Ari Moore/Flickr
Ari Moore/Flickr

By Justin Reich

Helping students become networked learners begins by thinking carefully about where we conduct our online learning. Most online learning in higher education and in K-12 takes place in Learning Management Systems (LMS) such as Canvas, Moodle or Blackboard. In higher education in particular, these LMS are designed to scale up the distribution of course materials — by default they are configured to distribute syllabi, course readings and assignments. Student contributions are usually limited to discussion forums and assignment submissions.

Since these are institutionally managed spaces, students can lose control over what they submit to the LMS. At many universities, after three or six months, the sites are deleted, and all of the intellectual contributions that students are asked to make to forums or assessments are washed away. While LMS offer certain advantages for scaling standard experiences, these spaces are homogenized, transient and disempowering. As Jim Groom and Brian Lamb argue in “Reclaiming Innovation,” their critique of learning management systems, the fundamental problem is that learning management systems are ultimately about serving the needs of institutions, not individual students.

Breaking Out of the LMS

Last fall, I taught T509- Massive: The Future of Learning at Scale, a course at the Harvard Graduate School of Education that examined a variety of large-scale learning environments with many learners and few instructors. The course design was inspired by the values of other educators who have congregated under the banner of Connectivist or Connected Courses. In these kinds of courses, how students learn is as important as what students learn. An explicit goal is for students to learn to build networks of learning resources — people, readings, websites and communities—that can help them continue learning in a domain long after a course ends.

This is a different and potentially quite radical vision of the purposes of schooling. In his manifesto on Connectivism, George Siemens writes that in Connectivist learning environments, the “pipes” of a course are more important than what flows through those pipes. The networks that students build are durable structures of lifelong learning, and they are more important than whatever I could teach students about large-scale learning in the 12 three-hour sessions that we had together.

Stephen Downes, a co-creator of the first Connectivist learning environments, offers an even more radical framing: he argues that the content is a MacGuffin, the plot device in a Hitchcock movie that starts the story but ultimately proves unimportant. For many professors and teachers, the notion that the content is a trick to get people to start learning together is an affront to the profession. But these kinds of provocations are wonderful places to rethink what teaching and learning can look like in a networked world.

Tools for Connected Learning

For Massive, then, we needed to develop a technology-mediated learning environment that could support connected learning. This begins by having students own their learning spaces and democratize the means of production. Rather than forcing students to log in to an institutional LMS, I asked them to create their own websites, blogs, Twitter accounts and spaces on the open Web. In these spaces, students could curate links and connections and share their evolving ideas. Whatever they create is owned and maintained by them, not by me or by Harvard. They can keep their content for three months, three years, or the rest of their lives, so long as they continue to curate and move their published content as platforms change.

While empowering, the challenge of this model is that everyone’s creations are spread across the open Web. The way that most courses deal with the problem of distributed production is by forcing all students to post in the same place, in the password-walled, institutionally controlled LMS. The way that Connected Courses deal with this challenge is by aggregation, sometimes also called syndication. All of the content produced on student blogs, websites, Twitter accounts and other social media accounts is syndicated to a single website.

For Massive, we had a website,, where student contributions flowed together. When students created posts tagged with the hashtag #t509massive, their content was aggregated together on the site. On the Flow page, every piece of content created by students, myself and teaching staff was aggregated into one place. We also had Blog and Twitter Hubs that displayed only long-form writing from blogs or microposts from Twitter. A Spotlight page highlighted some of the best writings from students.

Some Advantages

This online learning environment had three important advantages. First, students owned their means of production. They weren’t writing in discussion forums in order to get 2 points for posting to the weekly prompt. They wrote to communicate with audiences within the class and beyond. Second, everyone’s thinking could be found in the same place, by looking at hashtags and our syndication engines on Finally, this design allows our learning to be permeable to the outside world. Students could write for audiences they cared about: fellow librarians or English teachers or education technologists working in developing countries. And as our networks grew, colleagues form outside our classroom could share with us, by posting links or thoughts to the #t509massive hashtag.

Even though the class has ended, students still share on the hashtag, still write on their blogs and still enjoy the benefits of the connections that we’ve built together. As a teacher, it’s thrilling to look at the Blog Hub a month after class has ended and to see that people are still posting and sharing.

So what did students do with all of these spaces and connections? My students come from all over the world, geographically and intellectually. After their one-year master’s program, they are going back to classrooms, libraries, district offices, policy shops, edtech startups, engineering firms, medical schools, divisions of continuing education, community colleges and more. It would be impossible to design assignments that served all of them well. Rather than proscribe specific assignments for students, I asked them to take up the challenge of determining what would be useful to them, to their classmates and to the wider world.

I gave students structures for doing so: students wrote and then revised a rubric that defined how they would contribute to our networked learning commons and what excellent work in this space might look like. But ultimately, the students determined what and how they wanted to write. For some, this was the greatest challenge of all. Accustomed to trying to figure out what “the teacher wanted to hear,” many of my students struggled to figure out what they might want to say in their own voice, and what kinds of contributions they could make to their own learning, their classmates and to the wider world.

In my mind, this is exactly what the future of lifelong learning looks like. We will be learning constantly throughout our careers as workers and citizens, and once young people graduate from formal institutions, much of that learning will be self-directed and unstructured. What I hope that students could take away from my Connected Course were the skill sets to participate in that kind of learning out on the open Web, and the belief that lifelong learning can be most powerful when we intentionally build networks of people to learn with us.

On the first day of my course, I tell students that they have three responsibilities: to advance their own learning, to advance the learning of their classmates and to advance the learning of their wider communities. If they are successful as students, they’ll benefit not only themselves, but their classmates and colleagues beyond.

Justin Reich is the Richard L. Menschel HarvardX Research Fellow, and an Adjunct Lecturer in the Technology, Innovation, and Education program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

  • «Rather than forcing students to log in to an institutional LMS, I asked them to create their own websites, blogs, Twitter accounts and spaces on the open Web. In these spaces, students could curate links and connections and share their evolving ideas…» That’s exactely the reason why I created a BuddyPress-based network for the german speaking part of Europe. The platform is independent, providing a free service called TOOLBOX for connected learning and a paid service for commercial projects like spin-offs called XTRABOX (includes consulting, installation with a separate software instance and db etc.). Hosting in Switzerland. Privacy guaranteed.

  • LMS are for the bureaucrats planning and reporting, while the open Web is for the students learning. Learning can NOT be “managed”, it can at best be inspired.
    “I never teach my pupils. I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.”
    —Albert Einstein (1879-1955)

  • SanfordA

    See P. M. Wood, Technocracy Rising. Technocracy is about economic and social control of society and persons according to the Scientific Method. LMS systems are clear examples of Wood’s Technocracy.

  • Mandy Lupton

    Great article! I use a similar approach to teaching ‘in the wild’ which I’ve described here:

  • redeye998

    Pretty interesting read and well written. But even if all these techniques are effective enough, the students might not be aware of what an opportunity is, even the brightest ones. So is this enough? The educational system is built that way that we tend to underestimate the power of globalization (the good parts). So even the brightest leaders need to know that there are opportunities around the world and they can explore them with absolutely no cost, using services like (which is incredible by the way) or others. Imagine a world with unlimited connections and no limits, THAT would be education.

  • Michael Bies

    The LMS and the Open Web should not be considered mutually
    exclusive environments when it comes to online education. I think the best solution is a
    good blend of both. Institutions need the security, reliability, uniformity,
    data collection, backup, training, and tech support that come with an LMS
    product. But Instructors who deliver their courses through the portal should,
    as much as they are able, encourage students to take advantage of all those
    other resources that are now just a click away, rather than settle on the
    standard tools of discussion boards and assignment submissions available in the

    Students who post their academic work on public sites invite engagement with a wider community of people interested and, in many cases, expert in the same subject matter, further
    expanding their knowledge base, and hopefully stimulating further curiosity and
    a true interest in learning beyond the need to earn a good grade. But alas, the
    grade is the score by which educational institutions measure learning, and the
    LMS provides a means to collect and assess a snapshot of student work within
    the confines of a college course or K-12 class. As the LMS evolves, it must
    find a way for academic networking to flourish, much like Facebook has done for
    social networking and LinkedIn has done for professional networking.

  • Julio P.

    I have very mixed feelings about this article. I certainly agree with Mr. Reich’s assertion that students needs skills more than they need content. Skills are going to allow a student to succeed in any part of life. It’s important for a culinary student to understand how and why to use a certain knife technique than the actual technique itself. However, that doesn’t mean the technique isn’t important. I have a hard time with giving complete freedom to students as they learn. The teacher becomes irrelevant if we simply unleash students to the world and have them create their own assessment systems and their own assignments. One of the aspects of websites like Edmodo and Schoology that I love is the control that a teacher has. I would never use Twitter or Facebook for educational purposes because I can’t control or monitor what’s said or created. However, other educators may disagree. I work with teenage students and they can’t be trusted to roam the World freely. They need guidance, direction, and clarity. They also need a certain amount of freedom to be allowed to try things out, maybe even fail, and learn from it. Learning Management Systems certainly can be utilized more efficiently by teachers (in-depth training would help) but I am hesitant to allow students ultimate freedom.

  • Philipp Höllermann

    I really like the approach and guess the learning outcomes are much higher than with a “traditional” LMS. However, teaching this way expects a lot from students in term of web literacy and self-organization. While this might not be much of a problem for Harvard students, I am rather sure that a lot of our students would be overburdened by the workload and overwhelmed by the teaching concept. What’s your experience or suggestion?

  • Justin Tacchi

    The Connectivist learning environment
    is inevitable. Due simply to the fact that the Internet exists; the world has
    already moved to a Connectivist model of information sharing. Unfortunately in America the education system
    is often behind the rest of the systems (media, science, etc.) in the country
    and the world overall. One of the things we get right in American education is
    the goal of creating lifelong learners, which is a bit of misconception because
    we are constantly learning. What is really meant is the goal of creating
    lifelong learners with the purpose of setting out to learn something new in
    order to enrich themselves. What better way to do this than by allowing
    learners to also be part of the community that creates knowledge and training
    resources for the world in their given field, while at the same time putting it
    in a place, the web, where it can be accessed instantaneously and freely by any
    person who wishes to have it.

    When it comes to course based
    instruction there is no reason to fear the loss of collective learning if the
    students’ learning and synthesis of knowledge, in the form of posts and
    collected links, is digitally aggregated as cited in the article. This again
    speaks back to the idea of purposeful lifelong learning and the idea of equitable
    access to information because the educational artifacts can exist on the
    Internet indefinitely. I am an educator and my goal has always been to reach as
    many potential learners as possible while at the same time empowering them to
    spread their ideas and knowledge to as large of an audience as possible. Educating
    with the philosophies of Connectivism as a focus for design appears to be the
    best way to do that given the current global state of technology.

    I theorize that the resistance to
    Connectivist learning environments by some educators and institutions is the
    archaic attachment to the “brick and mortar” learning institution. Sadly, this
    really means a fear of the deconstruction of an outdated system, perhaps due to
    nostalgia or one generation passing an educational tradition down to the

    For the intangible thought based fields
    of liberal arts, education, philosophy, mathematics etc. the transition to a
    Connectivist learning environment could happen immediately. As technology
    stands though, we will still need physical learning environments for education
    relating to physical training, like learning how to run a lathe, bake bread, or
    perform surgery. But this is only
    necessary for the physical practice, the ideas of technique, background knowledge
    and safety precautions could be learned on-line. However, this could change as
    well if 3D printing reaches the levels its developers aspire to and the
    physical artifacts and resources needed for learning and practice could be
    created cheaply and with ease at the given location of the learner.

    The real issue to me is solving the
    funding issue of getting the technology, a decent Internet connected computer,
    into the hands of every potential learner on the planet in order to foster a
    true Connectivist learning environment.

    *As a fun side note the word
    Connectivism is so new that my spell check did not recognize it. On the cutting edge here? You bet.

    • Jamie

      After reading the article, I found myself having a lot of mixed feelings about this topic. While having students create their own learning spaces sounds very neat, I can’t help but feel nervous about the “freedom” aspect of it. I know that in my elementary school every other site is blocked due to students not following the rules of not going onto them. The students seem tempted to go onto those “blocked” site and become distracted from what the teacher is telling them to do on their technology. When students are given technology they want to experiment with it, and most of the time that means not listening to what the teacher is telling you to do on it. With that said, if the trust can be instilled in the students, then I think this is a very cool idea. I love how Justin Reich says, “I tell the students they have three responsibilities: to advance their own learning, to advance the learning of their classmates and to advance the learning of their wider communities.” I like the idea (for older students) to be able to run their own blog would be beneficial. I know how I am always using the blog we created to use as an educational benefit. Even if it was something as simple as what we do in class, having the students take a few minutes to write out what they took from the day would be huge! I know that would be beneficial to not only the student, but to parents as well!

  • Lynn Usrey

    I don’t agree with Tor – learning SHOULD be managed. You live in utopia world where all students are wanting to learn and the weight of responsibility for the future generation doesn’t lie on teachers’ shoulders. LMS could be very flexible and customizable! I’ve written the article about it on elearninginductry –

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