Clothing manufacturers often claim that one size fits all, but astute consumers know better. People of different sizes might wear a one-size garment, but rarely does it fit any of them well.
A similar statement might be made about course management systems, which are designed to serve the needs of instructors in diverse disciplines and environments. Touted by their marketers as "one size fits all" solutions, in reality these systems meet the needs of a few people well, many people adequately, and some people poorly. But custom design in technology, as in couture clothing, is time-consuming and expensive. Most software consumers are limited to what they can purchase off the rack, even if they know the product will not suit their needs.
Therefore the trend toward increased use of course management systems persists, even in the face of documented liabilities (see, for example, the review of WebCT by Foreman, 2001). As we have discovered at the University of Pennsylvania where I teach writing, the trend persists for good reason. Course management systems are relatively easy to learn and do not require much technical know-how. As a result, they help smooth the transition from traditional teaching to teaching with technology. Pressured to incorporate technology quickly, many teachers must rely on readily available commercial products. Professors have neither the time nor the technical expertise to develop the technology that they envision, which would enhance their pedagogy by, for example, allowing them to design their own course structureso they endure the glitches and imperfections of these ready-made and immediately available programs.
The Dangers of Current Course Management Systems
Beyond the assets and liabilities of any single product, course management systems present a threat to future innovations in teaching and learning. As tempting as it might be to embrace the smooth transition to technology-enhanced learning that this software permits, discomfort and difficulty are necessary components of the process of transforming how we teachand this includes how we teach with technology. The tempting quick fixes thrust at us often lack the depth and sophistication of solutions that will develop in the long term. Course management systems suffer from the following limitations:
They cater to the lowest common denominator. The most egregious problem with course management systems is their appeal to the lowest common denominator. They incorporate features shared by courses in a variety of different disciplines, including presentation of material, testing, and grading. Efforts to design online courses in the same way as traditional courses, and thus to ease the transition to the new environment, have led to a focus on reproducing what we already know how to do, rather than improving current practices as we make the transition. It seems wasteful to spend precious time and resources replicating a flawed model. Although the designers of course management systems seem well-intentioned, teachers are left wondering, as Gary Brown (2000) has pointed out, whether these systems foster improvement in teaching. Many innovative teachers have looked skeptically at course management systems, and those with solid technical support and a spirit of adventure have discovered more satisfying methods of incorporating technology into their teaching.
Although administrators may like the uniform look of courses mounted on a platform like Blackboard, many instructors are troubled by the loss of individual identity and freedom of expression the template brings. Because the courses on a CMS look alike and conform to the same structure, the characteristics that distinguish courses (and instructors) from one another must be reinvented on a standard CMS. Professors have to struggle to find ways of distinguishing their courses from others. It is difficult to replicate the satisfaction a well-crafted, unified syllabus brings, especially if the professor breaks the syllabus into units, separating, for example, course information from assignments the way the presentation on Blackboard requires. The capacity to alter the shape and color of the homepage links in Blackboard does not rise to the level of individual expression, at least not for me. In addition, unless instructors have some knowledge of HTML, they have to give up their capacity to control formatting or to model the kind of presentation standards that they expect from their students.
They insist on a uniform pedagogy. A look beneath the surface features of course management systems reveals embedded assumptions about pedagogy. Those who do not share these assumptions find the CMS difficult to use effectively. Blackboard, for example, creates standard links on its course homepages entitled "Announcements," "Course Information," "Course Documents," "Assignments," "Communication," "External Links," and "Student Tools." The separation of assignments from course documents presented a challenge when instructors in our online writing course first approached this system, since we assumed that assignments would fall under the category of "Course Documents." To accommodate our teaching to the program, we separated the assignments from the other course documents (inadvertently enabling students to bypass the course documents entirely) and created internal links between the two sections. This at least allowed students to relate assignments to the relevant course documents and vice versa. Later that year, when the technology staff moved Blackboard to a different server, all of the internal links we created were broken and had to be repaired in a painstaking and time-consuming process. The program, as a technical support specialist explained, was not set up to encourage internal linking. This led us to wonder how to ensure that students using Blackboard complete assignments in context.
There are several types of pedagogy not envisioned by Blackboard or eCollege, the programs with which I am most familiar. Both programs enable file sharing so that students can upload papers and professors can download and return them. This feature presumes that instructors prefer to read papers offline and to insert notations into the student's text, which requires the aid of a word processor. In our writing groups, however, we encourage student collaboration, and we prefer that peers and instructors post comments on papers in a public space. We use Blackboard's threaded discussion feature as a forum for posting and reviewing papers, but this feature was not designed for such a use. When students cut and paste their papers into the forum, they lose formatting unless they are familiar with HTML. The ability to present a text with a finished look is severely limited.
Creating a collaborative working environment presents additional challenges. In Blackboard, instructors who divide their students into groups and want to review the discussion boards for each group are forced to exit the group pages and click on the "Communication" button to re-enter in order to move from group to group. It is also impossible to re-form groups without losing material posted on the previous group pages, so the instructor has to create new groups while leaving the old groups intact. This creates an ever-expanding list of groups that students and instructors must scroll past in order to locate current group listings.
These hurdles are not insurmountable to a determined instructor, but they are annoying. Computer technology should enhance how we work and make it simple to do the kind of tasks we envision. Having to find ways around technological limitations takes time and effort and limits the types of teaching that can be practiced. In addition, these limitations point those with little technological experience in a predetermined direction. Especially when underexposed instructors confront Web-based instruction for the first time, it seems daunting if not futile to resist the configuration presented. Instructors who are encouraged to incorporate technology into their teaching, and who are offered a specific system to do so, will usually accommodate their teaching to the technology. In order to ensure the most productive uses of technology in teaching, however, the opposite should be the case: technology should change to accommodate the teacher.
They constrain innovation. Teachers who have reliable technical support (or who have mastered the technology themselves) invent innovative ways of communicating with students. I am particularly proud of the slide shows I created for my online course called Advanced Non-Fiction Writing. The slides provide visual illustrations of concepts of design and structure in writing. Other instructors have been more ambitious. For example, I have heard of multimedia simulations of experiments or phenomena in engineering and science courses that help students grasp elusive concepts. Such creative uses of technology to enhance instruction can be displayed with a course management program, but the programs themselves do nothing to encourage creativity, nor do they empower instructors to innovate.
In many respects, the decision to use a specific course management program closely resembles the decision to adopt a textbook. In each case the motivation is similar: a third party has already thought through the material and compiled it; why, then, should each individual instructor reinvent the wheel? Recently, however, advances in the technology of copying have made it easy and cost-effective to produce bulk packs, or individualized compilations of readings for courses, and have cast the decision to use a textbook in a different light. No one expects every instructor to write his or her own textbook, but it is becoming common practice to expect instructors to compile materials and sources of their own design each time they teach a particular course. The same is true for computer technology: It makes sense to expect faculty members schooled in educational uses of technology to use that technology to develop their own course structure and materials, rather than to depend on course management systems. The resources of technology empower individual instructors to choose the pedagogy and practices that work best for their subject matter and teaching style.
Finding a Program That Fits
In a recent article in Liberal Education, Steve Ehrmann (2000) of the Teaching, Learning, and Technology (TLT) Group documents the difficulty of forcing educational change through the adoption of instructional technology. He cautions against moving too quickly or embracing new technologies too readily before they are proven. In some ways, course management systems represent a compromise between ignoring technology and spending considerable time and resources on custom design. But that approach will bring about positive change only if we view these systems as a step toward a larger, more thorough, and more satisfying solution.
Course management systems are a valuable tool for learning about educational technology and sampling its potential. By using these systems, the average instructor gains some firsthand experience in teaching with technology, and this experience usually whets the appetite of many for more and better uses of technology. This leads to a bigger question: What will we do for those instructors hungry for more sophisticated technology and greater control?
The answer lies in changing the development process for educational technology. We need to take our time, evaluate different options, and address the challenge collaboratively. In order to exploit the power of technology to enhance learning, we need to envision possibilities that may not yet exist rather than simply rely on what has already been tested or proven commercially viable. Perhaps most importantly, we need to involve a broad range of educators and technologists in the process. Between "one size fits all" and custom design, there lies a wide range of opportunities. By proceeding carefully and conceptually, as well as practically, we will eventually find something that fits.
Brown, G. (2000, January/February). Where do we go from here? The Technology Source. Retrieved May 3, 2001, from http://technologysource.org/?view=article&id=425
Ehrmann, S. C. (2000). Technology and educational revolution: Ending the cycle of failure. Liberal Education, 86 (4), 40-9.
Foreman, J. (2001, January/February). Trading mules for tractors: The pros and cons of adopting a course management system. The Technology Source. Retrieved May 24, 2001, from http://technologysource.org/?view=article&id=374action gamesmarble popper gamesbrain teaser gamesdownloadable gamespc game downloadsword gameshidden object gamesmanagement gamesshooter games