (2004) notion of functional literacy. This was not to push specific Web 2.0 technologies, but to familiarize students with practicing new technology for learning. In familiarizing themselves with practicing in digital spaces, students could engage with and reimagine learning in spaces they designed.

In the following section, I discuss one application of a problem-based learning (PBL) approach to assignment design that asks students to explore the tension between engagement with and resistance to technology. First, I discuss the rationale for LMSs as a technology appropriate to critical engagement with learning design. Next, I provide more details of PBL as a way to design assignments for critical engagement. I also make room for student reflection as a way to further characterize this pedagogical model. Tenie Zarifian, a student of the course, wrote the section titled “Focus on Expectations within LMS Design” section; Jordan Watson, a second student of the course, wrote “A Focus on Social Media Functionality within LMS Design.” Their rationale for design choices offer more insight into student understanding of the complexity of an LMS. Finally, I offer conclusions and suggestions for implementing similar assignments to aid student exploration of technology.

Why Learning Management Systems?

In crafting the assignment, I wanted students to explore questions of power, ideology, content creation, and use of Internet space after reading case studies of everyday Internet users exploring and usurping public power though social media. These cases were taken from Moses Shumow’s (2015) edited collection. Students were asked to design an LMS specific to composition courses (see Fig. 1 for an example of a student-designed homepage). With a mix of high-school educators, literature masters students, rhetoric students, and composition teaching assistants, I left "composition course" open to interpretation. The goal of this assignment was to create a real context (one that exists but that students presented only within the course) for students to respond to the assignment (critical literacy) with all the real world “social, political, and economic contexts” of technology within education (Selber, 2004, p. 81). This assignment asks students to imagine university faculty, staff including those from information technology, and administration as the real audience for such a project—the actual audiences for an LMS change at a university, each with different interests in such a project. As a training tool, I created this project overview video for students. 

Video 1: Group Project Training Video

The design of the assignment draws on Selber’s (2004) theory of multiliteracies and asks students to create persuasive, deliberative, reflective, social action texts using 21st century tools (p. 139). I’m not asking students to lead a revolution for composition focused LMSs, nor requiring them to extensively research the background of LMS design, but instead to rhetorically design a system, for a real context, applying digital rhetoric and digital literacies theories learned in the course. Through this assignment, I want students to explore and respond to the ways a familiar technology is used and developed within an educational setting (see, e.g., Chapter 5 of Selber's Multiliteracies).  
LMSs, sometimes called CMSs, provide the space, tools, assignments, grades, videos, course materials, and interactions for online and digital materials. Many universities provide a central system, with set tools, to their instructors for use in all courses. In the Foreword to Mediated Communities, Shumow (2015b) described media literacy curriculum as “the active consumption and creation of media content” (p. ix). Shumow’s discussion of media literacy pays particular attention to the affordances offered by digital spaces and the choices in use made by users. Additionally, Yong Zhao, Gaoming Zhang, Jing Lei, and Wei, Qiu (2016) discussed the affordances of technology in educational settings, defining Technological Pedagogical Content Knowledge Framework (TPACK) as "understanding and negotiating the relationships between technology, pedagogy, and content" (p. 22). 

As an instructor, I’ve heard students complain about the LMS organization of a specific class, or the lack of use in a specific class, but I haven’t heard students discuss LMSs as spaces of learning with tool use to support that learning (i.e., affordances). When instructors provide instruction on LMS use, they might cover basic course etiquette like "don’t type in ALL CAPS," but the lack of instruction on how to use tools within a given course can perpetuate the assumption that the tool name makes it self-explanatory, and that students will connect that tool to learning. As an example, Elizabeth Losh (2014) described asking students to use Twitter in a large lecture course to engage more students in discussion and technology-supported learning. Her students in this particular example co-opt the entire class with a wave of coughing (pp. 39–46). Students later reported the incident as “revolution rather than devolution at work” (p. 43). These students saw an opportunity to experiment with the affordances of a technology and used that opportunity. They then reported their feelings of revolution in recognizing the ability to use an affordance of a teaching technology. This led Losh to her conclusion that students need ways and language to engage more meaningfully with technology. I also see possibilities for student exploration opened by Kristin Arola, Jennifer Sheppard, and Cheryl Ball (2014) when they discuss design choices as always rhetorical. School-based LMSs provide an excellent opportunity for students to see their design choices as rhetorical, and to help them discover and choose among the affordances of learning tools.

Screen Shot 2016 10 30 At 2.29.40 PM
Figure 1: Moret and Nelson's Final Homepage Design

In this assignment, I was particularly interested in allowing students the chance to explore various media and various approaches to technology design to experience the media literacy discussed, while also exploring rhetorical design choices for a specific audience (of composition students). Students were asked to collaborate with peers in the course to create a written report and a multimodal presentation. Student groups also submitted a written collaborative project proposal describing the context of the LMS they imagined, summarizing the necessary background information, and describing the LMS project to be created. Additionally, student groups were tasked with creating a multimodal presentation that would include images of their imagined LMS. This second task served as the mock-up for their LMS; it did not need to function as a fully designed and operational LMS or webspace, but to provide image examples of what the group expected their imagined LMS to look like from a student-user perspective.

I was also motivated by the goal of helping student groups consider and engage with the choices I and other instructors made when designing their learning experience. Additionally, I wanted them to be aware of the choices they make in relation to learning technologies inside and beyond my classroom. When students critically consider technology affordances similar to the case studies, they can also consider their own design choices rhetorically and explore the relationship between learning, content, and technology. In tasking students with designing an LMS for composition courses, students evaluated the reading material from the course and their experiences with technology in classrooms. Why choose a Prezi or PowerPoint for a course assignment? Similarly, why use Prezi or PowerPoint for notes to students? I wanted students to move beyond critical reflection and discussion to apply these ideas in a multimodal project. As Fig. 1 demonstrates, student groups drew on their existing knowledge of LMS in basic design, but considered ways of modifying functionality based on student Internet use. Stephanie Moret and Hope Nelson described these design choices as “build(ing) student confidence in their writing to make them more able to write effectively within the university and life afterwards” (“PaperSmart” final project PowerPoint, discussed below). 

Finally, LMSs rarely include extensive instruction for each course. Students (and faculty) are expected to become familiar with logging into and navigating that system for course use. Students must become functionally literate with the LMS system as used by instructors to progress in courses. This means when tasked with creating their own, students will spend more time critically engaging with LMS technology  instead of familiarizing themselves with the LMS. Additionally, students less familiar with digital and social media—a group that can include older, returning students and young students resistant for various reasons to digital social media—regularly engage with an LMS in courses at many institutions. Asking for critical engagement with a technology used to deliver the course becomes an equalizer for social media experience. Students who do not use sites like Facebook and Twitter can engage with this assignment just as fully as students who regularly use social media.

While I offer suggestions for modifications to this assignment in the conclusion, I feel the critical engagement with the LMS is key to developing similar engagement and understanding in other commonly used platforms. Helping students develop a strong understanding of the ideological and political uses of learning technology can help them understand how to be thoughtful about their technology uses.  

Problem-Based Learning Influenced Assignment Design

I focused the course readings on digital literacies and digital rhetoric using global case studies. However, I wanted students to focus their design and presentation choices on a more local scale. For this reason, I used PBL as an approach to curriculum design to help walk students through the project completion. This approach allowed students

to evaluate a problem, "read" its signs and symbols, and then make what they know relevant to the situation to solve a problem with several potentially viable solutions. What is being measured then is the degree to which a student interprets a problem, recognizes how their learning can inform a solution, and then produces a context-appropriate solution. (Daer & Potts, pp. 26–27)

The goal with this approach was practicing problem solving, as well as making strategic considerations for technology implementation.

PBL, generally described by six characteristics, relies on authentic problems sequenced through checkpoints within the classroom and expects students to engage with self-directed learning within groups (Dochy, 2003). The expectation is that students will determine their group needs to address solutions. Following these characteristics, the LMS design represents an authentic problem. LMSs are the classroom for online learners and increasingly used in face-to-face classrooms before and beyond college. The design task focuses on student-centered learning, asking students to reflect on their theoretical learning and their class experiences to design a system to meet writing needs.

PraxisWiki PBL 2
Figure 2: Problem-Based Learning in LMS Design Infographic (Image created by A. Nicole Pfannenstiel)

While PBL traditionally teaches students to ask three key questions—"What do we know?," "What do we need to know?," and "How will we learn it?"—I used the assignment sequence to draw students through these questions, never outlining PBL. Based on the overview completed by Michael Pennell and Libby Miles (2009), traditional PBL uses the questions on a whiteboard or chalkboard at the front of a physical classroom to stimulate group discussion and group direction. As online groups, the students needed to begin with where to meet and discuss, and how to work together asynchronously. I didn’t want to detract from those important conversations with directive questions.

I tasked students to design an LMS specifically for first-year composition. I left the problem open to allow student groups freedom in their exploration. Students then submitted the following documents:

  • A Group Roles document detailing the expected role of each group member for the assignments. This document detailed early plan ideas for team participation that told me what students already knew and what they knew they needed to learn to complete this project online. Teams detailed technology they expected to use to remain in contact and tasks needing to be completed. This document helped students consider the “What do we know?” and “What do we need to know?” questions of asynchronous group work.
  • An Annotated Bibliography detailing the background research necessary to complete the project. This document helped the student groups fill in what they needed to know and shaped their understanding of the rhetorical audience. During this phase, student groups looked ahead and discussed the need for information to be relevant to instructors, administrators, IT staff, and general university staff, since LMSs are not adopted by individual instructors, but by universities. The goal with this assignment was to help student groups realize the complexity of LMS design and adoption. This requirement also asked students to critically engage with the readings as they relate to technology and design choices for their final project.
  • A Group Project Plan detailing the tasks to be completed with deadlines. This document ensured that student groups understood what they needed to know, how they would learn it, and how each member would complete their portion of the final project on time. This course was offered online to students living a good distance from campus, so this document helped build team camaraderie by setting deadlines as a group and ensured they all saw any areas where information was missing. This assignment came after the Annotated Bibliography so that it would include awareness of the rhetorical audience, with students developing documentation for presentation to instructors, administrators, IT staff, and general university staff. This document also asked groups to address the “How will we learn it?” question and provided a check-in for groups to receive instructor feedback before the final project.
  • A Final Project Presentation, Write-up, and Reflection detailing the final project, the research to support it, and the pitch to a university. As the final documents, these demonstrated how to consider design when learning to write. Each document and presentation was tailored to meet the needs and questions of the multiple audiences for the project.

These assignments were specifically sequenced to help student groups address the three key questions of PBL while maintaining the focus on critical exploration of LMS design. With a focus on online small group work to increase knowledge acquisition, the PBL-influenced assignment design shows how student groups can engage with questions of power, ideology, content creation, and use of Internet space through a learner-centered problem.

A sample student group final project further demonstrates this critical exploration of LMSs. This particular group focused their design choices on the affordances of social media that engage users with discussions and writing. Both Moret and Nelson were first-year composition graduate assistants during this project, struggling to engage students with the course discussion boards. While obviously seeing the pedagogical need for writing engagement (by designing a discussion board in their LMS), they modified the affordances of the discussion board tool to better engage learners (see Fig. 2). They made design decisions in their LMS and in the final presentation to meet authentic audience needs, while also designing for a learner-centered experience for students.

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Figure 3: Moret and Nelson's Social Media-Influenced Discussion Design

The following two sections describe decisions, approaches, and experiences of two graduate students from the Digital/Social Media course, Tenie Zarifian and Jordan Watson, as they describe their experiences critically engaging with LMS technology to learn more about digital rhetoric, critical engagement with technology, and problem-based learning approaches to pedagogy. Their reflections best demonstrate student understandings of and experiences with a PBL influenced multimodal group assignment.

A Focus on Expectations Within LMS Design

Figure 4
Figure 4: Zarifian (@teniez56) Twitter Discussion, 1 Nov. 2015

In this section, Tenie Zarifian reflects on the approaches of her group to the assignment. Zarifian begins with a discussion of the main audiences of an LMS, students and instructors. She then explores how her group conceptualized student understanding of the Internet. This discussion demonstrates the group's evaluation of the course material and the problem they would address (the "What do we know" question of PBL), their background knowledge and research that helped them (the "What do we need to know" and "How will we learn it" questions of PBL), and, finally, their approach to solving the problem (the application of their learning). Importantly, Zarifian devotes most of her reflection to the choices her group made in LMS design, reflecting on the application of their learning. As a future educator, Zarifian uses this reflection to build connections between tool affordances, design decisions, course design, learning outcomes, and the LMS in a hypothetical situation. The reflection demonstrates her critical engagement with LMS tools and design, as well as her attention to student learning through engagement.

Zarifian's Reflection
In the development of an LMS, my group, consisting of four individuals, recognized that the issue at the center of LMS adoption tends to be the discrepancy between teacher expectations and student engagement. Educators generally wish to maintain the same assignment production and submission requirements of traditional classes, while also offering multimodal and multimedia opportunities for students to demonstrate the collaborative and creative values of digital culture. Furthermore, students view the Internet as a tool that promotes agency and, therefore, argue for more agency in their education. Thus, my group developed an all-encompassing academia-based social media LMS that takes the core features of Blackboard Learn and various social media platforms such as Twitter, while also integrating new features and tools which would critically address how an LMS might empower students and provide them with the agency they desire. It also would give educators the ability to teach students how to think and read critically in order to compose complex, logical, and clear documents, texts, and writings that reflect knowledge on the subject matter within an academic and professional community. Various technological decisions were considered and integrated in order to create an effective space that both educators and students can utilize.

The group’s intent behind incorporating a social media platform was to improve the multimodality of the LMS instead of relying on third-party applications. Thus, the social media feature includes a feed where students or educators can utilize hashtags to connect (i.e., #eng626f15). Within this feed, students and teachers can post various articles or related material, which would enhance the class experience. This specific technology selection would allow students and faculty to view what their colleagues are working on and provide them with the opportunity to connect with past teachers and classmates, which could potentially lead to further collaboration. Moreover, similar to various social media platforms, my group incorporated a private message and chat feature to eliminate communication barriers currently experienced by many students.

Another way in which we sought to expand communication was through an emphasis on engagement. Social media relies heavily on engagement, and in order to promote and maintain interest, applications alert their users when their contacts perform a task. This translates to student engagement; thus, my group developed an alert system to notify students and educators when someone has replied to a conversation or when items are added or have been graded. This would increase communication and give students and educators the ability to communicate and access content in an appropriate manner. Furthermore, when students are aware that classmates or an instructor has replied to their post or to a discussion, it allows them to respond quicker and can enable deeper learning through collaboration.

Furthermore, the adoption of dynamic social media functions inspired my group to consider aspects of multimedia that would reinforce participation and collaboration. Videos have become integral to social media; thus, we designed a feature in which students can comment on the video as they watch. When they comment, it will leave a timestamp of the comment which will appear when other students watch the video; therefore, each student is able to share their experience of watching the video with everyone who has ever watched it. This affords real-time active discussion throughout the course instead of just reflection.

Lastly, along with all of these user-generated content features, our LMS incorporates a search feature, which allows the user to connect with all of the hits for a particular phrase or word they have in mind. The intent of this technology was to bring students and teachers closer to content and bridge any gaps in the users’ literacy of the program. Someone who is not well-versed in the program might not be able to find the videos tab or a class handout; thus, they could use this tool to search for it. Someone who is well-versed in the tool, by contrast, might use it to access more content more quickly.

A Focus on Social Media Functionality Within LMS Design

Figure 5


Figure 5
Figure 5: Watson (@JayDubleve) Twitter Discussion, 31 Oct. 2015

In this section, Jordan Watson begins her discussion of the group's focus on social media functionality and its potential for digital classrooms. This second reflection focuses on the group understanding of the audience they would design for (the "What do we know" question of PBL), and, finally, the group's approach to solving the problem (the application of their learning). Watson discusses the group analysis of sites like Facebook and Twitter for supporting the composing process, and the ways that support can transition to LMS design. This reflection demonstrates her critical engagement with the audience of LMS design, and how to design tools to support student composing processes.

Watson's Reflection
In the development of an LMS design, my group decided to incorporate the best of social media function within the framework of a digital classroom in order to create a self-contained space that students and instructors would be able to collaborate in and with. We envisioned the target audience of the project to be first-year college students and their professors. It was important for us to keep in mind that digital natives tend to be quite adept with electronic media; thus, if teachers are to reach students where they are already comfortable, they must adapt to the available technology. For us, this meant using design and function which mimicked those of social media, with which students are both familiar and independently engaged. This manifested in the development of a social media-like design for the framework of the site – mapping menus and other features such as links, notifications, profiles, and messaging tools similarly to popular social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter. Furthermore, we designed an LMS that offers all of the necessary tools for its courses—composition courses, specifically. This simplifies the process for students and teachers alike. Having all of the tools online reduces the need for students to have home access to the programs and eliminates the need for them to own site-specific, computer-based copies of Microsoft Office or similar programs. Additionally, we designed the LMS with cross-platform compatibility that would allow students to work on whatever devices they have available, rather than be saddled to a computer desk and wall outlet. The asynchronous delivery of the LMS course materials would allow students to progress through coursework at times and in places that are convenient for them, which, after all, is a major selling point of online studies for contemporary, diverse students.

My group designed a number of specific composition tools which would allow for a composition process to occur within the framework of the LMS rather than the LMS simply functioning as a place to submit a document. Such tools included (in no particular order) a grammar game, a digital library, a discussion board, an online document storage, online journals, wiki links, online tutoring, a course database, and a mobile device app to include an online journal for freewriting. These tools allow for students to manage their learning in one space—conducting research, practicing skills, doing warm-up writing, seeking advice, storing works in progress, and ultimately composing original pieces. Composition theory is clear on this point: Writing is a process, not a product. Tools such as the journal would allow for space for getting ideas down without fear of judgment or correction. Students would write to learn in this space before transferring ideas to discussion boards where they can begin sharing and shaping ideas based on input from peers.

The choices we made in the development of the LMS were purposely made to keep as much of the course in one space to provide ease of access and to highlight the group’s sincere belief that writing is a process, and as such, the tools should provide plenty of opportunities for students to work through that process. My group also operated under the belief that the best learning occurs in collaboration with peers, so we offered tools that maximize peer-to-peer interaction while still offering access to the instructor. Our LMS should be navigable, interactive, and intuitive. Interactions between the teacher and the students, as well as interactions between student peers, should support and enhance socialization and productivity. My group found that the best way to achieve this was to develop educational tools that mimicked those of social media in design and function.


As seen in the student examples and reflections above, the PBL approach to assignment design helped students analyze LMS design and social media design, considering ways tool affordances promote engagement across social media platforms (as explored in class and discussed through class readings). While I created a longer group project based on LMS design specific to an online graduate course, this assignment can be the focus of paired down assignments as well. Students of face-to-face and online courses could offer different recommendations based on their experiences with LMS design for the course. Helping students explore face-to-face, hybrid, and online applications of these assignments could offer additional complexities to these assignments. The assignment could be modified to ask students to critically analyze an LMS tool or a popular or unpopular social media tool and offer recommendations for change. Or they might write a user guide for the interface that offers suggestions for more engaged learning.

Daer and Potts’ argument for strategic inclusion of social media can and should be expanded to include critical engagement with LMSs. As the digital educational space for many higher education classes (and increasingly K–12 classes as well), LMSs offer an important space for student critical engagement with 21st-century digital tools. Engaging with social media practices is important, but engaging with spaces designed for learning could have important implications beyond academia. Helping students explore critical engagement with digital tools that might resemble work-based systems could help students transfer critical engagement practices to real-world situations when more than social media tools are required. In many face-to-face courses, students help shape the course through their comments, their actions, and their interactions. Since assigning this project, I have increasingly used smaller versions of this assignment to help students understand how LMS design shapes their learning in face-to-face, hybrid, and online courses.

Special Thanks

I want to thank all the students in the ENG 626: Digital/Social Media course for their participation in class that helped me conceptualize this article and assignment. I also want to thank my student collaborators for providing such interesting reflections for this piece. An especially warm thank you to Stephanie Moret and Hope Nelson, who allowed me to use their project and continued to answer questions about the project long after the class ended.


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Created by matthew. Last Modification: Monday January 23, 2017 16:03:19 GMT-0000 by kristi.