Comments: Evaluation of Learning Activity Management Systems

Interesting perspectives. I agree to some extent with the implied criticism that LAMS presently lacks flexibility in f2f use -- but so, I would guess, does the average lecture! However, LAMS does have some activities that enable addition of content on-the-fly if you plan ahead to do this (!) and I found it sufficiently easy to use that I have hacked a sequence in class in response to unforeseen problems. It's just that students then have to skip into the modified sequence -- a bit of a pain. As to sequences being too linear, I suspect that's due to an excessively long sequence and, probably, an instructivist approach on the part of the author (mea culpa), not necessarily a failing of the software. Having said that, many teachers are likely to fall into that trap and one real benefit of LAMS is that it will hopefully encourage greater reflection on the part of teachers. The next version will apparently also have wizards to assist with design if required.

Posted by Peter Miller at July 5, 2005 12:38 PM

James Dalziel of the LAMS Foundation tried to post a response to this article about ten days ago. Unfortunately the comments script on this server was suffering one of its occasional periods of downtime (thanks to the extreme loads caused comment spam), and I was away on holiday and unable to deal with the problem. But, belatedly and with apologies to James, here is his response, plus a comment of my own at the end.


When we started building LAMS, we had always hoped that it would be possible to edit a design "on the fly" to allow teachers to adapt to changing class circumstances, or new realisations about how to proceed that only occur once you're in the thick of it (the need to change a lesson plan mid-stream is familiar to all classroom teachers).

(You can even guess where this feature would have been in the LAMS interface - under the second tab in Monitor, where the visual sequence depiction from Authoring is repeated for the live class).

However, LAMS was a very difficult piece of software to build, and one of the casualties during development was the ability to edit on the fly - it just proved too hard in our first build to make the software so flexible that it could be changed mid-stream without making the entire application too unstable.

So this feature didn't make it into V1.0 - and while there are many, many features I wish LAMS had today, this is one of the most fundamental that is missing (in my view), not just because it would be a cool feature, but because of its pedagogical importance. But the reason it didn't make it was sheer software difficulty, not an assumption that teachers *shouldn't* change a design on the fly.

(As Peter notes, there are some options for changing a running sequence in LAMS today through the "Define in Montor" feature - which allows some tools to change their internal text (eg, the text of a question in Q&A, the voting categories in Voting, etc). But I agree with Peter that you need to "plan" to use this feature ahead of time to make it work.)

The good news is we've been working hard on a complete rebuild of the backend of LAMS for the past 9 months, and hope to have this out in beta in the second half of this year. This version (V1.1) will allow you to edit most aspects of each tool even when a sequence is running (ie, more "Define in Monitor" options).

Also, we're planning to implement full editing of sequences on the fly in the next release (V1.2), so you could start a sequence with just a noticeboard, and then design everything else on the fly. This should go a long way to replicating the flexibility of f2f teaching. The only contstraint will be that you can't edit a task once at least one student has started it - you can only edit tasks than no-one has got to yet (you can use the "Stop" feature to help you control this where needed). One nice byproduct of this new feature is that when a teacher does build a lesson on the fly, at the end you have a record of the sequence, so if it worked well, you could then save it in authoring, and run it again or share it with colleagues.

As to whether teachers can use a planning tool like LAMS and think several steps ahead, my experience of watching LAMS trials is that this is certainly possible - perhaps because lesson planning is part of everyday practice for many teachers, so that once they have basic familiarity with the software, they can transfer this skill across to LAMS.

For what it's worth, I don't think the photocopier example really captures what we're seeing in the field with LAMS; and personally I wouldn't draw the analogy from software engineering with end users to LAMS lesson planning. But it will be interesting to see how further research informs this debate, and I appreciate the suggestions from HCI on how we might understand this new area.

James Dalziel

I wasn't meaning to say that lesson planning is an activity analogous to a software engineer designing a software program (or indeed to a photocopier user planning how to get the copies they want). The critique from Suchman, Dreyfus and others is actually more general, and more profound than that. It doesn't depend on characterising or comparing particular types of activity; it argues that all human activity has an evolving, improvised, in-the-moment nature.


Posted by David Jennings at July 18, 2005 10:12 AM
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