Jim Groom doesn't hate learning-management software. But he's certain it doesn't make teaching any better.
For Mr. Groom, an instructional-technology specialist, the features that attract professors in the first place—like grade books and quizzing tools—are traps that squash creativity and bury thorny issues like fair use.
When professors try a learning-management system that promises to improve teaching, it "really encloses space, and it encloses the possibility of the Web," he says. Mr. Groom charges so-called open-learning management tools with co-opting the spirit of EduPunk, a term he coined to express the do-it-yourself ethos he champions. These days he avoids the word because he fears people were preoccupied with the label rather than its goals. He uses a new creative outlet instead.
THE INNOVATOR: Jim Groom, University of Mary Washington
THE BIG IDEA: Colleges should use free Web tools for course discussions and projects to better prepare students for jobs after college.
It's ds106, a digital-storytelling course he teaches with a group of colleagues. His team shunned the learning-management market and built its own virtual classroom by cobbling together free open-source tools. The class blossomed into a "family" of students from five universities. Hundreds more play along online. Mr. Groom said a vendor's learning-software tool could never sustain the community, because most limit access to those with an account at that university.
It's not always clear who's driving the bus, though. Students thought some early assignments were boring, so he now requires that they create a few of their own to keep everyone engaged. Mr. Groom—known online as "Reverend Jim" after the lovable lunatic character in the TV show Taxi—once shaved his head and ceded teaching duties to Dr. Oblivion, his fictional alter ego who spoke only through online video. Andy Rush, one of Mr. Groom's colleagues, said traditional software would render these experiments pointless because they're not built to handle an anything-goes approach. "There's no shaving your head in an LMS," he says.
Tim Owens, another member of the ds106 team, likens its method to building a soapbox car from scratch. "You can either buy a kit, or you can go pick up a piece of wood and use the tools," he says. "And I feel like instead of handing people kits, we need to be handing them a hammer, and a saw, and nails and saying, Make whatever you want."
Jim Groom delivers a keynote speech at the 2011 Open Ed Conference: