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When Marketing and Academia Collide: Lore LMS

2012 August 29

I recently received a peculiar e-mail invitation.  It was titled, “Richard, welcome to Lore.”  Here’s a screenshot:

Invite from Lore

I did not immediately recognize this for what it was, although it is now blazingly obvious.  “ODU has a new LMS?” I thought.  “That can’t be right – we just upgraded Blackboard.”  I didn’t personally support that upgrade, but it was the will of the faculty, based on countless committee meetings and votes.  For a faculty uninterested in Moodle (because it is too new/too different/etc.), a sudden, unannounced switch to a “new alternative to learning management systems” seemed a bit odd.

After thinking about this for a minute, I recognized this message for what it was: targeted spam.  I was being spammed. The use of my name and the use of my university’s name were marketing tactics.  The lower-case “university” was a side-effect of inattentive mass e-mailing without regard for the willingness of recipients.  The citing of “professors at over 600 schools used it” probably refers to the number of registered instructional users, regardless of the extent to which those “professors” actually adopted Lore, and regardless of the ranks of those instructors (adjuncts/instructors vs. full-time faculty/professors).  The language is imprecise, and there is little that annoys faculty more than imprecision.

Now, education-related spam in general is not unusual for faculty; we get countless advertisements for new textbooks, new printing services, cheesy fake ways to get our dissertations published, and so on – but I had never been spammed before with an advertisement for an LMS.  And there’s a good reason for that.  An LMS is a foundational piece of software in higher education.  Every faculty member is expected to use one of the “accepted” LMS provided by their local IT support office.   The primary reason for this is to simplify the lives of the students – they have one system to learn, one place to get all of their assignments, one tool on which to need technical support, and one place for their grades.  A small holdout of faculty who hate technology don’t use the LMS at all, but most do.  Some faculty do use other software to supplement the LMS.  For example, a couple of years ago, I installed MediaWiki (the software underlying Wikipedia) on the Linux server I rent space on and had students create wiki entries for a term project.  I didn’t use the wiki software in Blackboard because it was clunky and hard to use (it may be better in the new Blackboard; I haven’t checked yet).  But one thing I didn’t do with MediaWiki was record student grades.

Student grades are strictly protected by a variety of federal, state, and institutional regulations.  The most well-known of these is FERPA.  My university doesn’t even want me to put students grades on my own laptop – which is always in my personal possession – if I can avoid it.  LMS have gradebooks, and the tightly controlled LMS run by the university is the preferred place to keep mid-semester grades until recording them at the end of the semester with the registrar.

Imagine my surprise then, to see that Lore LMS has a gradebook!  I suppose Lore wants me to upload protected student information right into the cloud, but I’m a bit uncomfortable with that.  I’m confident my institution wouldn’t want me to do that; I’m not even sure it would be legal.  The privacy documentation for Lore indicates that by posting content on Lore, you license that content to be shared freely by anyone else within the Lore community.  I don’t see an exception for grades (which is also posted material), so I suppose by this license I am providing permission for student grades to be shared freely throughout the site.

Lore attempts to deal with this issue in the following way, as stated in their current privacy policy: “if you register with us through the Site as a Member, you specifically consent to your Instructor disclosing to Lore your grade for any course of which you are a Member”.  What a landmine!  Students do not always have the right to share their own grades (for example, if they are under 18).  So if I create and grade an assignment within Lore, I may be requiring students to agree to something they are not legally able to agree to, which means I am personally responsible for this violation.  If I chose to use Lore anyway, I would need to provide an alternative assignment for any students not willing or able to share their grades with Lore.  And more critically, this all implies that students will actually read the privacy policy closely enough to make an informed decision about giving away their rights and that faculty will read the privacy policy closely enough to know that they could be putting their own jobs on the line.

Further into the privacy policy, it states: “When using Lore, certain information that instructors input into the site, (e.g., grades), may be considered a student education record under FERPA. Lore has policies to protect schools, instructors, and students.”  What “policies” are in place, you ask?  Why, the fact that the EULA requires students to give up their rights to the educational records, of course!  Students permit Lore to see their grades (implicitly by creating an account!) and magically everyone is safe.

None of that would be so terrible if not for the direct email marketing.  Individual instructors have a lot of discretion to impose rules and requirements upon their students as they see fit to meet their instructional objectives.  If an instructor seeks out something like this, reads the policies, and decides it’s worth it, that’s fine.  But the spam posts being sent by Lore strongly imply that our institutions have already approved this software.  “Welcome to Lore”, “now available at your institution”, and “tools for grading” all point to this being an officially supported alternative to the institutional LMS.  And that’s simply not true.  Their marketing relies on implication and guilt to increase faculty eyeballs on their website (i.e. “this is a valuable teaching tool at your university that others are using and you’re not!”), and that’s just not ethical, especially given the question marks surrounding grades.

When I originally went to investigate if anyone else has noticed this, I took at look at Lore’s Facebook page.  There, I found one post from a faculty member pointing this out.  Something to the effect of, “Please stop sending this to our faculty; your email makes them think this is an official college platform, and it is causing a great deal of confusion.”  That post had been on their website for several weeks when I looked, without a response from Lore staff.  Conveniently, it has since been deleted (if any readers know how to recover deleted Facebook posts, I’d be very appreciative if you could get a copy of this post for me).

Given all of this, I am left with a very negative impression of Lore, and I haven’t even tried its features.  It might be a fantastic teaching tool.  Its design principles seem quite positive on the surface.  The goals of the project seem quite familiar to me personally; I have been working to get social media into classrooms through academic research and federal grants for the past several years.  Unfortunately, its marketing is completely at odds with the academic culture it is trying to infiltrate.  Frankly, it strikes me as the effort of enthusiastic technology entrepreneurs untempered by reality.  I’d be surprised if they have a single professor on staff to advise them about these issues.  If they did, an e-mail like this never would have been blasted to unsuspecting faculty.

As a side note, to give a fair assessment of the tools, I considered creating an account to see what it looked like.  But I’m afraid that would just result in their next email saying six hundred and one.

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