Bricks and Mortar: Building the “Radically Soft” LMS

clouds-top-view-white-viewIn the harried weeks after school closed, schools worked to find ways to move instruction online quickly using the best information and resources they had available.  These shifts weren’t easy, and they aren’t without significant costs.  Hastily built online environments tend to be hard and utilitarian rather than soft and kind, and despite our words and best intentions about putting Maslow before Bloom and centering relationships, there are large parts of current online learning spaces that are dehumanizing.  We might very well blame the LMS we use, which are problematic in so many different ways, but we also need to look at our own pedagogies and practices as exacerbating rather than mitigating the problems inherent in our LMS.  Our actions within the LMS have quite a bit to say about whether the student experience is rooted in utilitarian hardness or radical softness, and it’s worth exploring the ways in which we can move our imperfect LMS experience toward radical softness.

When I talk with students about what they miss about school, their classes aren’t the first thing they mention.  They tend to think about all of the smaller, more fleeting parts of their school experiences that we don’t frequently attend to online. They’re talking about the mortar—the stuff in the middle—that holds the bricks together.  In An Urgency of Teachers, Jesse Stommel writes about how our singular focus on the bricks allows us to pay less attention to the mortar:

Educational campuses have libraries, coffee shops, cafeterias, quads, lawns, amphitheaters, stadiums, hallways, student lounges, trees, park benches, and fountains. Ample space for rallies, study-groups, conversation, debate, student clubs, and special events. Few institutions pay much attention to re-creating these spaces online. The work done outside and between classes (which is the glue that holds education together) is attended to nominally if at all.

As teachers, we tend to think of classrooms as a center of the universe rather than considering fully how we’re part of much larger constellation of centers across a student’s school day, centers which include the hallway, the library, the lunchroom, the sports practice, and so many others.  As we get better at building online environments, my hope is that we might pay closer attention to thinking about how we can build virtual spaces that move beyond the shell of LMS course, even if that means rethinking the LMS entirely.  Stommel, for his part, thinks about text messages, email, and social media.  One of the things I miss most is the vibrancy of our Writing Center, where students could come together, talk, write, and create together.  This is one of the reasons we’ve continued to meet weekly, and I’d also like to think it’s one of the reasons we’ve continued to have a pretty solid turnout.  Not working to create these in between, liminal spaces would have our students missing large chunks of the school experience.

In anything that we do, however, we need to consider how and why we’re asking students to interact and what potential costs there might be for them to do so.  In other words, the liminal spaces we do create should be sites of resistance; they should come from and be for the margins.  One of the current limitations of the big-name LMS is that it’s built with a certain idealized student in mind: quiet, compliant, algorithmic, but our students are anything but.  How might we sacrifice a little of the order of the LMS to encourage greater choice, authenticity, and even safe dissent?  As teachers, we know we can’t liberate our students—they need to liberate themselves—but part of creating liberatory conditions is helping to build what we Be Oakley calls “sanctuary spaces:”

“These spaces become places of resistance where radical softness is practiced, nurtured and multiplied on their own terms.  Sanctuary spaces populate outside of public space where ‘the political’ and ‘acts of resistance’ tend to cater to those who have the least to lose.”

Now, in a time where many districts have eliminated grades and standardized tests, we have additional freedom to build “radically soft” online spaces—spaces that imagine a different future together with our students—that will, hopefully, substantially transform the physical spaces we return into more democratic and liberatory.  Our soft online spaces can be sites where students have their identities affirmed, seek justice, and drive equity with their thinking, their words, and their collaboration.  This requires us to attend to the mortar as much as we’ve attended to the bricks, a shift that requires compassion, kindness, and trust.