Whatever Happened to Course Management Systems?

Back in 2012, Jason Blanchard wrote an article for Edudemic about the problems with Course management systems (CMSs), such as Blackboard and Moodle. At that time, CMSs were centralized platforms that host software tools essential for online course instructors and students. CMS tools often offered: a way for professors to upload content, like lectures, notes, and videos: a way for students to upload completed assignments; a messaging or email system; a grade-tracking feature; and communication tools, including either live chat or asynchronous discussion threads. By providing an easy to use, interactive platform for online courses, CMS enabled a greater number of students to benefit from educational opportunities across the globe.

Course Management Systems Image

Image via Flickr and Jari Sjölund

The downfalls of CMSs in 2012, though, were plentiful. Blanchard described how the communication features on many CMS were generally lacking, making the entire experience more synonymous with an outdated online textbook than an advanced web-based social networking platform. Blanchard also stressed that CMS were limited to providing a platform only for reading lecture notes, watching videos, and uploading assignments without providing beneficial opportunities for collaborative work. Lastly, Blanchard explained that students are tech-savvy networkers, who learn by engaging socially with their peers and with their instructors, processes that were not replicated in a CMS’s static environment.

Let’s be honest, 2010 was a long time ago, especially in the world of technology. So we’ve decided to update the Blanchard CMS article. Our goal was to revisit his concerns with the systems in use in 2010 and to see what, if anything has improved since then. What we found was that CMSs are really a platform of the past. They’ve all turned into larger, more powerful Learning Management Systems. (LMS). Let’s take a look at where CMSs started and how they morphed into LMSs.

Issues with Past CMSs

  1. CMSs locked data when the term was over. The first pitfall of systems like Blackboard that Blanchard described was that they kept all data attached to specific time periods. Students were locked out of courses after completing the class, thus losing access to class notes, lectures, videos, and web links. In addition, students’ social participation, including messaging, chat logs, and discussion threads were wiped out, meaning they had to rebuild their networking presence at the beginning of each semester.
  2. CMSs were not student-centric. Course management systems were built for teachers, who had access to the control panels, designed the course, and uploaded materials. Students were not able to co-create material or share uploads with the rest of the class. Blanchard felt that CMSs made students passive learners. Following in that vein, CMSs made administrative tasks easier for professors, because they were in change of the content. Teachers could maintain the same lectures and materials they’d used for years, rather than aligning their teaching practices with contemporary times. While CMSs did not create the problem, they certainly didn’t help to solve it.
  3. CMSs were not open. Files on CMSs were only allowed within the walls of university. They were not shared in open environments, which put a damper on collaboration and participation between a wider Internet population and those within typically closed academic circles.
  4. CMSs were designed in isolation. Common web protocols like button placement and feature designs were not used in CMSs. In his article, Blanchard captured a common complaint about Blackboard, which was that the layout of the discussion thread hierarchy was unlike any other discussion board online. Moodle’s wiki garnered similar complaints from users, while Sakai’s upload window was a source of confusion for users.
  5. CMSs were not part of students’ web routines. In his original article, Blanchard described his own web routine as one that began with Gmail, Twitter, Facebook, and Google Reader, before toggling back to Gmail, where he would actually answer emails. Blanchard believed that until the CMS incorporated our natural web tendencies and uses, like email notification, twitter’s hashtags, Facebook’s likes, etc., it would never gain mainstream use. No one was logging into a CMS for fun.

What’s Changed in the World of Course Management?

From the list above, it’s clear that CMSs in 2010 were basically glorified textbooks. They provided the same static experience to education that a student would get from reading a physical book. Nowhere within the CMS platforms were there options for students to engage in collaborative learning and socially synthesize new knowledge from the course.

So, have CMSs gotten better? The answer is yes…and no.

LMS as the New (Better) CMS

Course management systems are really a thing of the past. Blackboard, Moodle, Brightspace (formerly Desire2Learn), and Schoology have morphed into learning management systems (LMS). An LMS is a more robust platform than a CMS, because it includes not only the course management component, but also reporting for data and analytics. An LMS can be used in a K-12 environment, in higher ed, and even in businesses.

The new LMS versions of the old CMS systems have content management, online app libraries, teaching training videos, advanced reporting systems, and the ability to be used in online and blended learning environments. However, LMSs are still gigantic platforms built to meet the needs of huge amounts of customers. They are not easy to customize for educators with specific needs. In addition, many LMSs are still not providing open source material in order to make it easy to integrate with other programs.

Edcause has suggested in this article that educators consider alternatives to LMSs for more classroom personalization. By compiling a toolbox of specific Web 2.0 tools, like blogging platforms and Goggle Docs, educators can create a personalized LMS, specific to their needs.

For smaller institutions and those teachers not required to use the university- or school-provided LMS, Web 2.0 tools might just be the best answer for course management. For others, the only option is purchasing an LMS. We’ve compiled info on some of your options in the past.

In Short

The course management systems of the past had their fair share of problems. In the last few years, they’ve made great strides to break out of their rigid structure and provide more communication options and information to students and teachers. These new LMSs are worth looking into for large-scale adoptions, but individuals, or smaller schools, may want to consider curating their own collection of content, communication, and assessment tools. We’d love to know which CMS or LMS you use, or if you even use one at all. Let us know on Twitter, Facebook, or in the comments below.


Editor’s note: This piece was originally written by Jason Blanchard and ran on June 1st, 2010. A lot has changed since then, so we’ve had Amanda Ronan update this piece with the latest techniques and innovations.



  1. Mirco

    November 25, 2015 at 7:52 am

    I think this Course Management System will help a lot the students in the future, keep going with it guys you do an great job.

  2. Otto Khera

    January 9, 2016 at 10:40 am

    The Learning Management System shift happened back in 2008. Today’s “LMS” is hardly different from a “CMS” but for the name. Both are teaching productivity platforms and NOT learning efficacy technologies. In other words, neither the LMS nor CMS will improve learning, other than by improving access to course documents and information. Until the fundamental structure is changed from an online (closed, as in, enrollees only) course to an open or at least partially open course, both are at core the same thing.