Can We Persist Student-Driven Inquiry Within the LMS?

A Case Study of Moodle, Hypothesis, and Social Constructivist Ed-Tech

As Hypothesis has moved more deliberately into the ed-tech space, I’ve been wary of the loss of its fundamentally user-centric design, both technically and socially. As I’ve discussed with many long-time educational users of Hypothesis, there is no doubt that the new Hypothesis LMS integration is a limited version of the web app that folks have been using for years. I maintain that there is high pedagogical value in the specific learning activities that Hypothesis delivers within the LMS like close reading and social reading. But other use cases Hypothesis enables on the web are not yet possible with the LMS app. This is a tension I plan to write about at more length as I rekindle this blog so hopefully this is the first entry in a series.

The Problem

One frequent complaint about learning management systems (LMS) is that they are more focused on management than on learning. They are teacher-centric versus student-centric, valuable for instructor-focused tasks like distributing assignments and readings and keeping track of student work in a gradebook.

As such, despite being the most pervasive education technologies adopted across the K-16 landscape, LMSs push back against one of the more innovative contemporary teaching philosophies: the idea of de-centered classroom. To de-center the classroom means to create a less top-down environment for learning in which the teacher is the expert and the students are a passive audience their knowledge. It means to empower students to be more active learners and knowledge producers themselves.

De-centering the classroom means reimagining the traditional roles of teachers and students, but “roles” in LMSs are strictly and technically defined. The “instructor” role in an LMS has more permissions than the “student” role. Only a teacher can create assignments. Only a teacher can view certain student submissions and enter grades. The LMS is thus designed in the classic model of instruction in which the teacher is the center of activity.

Student-centered versus teacher-centered classrooms (source)

The limits of these roles carry over to the Hypothesis LMS integration. Only the designated instructor for a course can create annotation-enabled readings using the Hypothesis LMS app. While Hypothesis empowers students with a voice in the margins of those readings—and more of one than a discussion forum, I would argue—it doesn’t allow them any agency in the selection of the original resources to annotate.

One of the more powerful learning activities enabled by Hypothesis “in the wild”–my term for using Hypothesis outside rather than within its integration in a platform like the LMS—is guided reading and research. If a student bookmarks resources as they research and then uses annotation to begin to read and analyze those resources, a teacher can follow their independent work through Hypothesis. This particular educational use case of collaborative annotation is lost in the current Hypothesis LMS implementation.

However, I recently learned from Joseph Kennedy at Concordia College in Moorehead, Minnesota that there is a way around this limitation in the Moodle LMS. Joseph showed me how Moodle allows users to change the “role” of a user in relation to a specific activity. This allows a student to be the one to ultimately select a reading to be annotated by herself or the class as a whole within the LMS.

The Hack

Let’s imagine I’m teaching a course called Poetry 101. For the most part I’ve selected poems and activated the Hypothesis LMS app on top of the texts in order for students to annotate. But let’s say I want to have students select the poems for one unit. I could have them all email me their chosen poems and then upload them as Hypothesis-enabled readings myself, but that’s a lot of work all around. In Moodle, though, I can create a set of Hypothesis activities and then hand over the “teacher” role on those particular assignments to individual students.             

poetry101
A Poetry 101 Course in Moodle with a unit designed by students

To do so, I begin by creating an Hypothesis-enabled reading as I normally would. In a Moodle course where Hypothesis has been installed this involves adding an external tool as an activity or resource to a topic while in edit mode. Name the activity and select Hypothesis as the preconfigured tool (the app has already been installed in the course shell).

Hypothesis as a configured external tool in Moodle

Normally a teacher would then open the activity and go through the Hypothesis workflow of selecting a reading for annotation. Instead, I edit the activity and select “Assign roles.”

In Moodle, a student can be assigned the role of the teacher for an activity
In Moodle, a student can be assigned the role of the teacher for an activity

Choose a role to assign and in the next step you’ll see two columns, the second including all participants in the course. Choosing the “Teacher” role, for example, you can assign a particular student from the class to play that role for that particular activity by selecting a student name from the second column and adding them to the first.

AssignTeacher

When a student that has been assigned the “Teacher” role for the activity opens that activity, they will be presented with the configuration stage of the Hypothesis app in which they can select a resource to make annotatable. Other students will see a “This activity has not yet been configured” error.

The stage in the LMS app at which an Hypothesis-enabled is selected
The stage in the LMS app at which an Hypothesis-enabled is selected

Note that this workflow could be used for teacher and peer review of student writing as well. Have students upload their drafts as PDFs using the same process as above. You can assign roles to limit access to these papers to just the instructor or to a specific student peer reviewer. So the below annotatable student essay is configured such that the student can upload the draft using Hypothesis, but only the teacher and that specific student have access to the content.

Multiple role assignments in a Moodle Activity

Conclusion

It’s surprising to find such a student-centric activity in the LMS these days. In the context of imagining how students might activate Hypothesis on readings not chosen by their instructor, I recently asked a partner if he knew any third-party apps in the LMS that can be turned on by students rather than teachers. The answer was an emphatic no. Apparently, Moodle enables this to some degree, at least with Hypothesis.

It’s perhaps not that surprising to find such a workflow specifically in the Moodle platform. It was designed intentionally by Martin Dougiamas to support a “social constructivist” approach to teaching and learning in which both students and teachers contribute to the knowledge production of the classroom. I had never fully appreciated this fact until now. It’s a good reminder that when pedagogical values drive design decisions in ed-tech great things can happen in the classroom, even within the LMS.