Cattle fence – How LMS is restricting teacher development and creativity and student learning: An opinion

“ICT has penetrated tertiary education, but has had more impact on administrative services (e.g. admissions, registration, fee payment, purchasing) than on the pedagogic fundamentals of the classroom.” (OECD, 2005, p. 15)I would like to start this forum post by drawing an analogy between cow’s in an electric fence and teacher’s teaching using an LMS.

Saturday morning 5 am, 24th July 2011, Hamilton, New ZealandA farmer walks a herd of cow into the pasture that is fenced off from the surrounding patch. The cow’s know their limit and stay away from trying to make their way into new pasture. The electric fence has taught them this! If you dare to make the mistake of trying, the fence will get you!  After maybe trying for a while, the cows finally learn their place and live with what they are given. The farmer herds them back to the shed for milking and after a few weeks of doing this the cow’s know the routine and their way around the farm (perfect conditioning). They would make their way to the shed and back to the patch for grazing. Their life slowly becomes ‘making it to the shed for milking and back to the patch for grazing’.

Relating this back to the topic of my blog: Cattle fence – How LMS is restricting teacher development and creativity.

Don’t get me wrong, when I say the electric fence teaches the cow’s what the boundary is. There is no electric fence when teachers use the LMS per se. However we are very well aware of how people behave when a new technology is introduced, especially in teaching: apprehensive, fear, what’s the point, I don’t need it, what I am doing works for me and my students, I don’t need to change anything …. we have heard it all – I argue that these factors form the invisible fence for the academics who are just starting to try new technologies in learning and teaching. They find refuge in using the LMS because it is very well supported by the institute, help is only a phone call away! After using the LMS for a few weeks, technology is not bad or difficult to use in teaching after all! Just as the everyday expectation from the cows’ is to be milked and grazed (this routine conditions them) – the use of LMS over a certain period does the same for the teachers. While the invisible electric fence is at work every step of the way. Again just as the cow’s try and break for new pasture, the teacher’s do the same, they go out and explore on the web, however the process of exploring something to materialising may never eventuate. The invisible fence gives them a shock every time they try and finally settle for LMS – where the invisible fence is to some degree negotiated for by institutional support available.

Impact on learning and teaching

Technology itself is not capable of bringing change to teacher pedagogy. While its role in the process of scaffolding teacher pedagogy is of importance, unfortunately technology alone is not the answer to problems relating to learning and teaching. Now, relating back to the opening quote, absolutely, yes, it does not change anything for the teacher or the students rather just makes things easier to manage and control.

Let’s take Moodle for example: the underpinning philosophy is social constructivist but can we positively say that that’s how teachers are using it, absolutely no.

“….. technology is not being used innovatively in education. It is both a strength and a weakness that technology can sit quite comfortably within current approaches to education; it is a strength that we can stay with those educational practices we are most used to, but this is also its weakness.” (Reeves, 1997, p. 220).

While LMS has the potential to enhance learning, the lack of pedagogical knowledge of how to use it perhaps causes more harm than good. By encouraging staff to use an LMS are we in fact nurturing the invisible fence? In my opinion, yes we are and worse, I feel that we are limiting creativity and teacher development as well.

Stat: MootNZ11 Martin Dougiamas while talking about pedagogical progression in using Moodle, outlined that almost (anecdotal) 90% of the users are stuck in the repository phase – meaning use of the LMS is to transfer content.

How often are we likely to come across a new web service on LMS? Probably never! How often do you think we’ll come across other academics who are doing things differently and offer the opportunity to learn from? In my experience of working with academic staff and staff development for over 8 years, for some, the LMS becomes the ‘internet’, it becomes the whole world. This thus creates a fence that keeps the staff from exploring further, exploring the whole world because for them the LMS is the universe. The seductive templates, modules and ease of use factor binds the staff in habitual practices, uploading pdf’s, creating forums that will probably be never used. And before you know it, you are instructing your student’s what to do. This of cause does not sit well with adult learners, taking instructions again!

I myself have a few problem with LMS’s. I first started using LMS in my first year of teaching in 2003 and for me at the time, the LMS meant the whole world, it was the next big thing. I would spend more than 6 hours I day creating things on Moodle … as you do because it is so easy. And after a while you find that design is what is driving your teaching. Everything you know about education goes out the window and whatever is available in LMS becomes the driver. The biggest of all problem for me is student ownership of their own learning and control over the content they create. Helen Barrett (2011) outlines the four critical elements for selecting technology while implementing student portfolio (Student-generated content – they own it, let them manage it.):

  • “online space for students to store their work that is either initially owned by the student, accessible after graduation or can be easily transferred to a student-owned space any time (individual documents must be accessible by URL) – Digital Archive
  • online reflective journal (blog) where students can keep a contemporaneous learning record, with the ability to contribute evidence in audio, video, images and text from mobile devices or computers (individual blog entries need to be “tagged” or assigned classifications for ease of retrieval) – Electronic Documentation of Learning
  • an online system to aggregate and present evidence (artifacts and rationale) of achieving “gen-ed” student outcomes plus requirements of specific majors – Showcase/Presentation Portfolio
  • a data management system to collect and aggregate faculty evaluation data of students’ summative portfolios – Assessment Management System”

(Barrett, 2011, n.n)

I would like to add to this list another element that is perhaps equally important:

  • student’s ability to network with other students and experts from around the world to build a personal learning network – Connection (Connectivism) – Personal Learning Ecology
The core element underpinning the five factors above is student-ownership – ownership of their own learning, community and content.Question: What happens to all the content generated by the students in your course in a LMS at the end of the semester?

While the list above is for teachers to consider while implementing student portfolios, it could be also be used by the teachers for their own development.

Some good discussion here:

Barrett, H. (2011, June 2011). Generic tools requirement for e-portfolio development.
OECD (2005). E-learning in Tertiary Education: Where do we stand?
Reeves, T. (1997). Evaluating what really matters in computer-based education. In M. Wild & D. Kirkpatrick (Eds.), Computer education: New perspectives (pp. 219-246). Perth, Australia: MASTEC.



  1. Hi Vickel,

    A timely post given the conversations which I’ve been having here at the ePortfolio conference, and definitely aligns with the concept of Mahara being much more of an open, free-form space in contrast to Moodle. The question of whether it is allowed to remain that way – I guess we’ll find out 🙂

    Thanks for the post,


  2. Thanks Mark
    I feel at times people struggle with the term ‘Ownership’ – it is in terms of eportfolio a complex notion. One at content level – content the students generate and second the level of engagement in the learning process, for me these two notions have a symbiotic relationship and defines ‘ownership’ for me.

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