I caught up with Dr. Bernie Dodge at San Diego State University and asked him a few questions about how a Learning Management System (LMS) can focus more on learning and less on management. Dr. Dodge is creator of WebQuest, “an inquiry-oriented lesson format in which most or all of the information that learners work with comes from the web.”
What inspired you to start WebQuest?
In the spring of 1995, I was teaching an experimental course to pre-service teachers. During the first semester they had taken the basic required class on technology. I had promised that the second semester we would do something that went beyond the traditional class. The world wide web was just becoming available in schools and the uses it was being put to were not impressive. Most early web-based learning activities involved students filling out a worksheets with the answers to low-level questions found by searching Alta Vista. I thought to myself, “schools are going to spend a lot of time and resources to get everything in place… even just the wiring. Things ought to be better than this.” So in February of ’95, I promised these 25 students we would do something that would engage their students in higher-level thinking and use their online time well.
The closest thing I could find to engage students in analysis and problem-solving was a program called “Archaeotype” developed at The Dalton School in New York. Archaeotype is a software simulation of an archeological dig. Students lay out a grid and dig in one square at a time matching their findings to a visual database included with the software. The task was to explore the site and come up with a defensible explanation of what had happened there in ancient times. I had participated in a trial of Archaeotype software and wanted my student teachers to experience a different way to approach teaching and learning. Unfortunately, Archaeotype was proprietary and required a particular combination of hardware to run so there was no way for us to show it in my classroom. So instead, I put together a web page with links to some documentation about Archaeotype, printed out some paper copies of research about its use, set up a primitive videochat with one of its designers, and divided the class into teams to attack and absorb all this information in a single class period. I gave them the scenario that they were on a school committee trying to decide if Archaeotype would work as well in their own inner city setting as it did in a Manhattan private school. Then I turned them loose and hardly said anything for the next two hours.
It was magic watching them work and learn. I thought this is what all of my classes should look like. A few weeks later I delivered on my initial promise to the class and gave them a template that generalized the experience that they had had learning about Archaeotype. It had an introduction to set the scene, a description of the task to be accomplished, a process list of URLs and other resources to explore, and an assessment page to describe how to evaluate the results. They made their first WebQuests following that model and the idea took off from there.
Do you think the WebQuest experience changed those pre-service teachers you had in class?
A little, I hope. If you’re preparing to be an educator, though, you’ve been through years of traditional education and only a few moments that were different. It’s human nature to revert to what we’ve experienced the most. That’s true in higher education as well. It continues largely to be an environment with everyone in the same room facing the front, taking notes, and once or twice a semester putting marks on a page to show how well they’ve remembered the notes. Putting a course online by itself doesn’t change any of that. In fact LMSs are designed to reinforce what faculty are comfortable with and so they’re intrinsically conservative. As Marshall McLuhan said, “We shape our tools and then our tools shape us.”
Some would say we’re at a similar point with the introduction of mobility into the classroom. How do you see mobile apps and devices influencing the direction in the future?
Many people use mobile as a delivery platform. It’s the same old screen, but now students can watch it on the bus. It’s less common to use mobile devices as input. We should be sending learners out wherever they are to take pictures, notes, measurements, and dictate those experiences into the LMS instead of just reading from the LMS. A few years ago I developed an experience called WonderPoints where high school students went out into the neighborhood to find all the flowering plants, put them on a map, determine if they are native or not, etc. This became the foundation of a whole class discussion that was rooted in their everyday experience. It was a far more memorable experience than the botany lecture it replaced. We should be doing things like this in higher education as well.
What do you think would facilitate these shifts?
Well, not every course can change in this direction. I’m happy to be teaching in a field that is inherently applicable and lends itself to current, authentic problems. The undergraduate world is much more constrained by the need to build foundational knowledge that’s not so easily applied, or tangible, or turned into an active learning experience. It’s an interesting challenge to think about how you can turn that content into something that’s actionable with new technology. The leadership for that has to come from those within those disciplines, I think.
What could a school or system do to better assist faculty?
The M in LMS is management, and managing videos, PDFs, PowerPoint slides, tests and student grades is what they’re good at. Again, that helps us do more easily the same things we’ve always done. I often wish we had better tools to help us with design. Imagine having software that let you see the flow of your entire course visually from high altitude, with various paths of experience that your students might go through. It might look like a subway map with tracks that split off and merge back and stations that represent chapters to read, videos to watch, and artifacts to make. Seeing things that way would help us break the habit of recreating physical classrooms and think instead of designing experiences that teach. I’d love to see an LMS that did that.