Recent Presentation – The Pros and Cons of Loosely Coupled Teaching

The other presentation I did at WCET this year was a lot more fun. Asked to do a 15 minute spiel on a panel entitled “The Once and Future LMS” I promptly ignored the title of the session (as is my wont) and came up with my own, The Pros and Cons of Loosely Coupled Teaching.

The M.O. here was an interactive session to examine three different examples (in part culled from suggestions offered in the comments of a post from a few weeks back) of online classes taught using ‘loosely coupled tools.’ I asked the audience for their ‘Pros and Cons’ of these approaches (which Chris Lott graciously captured in the background) which I then contrasted with my own list of Pros and Cons that I had built ahead of time.

The goal here wasn’t just boosterism, but instead to be honest about the current set of tradeoffs involved with choosing these approaches, in hopes of re-focusing effort, attention and dollars towards filling these gaps rather than continued spending on walled gardens and monoliths that ultimately serve the wrong masters.

Even more importantly, my goal was to illustrate this conclusion, that the interest in these approaches and tools isn’t about strong willed kooks not wanting to conform (though there’s nothing wrong with that) but instead an issue of freedom that is not just relevant but ultimately fundamental to how we teach and learn online. The choice of tools and environments, and the *choosing* of them, is not incidental, nor is one’s attitude towards openness or authentic engagement. But we do need to move forward with stating the basic institutional requirements that need to be met and putting in place lightweight, loosely coupled mechanisms for meeting these, otherwise 5 years from now we will still be railing against the monoliths, and still forcing students and instructors who want to authentically engage with these tools and methods to act like renegades. – SWL

8 thoughts on “Recent Presentation – The Pros and Cons of Loosely Coupled Teaching”

  1. Ha ha, I think I probably will add after the Ph.D. on my business card, S.W.K. for strong-willed kook… since I probably would be assigned to that category by most of my colleagues – especially the people in the I.T. department at my school who don’t understand why the LMS is not the be-all and end-all of teaching online!

    Anyway, I wanted to thank you for your comments here about the need, a really imperative need, to find a balance between institutional requirements and the loosely coupled experimentation some of us are engaged in.

    For example, I do continue to use Desire2Learn for the Gradebook and for the peer-review comment portion of my class for institutional reasons – simply put, I would get in trouble if I did otherwise.

    Institutional persistence (which came up in the comments on your presentation page that I read) is a fascinating issue: I would be LOST if my archive of student work disappeared, but the reason the student websites stay up at my school is not because the university has any commitment to them – just the opposite, the student web server site is SO OLD (vintage 1999 and unchanged since then) that it is not fully integrated into the password synchronization and other server systems of more recent vintage: our I.T. department basically just doesn’t know how to get rid of the webpages as students graduate in the same way that their emails are disposed of. So, I am glad that they don’t know how… I definitely need a persistent archive! And, shamefully, they do not have any policy on persistence of student digital work or archived portfolios of any kind; even worse: I am afraid if they did institute a policy it would work against me. There are only a few of us at the school who have any interest in student-produced knowledge archives like this.

    Unfortunately, I am very cynical about progress of any kind at my school. They pay a packet of money for Desire2Learn, and the feeling is that “if D2L can’t do it, it doesn’t need to be done.” So, since D2L’s blogging tool is a joke (a bad joke at that), and since D2L does not facilitate student web publishing on the open Internet, then these are not things online teachers need to be doing.

    What kind of persistence does D2L have from semester to semester? NONE. Student work vanishes totally at the end of the semester.

    Blogging and web publishing are things I do despite my institution, not because of it… and every semester, I am vaguely anxious that they will shut the whole thing down. The only thing that I would have in my defense is the huge popularity of the courses with the students themselves – of all the many online courses offered at my school, my courses fill faster than any of the others. Students like being loosely coupled, it seems.

    So, ACT like renegades…? Uh, I don’t think it is an act. Renegades we are. Ha ha.

    Typing that word made me stop and think: what is the etymology of renegade anyway? (I am a language arts person, after all) – well, check it out! Cultural history galore:
    renegade at
    1583, “apostate,” probably (with change of suffix) from Sp. renegado, originally “Christian turned Muslim,” from M.L. renegatus, prop. pp. of renegare “deny” (see renege). General sense of “turncoat” is from 1665. The form renegate, directly from M.L., is attested in Eng. from c.1375.


  2. Hi Scott, your loosely coupled systems thing sparked something of a debate here at the OU – see and then the VLE response, another one about the dangers of using 3rd party systems: and a response from Tony Hirst and then this meeting of the two from Brian Kelly:
    You see what you started Scott? Anyway, for me one of the cons is authentication and authorisation – openID may go some way to resolving the former but if you want people to have different roles and access in different systems then it becomes difficult to manage. These problems are exacerbated if you’re operating at scale – as an educator I can manually subscribe users to a site if I have 20 students, but if I have 1000 I need university student database systems to kick in.
    It may be that you don’t need to care about such authorisation in loosely coupled systems- everyone is equal in a wiki, but that may limit the pedagogy you employ.
    Or am I just being all authoritarian in my outlook?

  3. Martin, I’d apologize for starting a brouhaha except…well that’s typically kind of my intent!

    I saw a lot of these various postings as they were happening. I must admit I laughed at the one criticizing slideshare for being down (and Tony’s sly response). This idea that hosting your own gives you more control has everything to do with the illusion of control and much less to do with actual control. (Though I am conscious I don’t bear the brunt of such failures like a CIO, both by choice as well as by circumstance.)

    Indeed, this attitude that institutions can provide large scale hosting better themselves is a large block to innovation; by constantly falling back on this, we get bigger and bigger server farm empires but hosting increasingly creaky looking apps instead of putting our time and effort into the place that really makes a difference to teaching and learning.

    This is actually perhaps the biggest argument to make to IT departments about the need to take an approach that create bridges to generic internet services while still satisfying their institutional requirements – that it represents the only way to actually keep up with the pace of change and ultimately provides better service without spiraling budgets. Unfortunately this will only happen when we are able to argue that keeping up with the pace of change is not optional and that the solution does not lie in ever expanding IT budgets but a different approach. Accepting today’s VLEs for me amounts to an argument that our understanding of how learning best occurs in a networked environment was solved 10 years ago.

    I don’t disagree at all that authorization and authentication present one of the major stumbling blocks to the loosely coupled approach. I think it is very easy to villify the whole VLE/LMS approach. But as someone who at times in my life has been singlehandedly tasked with implementing and supporting online learning tools across an entire institution, I know they made sense at the time. They also, at the time, offered the most straightforward approach to ensuring consistent access to tools across an entire organization (something we thought at the time was important, but are now maybe realizing was as presumptuous as saying that an English prof and a Physics prof will teach their materials the same way face to face).

    But…things change. In the 10 years since the advent of web-based LMS/VLEs not only have we seen a change in the technologies, we are also seeing a change in (just as one example) our understanding of the importance of openness. So while I do not deny the importance of the authentication and authorization issue (and think it is one of a few critical pieces the “small pieces loosely coupled” crowd needs to start to address in tangible way soon lest the air go out of our tires) I do resist the notion that “we got it right” in VLEs and thus they represent the base requirement new approaches need to meet. If we’ve learned anything from the whole Learning Object debacle, it’s that we spent years and lots of dollars on figuring out standards for getting content out of one walled garden and into another, without at first asking ourselves that if one of the goals was *sharing*, why were we locking the stuff up in the first place. So the issue isn’t going away, but part of the solution is also to reframe the question, which is why the idea of asking “yes before no” and “allow(ing) before they disallow” ( really appeals ot me as a new starting point in the conversation. Anyways, good stuff! Now let’s all start shipping some code for those “middle pieces” that honestly are required if the “loosely coupled” approach isn’t to remain a dog’s breakfast. Cheers, Scott

  4. Thanks to your comments on my Slideshare presentation on Web 2.0: Opportunity Or Threat For IT Support Staff?

    I should probably declare that I used to work (for about 12 years) in IT Service departments, and worked as an Information Officer – or spin doctor, as this role might be called now 🙂

    A couple of years ago I gave a talk at an IT Services Senior Manager’s conference on IT Services: Help Or Hindrance? – see

    I’m pleased to say that a number of IT Service departments in UK HEIs have made it clear to me that they do understand that there is a need to change, and also that there is a need for discussion between the ‘Two Tribes’ – which I coined in the post which Martin Weller mentioned.

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