Rethinking the Course Management System: From Glorified Textbook to Academic Networking Hub

A few posts ago, EduDemic reported on a research study by the Lab for Social Computing at Rochester Institute of Technology that demonstrated social media having no effect on classroom communications.  The results showed that:

“social media in classrooms may not prompt the same response as on MySpace or Facebook and does little to improve face-to-face communication amongst students.”

Perhaps this broadly stated conclusion is not actually a product of social media use in educational contexts.  Rather, it is a result of poorly designed opportunities provided by typical colleges and Universities dominated by clunky course management systems (CMSs) like Blackboard and Moodle.  These tools get a pretty bad rap in higher education, and, in some ways, they should.  Rather than focusing on opportunities for collaboration and networking — two elements that are at the heart of of Web culture and are grounded in strong pedagogical practices– these CMS tools act as customizable textbooks which hold students back from exploring their full potential as networked learners.

Network of LightsIn Education published a paper titled “Open for Learning: The CMS and the Open Learning Network” that describes three characteristics of the modern course management system (sometimes called a learning management system, or LMS, which I find kind of a misnomer) that hinder learning. First, the authors write, CMS course websites place arbitrary time limits on learner’s networks by locking all data into the semester.  When the semester ends, students are pushed out of the site and they loose access to useful materials such as class discussions, Web links, and personal messages. Their network participation is completely wiped out and must be rebuilt around the academic calendar.  Second, rather than being student-centric tools, CMSs privilege the instructor as course designer.  Their infrastructure does not give students the opportunity to co-construct knowledge within the network as autonomous learners.  Lastly, CMSs “limit the power of the network effect” by distributing files in the “walled garden” of the University rather than facilitating collaboration and participation in open Internet environments.  The CMS as resource center does not engage students through the network to socially synthesize knowledge and share ideas beyond the local classroom.  Instead, it provides the same function as a big, heavy, static, boring, and expensive textbook.  CMS tools make traditional administrative practices easier and more efficient for professors rather than revolutionizing power structures and learning activities in alignment with the networked world.

These aren’t the only problems with course management systems.  Beyond the pedagogical limitations, CMSs ignore established expectations.  The Web (especially the social Web) is built on certain implicit conventions regarding button placement, how certain features look and work, etc.  One of the failures of Google Buzz was an expectation breakdown: when do I use this? How is it different than X? CMSs are frustrating for the same reason: they do not follow typical Web conventions and constantly break user expectations.  For example, I hear from college instructors all the time about how confused they get with discussion board hierarchies.  Discussion boards have existed for over ten years. I remember noodling around music forums back in the late 1990s and not even having to think about thread hierarchy.   And yet, even I get confused about topics, threads, messages, and replies in Blackboard because the visuals and nomenclature are completely illogical.  When you start to look at the tools in this way, it’s no wonder students don’t participate much: the Sakai upload window is confusing, Moodle wikis don’t function like typical wikis, and button placement is never what you expect in both.  When I have to waste my time figuring out how to use these tools, I don’t want to integrate them into my Web identity.

Also, CMSs do not interface with students’ Web routines.  What are the first five websites you visit when you open your Web browser at home? These sites and the order in which you view them are part of your Web routine.  Mine looks a little like this: Gmail, then Twitter, then Facebook, then Google Reader.  Then back to Gmail to answer all the emails I ignored the first time around. I bet yours looks similar.  The problem is, Blackboard is not part of this routine, and, because of the essentially conservative nature of routines, it would be very difficult to start including it.  However, CMSs haven’t effectively built in ways to connect course websites to existing network participation.  RSS feeds, email notifications with content in-line, Facebook integration, Twitter hashtags, Delicious links, etc. would significantly improve the presence of course websites in my existing network identity. Features of upcoming Blackboard and Sakai releases look promising, but only use will tell.  Also, more research should be done in identifying what Web routines look like for typical college students to optimize the reach of these tools.

In Here Comes Everybody, Clay Shirky discusses the Web’s power to lower transaction costs, making collaboration and group participation “ridiculously easy.”  These challenges in the course management system architecture arbitrarily rebuild these transaction costs to the detriment of student learning.  Blackboard should stop eating up the competition and work with open source projects (i.e. Moodle and Sakai) to address these challenges immediately, while higher ed institutions must push for more flexible, partially open tools that organically grow around the needs of the learners.  Otherwise, we will continue to see the unfortunate trend of educational technology having “no measurable impact on social connections.”

So what are your thoughts?  As educators and students, what challenges have you run into when using course management systems?  How can networked educational technology reach into your Web routine?  What should the relationship be between closed course data and open course content?


  1. Crudbasher

    June 2, 2010 at 8:56 pm

    I have observed that the first "digital" version of a physical object is usually a very close copy of it. For example, the Web 1.0 was just electronic versions of what you might find in print. It took a few more years before people began to realize they could do a lot more with it. Right now CMS systems are digital versions of the way our schools are structured. It's just a question of vision in my opinion. Somebody will come up with a radically different form of school and it will drive the development of the software.

    Excellent post! Added to my RSS reader!

    • Jason

      June 3, 2010 at 12:41 am

      Thanks for the comment, and great observation! That's an interesting way to look at it… the CMS as digital reification of school culture.

      Put that way, it's not wonder they have evolved as they have. At my University, there's intense institutional support behind the status quo with Blackboard Vista, and I don't see it changing any time soon. The problem is, this version of "school" is rapidly becoming outdated as Web culture changes existing power structures.

      Perhaps we will see the innovation coming from the students, like this Diaspora thing from the NYU guys?

      // Jason