Digital Watering Holes


In 1997, David Thornburg wrote an article “Campfires in Cyberspace” which used primordial learning metaphors as a guide for the development of rich learning communities for the future.  The metaphors were as follows:

Campfires – a place to gather for story sharing and the passing on of wisdom
Watering holes – a less informal place to gather for peer learning and sharing
Caves – a space for personal reflection
Life – the application of knowledge

In this post I am going to examine the modern “watering holes” that students use to learn online.  In a school environment, a major watering hole is the “Learning Management System” or the LMS.  It is the space for less formal (although not always) peer learning and sharing in the eyes of the teachers.   There are many different forms and types of LMS but they are largely the same in their make up.  They are set up as space for learners to gather and share.  They house content.  They can integrate web tools.  They can be device agnostic.  All good things…mostly.  In their book “Teaching Crowds”, Jon Dron and Terry Anderson write that

“A central binding feature of almost all LMSs and related systems is that of roles: there is nearly always at least a teacher role, with the power to control the environment to a far greater extent than a student role.”

This is true.  The amount of control students have within an LMS is limited in comparison to the teacher.  For the teacher, it is the digital version of the “sage on the stage”.  Is this the role that we wish our students to have with their own learning?  David Becker in his blog series “Kill the LMS” takes this further and states that:

“The development of the LMS and an organisation’s decision to buy one, springs from constrained thinking about how we are supposed to learn, acquired from a school system developed to feed the industrial revolution.”

Now my opinion is not as intense as Becker’s but the famous line from the movie “A Field of Dreams” springs into my mind when it comes to the LMS.  Schools feel that  “If they build it (an LMS), they (students) will come.”  Yes they will come but usually because they are forced to.  It isn’t their natural watering hole.  It is a man made (or worse, school made) watering hole that they HAVE to visit.

Where do students naturally gather (digitally)?  In a recent post, our very own Matt Esterman shared his surprise when the digital platforms that he had recommended to the students in his global History project had been dismissed and Snapchat had been used instead.  Snapchat was used for a myriad of reasons and was a natural watering hole for the students.  At my school, we have a main school LMS and a couple of other platforms that are used by small groups of teachers (Schoology & Edmodo mainly) and we strive for peer-to-peer interaction and sharing.  We scaffold for it, we plan for it but it isn’t always forthcoming.  Students interact and share using social media and this is usually a slippery slope for schools that they usually avoid.  Too much fallout if things go wrong.  In his book “Stratosphere” Michael Fullan supports this noting that “the digital life of students is largely outside schools and it is a fairly undisciplined world.”  With that being said, Dron and Anderson wrote “Teaching Crowds” because they wanted to develop the “social” element of their student’s online learning.  They wrote that:

“In most current instances, social software applications have not been designed specifically for students enrolled in formal education programs. Rather, students join social networks for personal reasons, motivated by a desire to expand and enrich their social lives.”

Learning is social…has been that way since the dawn of time.  Students gather informally and share informally and YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat, etc…these are the watering holes where students gather.  Are these watering holes that teachers can use for teaching and learning?  I believe so…what do you think?



Stratosphere by Michael Fullan

8 thoughts on “Digital Watering Holes

  1. Steve lights a fire for me here. I think the time has come for schools to openly dismiss Learning Management Systems as a platform to house learning materials. They are a very expensive method of curating and dispensing work. The job can be done much ‘better’ in many ways in a simple Facebook page for example. If we then move to the next level and consider an LMS can allow for handing in work and markbooks, again there are tools that do that and they are also free, for example Schoology. Perhaps LMS provide for communication but come on, how many other ways can you communicate outside of an LMS?

    So, what is an LMS really for?

    Some would say that there is a need to ringfence a school’s ‘learning’ but what they really mean by that in most instances, is not sharing work. I wonder if that is because some schools know how poor their teachers or is it a case that the concept of sharing is still an issue for a lot of educators?

    However, I think there is a greater issue here. Data management and housing confidential data is really what most LMS are built and relied on for. That is not what they are pushed to the students, the parents and the teachers for but it is, for the most part, their reason for taking up a wedge of the school’s IT budget. So, the final questions are not much different than what has been asked already:

    Is a data management system worth the money your school is spending?
    Can it be done in a free or cheaper system?

    • @Nick
      Wonder if you’re conflating two things here Nick? Data or information management systems store personal/confidential data we have a legal duty to maintain and report on, whereas an LMS is, or should be a learning platform. Although ideally linked, the two perform separate roles in my mind. Yes they are expensive. Are they worth that expense? Well that surely requires a cost-benefit analysis and if they are indeed that expensive, then they should be squeezed till the pips squeak.
      Can it be done free or more cheaply? Possibly, but here we have to be wary of the hidden costs – additional infrastructure, technical support, reliability … and possibly the legal costs if something was to go pear-shaped with personal data!

      I think that #enoob-like people might indeed be able to do many aspects of this more cheaply, but could the majority of our colleagues?

      • Great insight guys, going to jump in and throw my two cents in. I believe that schools are afraid to step away from the LMS. Is the LMS bad? No. Is it done badly? Yes…mostly (in my opinion). Why? In my opinion it is because we use a broad ranging “off the shelf” solution to meet the needs and context of our individual school environments and for the most part it is a square peg in a round hole. The free options are great and growing in numbers. Sure the price factor plays a part and but in my experience with Schoology and Edmodo, the majority of staff find them more intuitive than our LMS.

        Should schools just have a robust CMS for data management and a plethora of solutions for learning management? Is a central assessment and reporting platform with multiple platform integration a better option? As always, more questions than answers but keen to get your opinions.

  2. Thanks for tabling an issue I’ve been becoming increasingly uncomfortable with in recent times Steve. Let me start by saying that the underlying principles of your post have always chimed with me – making more of informal learning, allowing (encouraging?) students to find their own learning spaces, promoting collaboration and sharing, learning socially. However I guess I’ve already telegraphed the forthcoming ‘but’ … so here goes. Rightly or wrongly, I think there should be a clear demarcation between an LMS and any social learning spaces; for me they perform two different functions. The LMS is a formal space where the learning is (largely, though not exclusively) managed by the teacher. [Ouch! Did I really type that?!] Like a classroom, science lab or technology workshop, it’s a place with certain obligatory boundaries and set of expectations for both students and teachers. Here I have to depart from the term LMS though and opt instead for ‘learning platform’ for far more than purely semantic reasons. A good learning platform though should allow a variety of approaches, whether transmissive, collaborative, didactic, constructive, independent or autonomous. There should also be a shared sense of ownership and responsibility in the same way that students and teachers should share and be responsible for the classroom, the resources and the books they use.

    Now, when we think of the alternative watering holes students use, like Instagram, Snapchat etc, they’re going there for entirely different reasons; as Dron and Anderson remarked – “…motivated by a desire to expand and enrich their social lives.” The primary reason for going there is not ‘to learn,’ though naturally they will do informally, or sometimes non-formally. I’m not sure how wise it would be for us to invade their space; the place they go to avoid adults(?) and what they perceive to be the adult world. Although it might be fine for us to post useful resources to those places, point that out to students, then leave them with the choice whether to interact or not, I feel they might view it as an intrusion if there was an expectation that they were obliged to participate in a space that they feel is theirs.

    On a side note, I’m torn between the use of additional learning spaces like Schoology, Edmodo. On the one hand, for some people (students and teachers) the multiple environments become too complex to navigate and as a result individuals may choose to use the space that they are most comfortable in. Now if that isn’t the learning platform that the school community has chosen as its primary space, there’s potential conflict or mixed messages. On the other hand, I’m keen to encourage diversity, engender the capability to choose the right tool for the task and would much rather people did something rather than make excuses and opt out.

  3. Ian, great response and as always much food for thought. I particularly liked your comment “A good learning platform though should allow a variety of approaches, whether transmissive, collaborative, didactic, constructive, independent or autonomous. There should also be a shared sense of ownership and responsibility in the same way that students and teachers should share and be responsible for the classroom, the resources and the books they use.” This for me is YouTube and not an LMS. It is however not formal but social and makes schools (at times) cringe. The YouTube community has the most amazing guiding principles (see below) and would make for the most amazing digital citizenship program for schools. That aside, it does allow for all of the approaches that you listed above. Yes, many LMS’s harness the power of YouTube but it is controlled and didactic. The power of YouTube is social and a lack of roles. Each person can take the wheel. Each person can listen, contribute, work individually. Is it right for schools? In my opinion, yes but I think I am in the minority. Are we intruding in their space or our we moving to a space they feel more comfortable operating in? Maybe it is more of a case of knowing when to be in the space together and when to be apart.

    I do think you are right though that a mix of platforms can be confusing for schools and for parents. It should be one door in and not a different platform for each year level or class. At the moment, our LMS is providing students and parents a main door in and then the students move off (sometimes) to different learning spaces. I do like the flexibility that it offers but I am worried about the “tech fatigue” that it can impose. Look forward to your replies.

  4. Thanks for your comments Margaret. I read your post with interest. Despite my reservations above, I have become very interested of late in the possibilities and power of Schoology. In particular, the dashboard analytics bring another dimension to a ‘free’LMS.

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