When Learners Confuse LMS Permissions with Instructional Consent

Key Takeaways

  • Students sometimes conflate the permissions available in the learning management system with the instructor's consent, defending their choices with "But it let me do it!"

  • Instructors would benefit from understanding where LMS options contradict their course design on such things as deadlines, where students should post assignments, and even whether students should complete assignments.

  • Recognizing that students consider the LMS a voice of authority forces instructors to craft better design and improved instructional choices for their courses to avoid conflicts between the LMS and the instructor on course permissions.

In the community college online composition class I've taught for more than a decade, I've sought to construct a course design suited to the often recursive process of writing and researching. To borrow from gaming vernacular, I've scaffolded a sandbox writing world for my learners as opposed to a journey on rails. After all, the transfer context of writing for which I prepare my students may require them to sequence and prioritize steps of their composition and researching processes without restriction. I want to develop their self-regulation with some limited choice as we work through the semester. For learners who read my instructions, watch my embedded announcement videos, and monitor their inbox messages, the design works pretty well.

It doesn't work for everyone, though. At first, when students navigated the course in ways I didn't intend, ignored deadlines, put assignments in odd locations, or skipped low-stakes assignments, I felt as if these learners had built back doors into my design. But I've grown to understand that some students conflate the permissions available in the learning management system (LMS) with my instructional consent. Especially for learners who don't immerse themselves in the auxiliary resources of my course, like longer text instructions, short videos, or inbox messages, my instructional voice seems indiscernible from what the LMS allows.

The Learners

As community college students, my online learners can be heterogeneous in technical expertise, academic ability, self-regulation, and self-efficacy.1 In my experience as an instructor, they may range from dual-enrolled 15-year-olds living with parents, to single working people in their late teens and early twenties, to adults in mid-life, studying while raising families and working full time. They may spend hours a week in the course or as little time as possible to avoid being withdrawn on the basis of the college's attendance policy. From initial internal research of our institution's LMS data, students access the course from multiple devices, a range of browsers, and many, many operating systems. As both a designer and an instructor, I've found their needs challenging to generalize.

Double Speak

So far, I've identified four areas where the LMS voices permission and authority: navigation, assignment deadlines, submission locations, and assignment values. Through trial and error, I've learned the costs of designing my course without realizing the LMS could offer alternatives to my intent.

Double Speak: Navigation

While I've experimented with "locking" items with prerequisites and requirements, I am reluctant to mandate a single linear process for the skills of writing and researching that most composition students need to customize for themselves. In order to differentiate for my heterogeneous learners' needs, I use limited choice to provide some learner control2 in support of learners' developing self-regulation.3 By allowing for some flexibility in navigation, I hope to support novice learners while not micromanaging more advanced learners.4 In my course students navigate through modules, moving down the assignments in chronological order while reading content files that provide whole-task information about the full writing assignment.

When I use the "student view" feature to check on my learners' perspectives, the LMS only allows me to view their experience in my own course. I cannot see students' dashboard view, a set of options for navigating courses and entering assignments, including through a calendar, a to-do list, and a grade book — all LMS default additions to the "course entrance" I had prepared. Here, I envision the LMS like a kind of carnival barker, showing students all the various ways they could choose to join any of their classes: "See what's due when!" "Go in by grades and see what's open now, in no particular sequence!" or "Feeling lucky? Click here and enter directly into an assessment!"

I now know that I need to guide students into my course and not assume they will enter through the main entrance I built into the design. Additionally, I've learned to change my assessments' nomenclature, so students can see which course they might enter when clicking on a single assessment from their to-do list or calendar. Instead of using titles like "Test 1," I name items with my course prefix, "ENC1101: Test 1," so students recognize which course they might enter when they click from their dashboard or calendar of aggregated weekly assignments across all their courses.

Double Speak: Assignment Deadlines

I build discussion posts with the due date showing for the initial posting deadline and an "open until" date that extends to the reply deadline. Staggering these two deadlines prevents my smaller student groups from all posting so late initially that everyone has to stay up until midnight on the due date to reply. However, the LMS says, "The initial posting is due on 1/11, but really, I will accept your work through 1/13." Currently, I can't design my way out of this conundrum and keep my two-date system, so I've had to allow late initial postings — an instructional choice brought to me by my LMS.

Double Speak: Submission Locations

To better manage the volume of writing to which I respond, I close essay assignment drop boxes completely after deadlines pass, instructing students to send late or revised work to me in messages. From the student's perspective, though, the LMS points out, "The drop box won't take your submission, but you could still attach it here in the comments bar." If I don't have my LMS notifications set to "tell me everything all the time," students can stash assignments in weeks-old comment threads, safe in the satisfaction that the LMS "accepted it" even though I might not notice it there. I've learned to view all notifications in my email inbox, a choice that generates so many emails that the delete key on my computer broke.

Double Speak: Assignment Values

I purposefully use a weighted formula to mildly obscure the value of low-stakes assignments. Because writing can develop across a term, I first want students to write without much point value at stake, so they get some feedback and experience they can apply to subsequent, high-stakes assignments. The weighted formula allows me to put everything at 100 points while counting some assignments for much less value than others, like a short answer sheet or discussion prompt for 5 percent as opposed to a final essay draft for 15 percent. In this way, I seek to move my learners from outcome goals to process goals.5

I've learned that the LMS suggests, "Use this grade calculator feature and plug in grades until you see the least amount of points you need to still pass the course. Some of these assignments don't really change your grade much at all and don't seem to be of much value." Some students seem to prioritize tasks by point value rather than my instructional directive. By systematically skipping most to all of my low-stakes assignments, they miss much of the scaffolding and instructional nature of smaller tasks leading up to larger tasks. To compensate, I've learned to "message students who…" from the grades feature after deadlines close, offering more extended deadlines for the low-stakes assignments I consider integral to students' success.

Considerations for Cooperation

After browsing some literature to try and describe what it's like to teach with a LMS contributing to my instructional consent, I figured out what it was not. I know the LMS and I are not team teaching because the LMS doesn't bring a professional mindset and complementary discipline to cross-pollinate with me.6 I know the LMS and I are not co-teaching because that LMS doesn't really share responsibility or make decisions with me.7 However, my lived experience has taught me that the LMS and I need to cooperate more. After a semester of whispering to students behind my back, the LMS looks innocent while I mop up the pass rates of the misinformed and confused students. It has influenced me as a designer and instructor to realize that students were not sneaking around or creating loopholes in my design, but rather that I needed to design and teach the course considering the LMS permissions students might view as my instructional consent.

I haven't exhausted all the issues between me and my LMS. We struggle with syncing vendor software and how much faster the LMS returns graded work than I do. However, my recognition of the LMS as a voice of authority to my students has been a step toward better design and improved instruction for me. I'd appreciate more granular permissions from the LMS vendor so that I could determine more of the learner choices at the course level, but until then, I'll teach with the whispers and winks of the LMS in mind.


  1. Sara Goldrick-Rab, "Challenges and Opportunities for Improving Community College Student Success," Review of Educational Research, Vol. 80, No. 3 (September 1, 2010): 437–469; doi:10.3102/0034654310370163.
  2. Per Bernard Bergamin, Simone Ziska, Egon Werlen, and Eva Siegenthaler, "The relationship between flexible and self-regulated learning in open and distance universities," International Review of Research in Open & Distance Learning, Vol. 13, No. 2 (2012): 101–123.
  3. Paul R. Pintrich, "A conceptual framework for assessing motivation and self-regulated learning in college students," Educational Psychology Review, Vol. 16, No. 4 (December 2004): 385–407; doi:10.1007/s10648-004-0006-x.
  4. Sherry Y. Chen, Jing-Ping Fan, and Robert D. Macredie, R. D. (2006). "Navigation in hypermedia learning systems: Experts vs. novices," Computers in Human Behavior, Vol. 22 (2006): 251–266.
  5. Barry J. Zimmerman and Anastasia Kitsantas, "Developmental phases in self-regulation: shifting from process goals to outcome goals," Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol. 89, No, 1 (March 1997): 29–36; doi:10.1037/0022-0663.89.1.29.
  6. James R. Davis, Interdisciplinary Courses and Team Teaching: New Arrangements for Learning (Oryx Press, 1995).
  7. Marilyn P. Friend and Lynne Cook, Interactions: Collaboration Skills for School Professionals (Seventh edition) (Boston: Pearson, 2013).

Katherine Kellen is professor of English at Seminole State College.

© 2017 Katherine Kellen. The text of this article is licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0.