Are Collaboration and Learning Environments (CLEs) Tools or Countries?

A university faces a variety of challenges when it begins the task of choosing a new technology for managing online classes and promoting online academic collaboration. Often overlooked are the linguistic challenges it encounters. There are, for example, questions about the acronyms one uses to describe the technology. Should it be called a CLE (the term I will use), an LMS, or a CMS? The question of what acronym to use is an important one to answer. But I'm concerned with a different linguistic issue:  What metaphors best describe a CLE?

The most common metaphor is that a CLE is a tool. But too often CLEs are described merely as tools. During a recent meeting at our university we were ruminating on whether faculty would be receptive to changing CLEs given the headaches that are involved in learning a new system. One faculty member observed that CLEs are really like shovels because they are not all that difficult to use. Once a faculty member has learned how to use one shovel he or she can, with a little training, be taught to use a new one. A new tool might feel a little different at first, and instructors might not be able to manipulate course content with quite as much expertise as with their previous tool. But in time, faculty would be able move their course data around with as much facility as they move dirt around with a new shovel.

But this doesn't help faculty think very deeply about other challenges in CLE decision making. For that, another metaphor is needed. To this end, I think it can be helpful to think of a CLE as a country--a country to which one is migrating data and (more importantly) people. When a CLE is compared to a tool, questions of functionality are highlighted. But when a CLE is thought of as a country to which one is possibly immigrating, questions about governance and community and culture begin to take on more significance. When the immigration metaphor gains traction it leads to some important questions about community that don't otherwise get asked, such as: Would you prefer to move to a country where you and your peers can play a role in your future destiny? Or do you want this destiny to be determined for you? Does this country provide a safe and nurturing harbor for the spirit of inquiry and innovation that is so important to university life? Will you be allowed to own property in your new country? And are there compacts that will encourage you to improve your country's property even if you can't own anything?

Such questions highlight the fact that choosing where to go next is not just a question about tools. Think for example of the pilgrims' migration from Europe to the American wilderness. Compared to Europe, America appeared as a land that was relatively bereft of technical infrastructure. There were no roads, no familiar shelters, no domesticated cattle, and relatively few developed crafts, industries, or agriculture. But while these deprivations weighed heavily on the pilgrims, their decision to immigrate and to form a compact amongst themselves was based on something other than technology. They were looking for an environment where they could control their own destiny and live in a fashion that promoted their underlying moral values.

A move to a new CLE is more like a pilgrimage than people may think. To be sure, a CLE migration isn't as laden with the moral and political imperatives that motivated the pilgrims, but moral issues are not as absent as people are led to suppose when a CLE is seen merely as a tool. The country and immigration metaphors help to highlight these issues.

As many schools have found out, choosing a CLE isn't like going down to the local hardware store and choosing one tool over another based on price and functionality alone. While CLEs are tools, they are tools that are created and embedded within much larger social organizations. Once one begins to use these tools, one becomes bound to the social organizations that use, manufacture, and support these tools. By using the tools, universities are entering (whether implicitly or explicitly) into a social compact that may or may not be aligned with a university's long-term interests, values, and culture.

To fathom the full implications of this compact, and to read its fine print, CLE strategy can't be described as a choice about shovels or any other simple tool. If CLE advocates want faculty to consider the full import of these compacts, richer and more powerful metaphors need to be introduced. These metaphors can expand and enrich CLE conversations. Used successfully they can help reveal the moral and social issues which might not otherwise be expressed during CLE decision making.


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