TLAs (Three Letter Acronyms) form the digital learning environment, in much the same way that code forms the rich environment of the digital world in the movie The Matrix. Behind the scenes of a digital learning environment, SISs (Student Information Systems) and LMSs (Learning Management Systems) operate and create a world in which students, teachers, facilitators, and administrations play their roles. Fortunately, digital learning environments are more likely to be the exact opposite of the dystopian The Matrix, but the movie’s characters provide a somewhat-helpful metaphor—and I’ll discuss at the end why I’m bothering to mention this 15-year-old movie—when considering the different roles that students, teachers, facilitators, and administrators play within the SIS and LMS construct.
Students and teachers play the roles of Neo and Morpheus. In the movie, Morpheus seeks to free humanity from its ignorance, and to do this effectively, he seeks individuals like Neo who are searching for answers and enlists them. Once he finds Neo, Morpheus offers two pills, and Neo chooses the red pill and becomes part of Morpheus’ crew. Morpheus becomes his mentor, and he helps Neo discover the real world and shows him how to use the Matrix to his advantage. Likewise, teachers offer knowledge and content, monitor and assess progress, facilitate communication via the LMS. Students enroll in courses that will help them succeed in life and that will offer new skills. By stretching this metaphor thin, we have our students learning not just content but also how to navigate the digital world confidently and effectively.
Moving this belabored metaphor along, Agent Smith and The Architect work to keep the Matrix running, and so too, facilitators’ and administrators’ main role within the SIS is to keep it functioning. Just as Agent Smith within the Matrix tracks both Neo and Morpheus and uses the Matrix as a guide, facilitators keep track of both students’ and teachers’ data, approve courses and payment, and view schedules and grades. In the Matrix’s sequel, the characters meet The Architect, responsible for building and maintaining the Matrix; and similarly, administrators are responsible for monitoring the SIS and LMS and communicating with facilitators and teachers.
Now, why The Matrix? Why would I choose an old movie to create a metaphor that compares a desolate dystopian environment to a learning environment? In one, computer programs enslave humanity, and in the other, technology seems to give us more freedom and choice today. In The Matrix, technology strips individuals of their creative potential, but today it seems to offer limitless tools with which people can create new content. By reflecting on our past fears regarding technology’s development and potential, we can appreciate how much technology has facilitated human connection and growth in the real world.
Only 15 years ago, the fear was that we would begin to mistake the digital world for the real world. Even in 1962, historian Daniel Boorstin in his The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America predicted and “feared—that a society beholden to the image would cease to distinguish the real from the unreal” but this is not the case. Christine Rosen discusses his concerns and the Internet her article “In the Beginning Was the Word” in The New Atlantis, and while her piece sometimes seems like a Jeremiad, she, too, concludes that it is unlikely we will confuse the virtual world for the physical world.
Instead we know the digital world supplements our “in real life” experiences and does not replace them, and debates around this issue are not about “whether” but “to what extent” the digital works in tandem with the physical. Also, no one will mistake the virtual classroom for the cinderblock classroom; the teacher using an LMS for the teacher standing in front of students. The virtual classroom by way of an LMS can empower students and teachers once they learn the ropes, just as Neo is able to leap buildings within the Matrix. Wouldn’t it be great for our students to do the same within an LMS?