Thursday, September 09, 2004

Course Management ≠ eLearning

When I was out promoting our new course management system (CMS) to faculty a few years ago, I was careful not to oversell it. I (properly) described Blackboard to faculty as nothing more than a Swiss army knife of useful administrative tools packaged into a simple web interface. I never used goofy terms like "eLearning platform."

Recycling a recent comment I made on Scott Leslie's EdTech Post:
The current CMS is not really a teaching and learning tool, even though some kinds of teaching and learning activities can take place on one. A CMS is fundamentally an administrative communication tool. I give you documents; you give me documents. I post announcements; you send mail to your study group to schedule a review session. I post your grade; you check it. It's easy to take pot shots at a product that doesn't deliver lofty learning outcomes. The only learning outcome that I hope we might be getting is a moderate overall improvement in student preparation for class by making reserve materials available in convenient form.
I have no gripes with Blackboard's administrative focus. If it had been "only" a tool for online learning, it would have drawn interest from about a dozen adventurous professors. Instead, Blackboard is a tool that justifies its expense by being generally useful, easy, and ubiquitous. The demand in higher education really was for an administrative tool that made the business of organizing a class simpler. Nevertheless, I had always envisioned the CMS as a possible scaffold for future web development. I hoped that Blackboard might become a place where we could conveniently slip in the stuff of real pedagogical value—the tools that truly facilitate and enhance the activities of a community of learners. It was a romantic notion, and one with a critical flaw. Did you spot it yet?

The problem is right there in front of our noses. There just isn't much room for the learner in a CMS. So long as the paradigm for a CMS is pedagogy, it suits the needs of the instructor in defining and controlling the class experience. Aside from posting a message to a discussion forum or dropping a document into a group directory, there isn't much else a student can do. There is no virtual space within the typical "course shell" that truly belongs to the student. The systems don't support the presentation of research and writing, open commentary, and the connection of one's own work to that of one's peers. In short, the CMS is instructor-centric, constantly seeking to keep all communication on a vector from faculty to students. Its nature is its greatest strength and its most glaring weakness.

I don't promote a trouncing of the CMS for what it doesn't do. The only rationale for doing so would be an idealistic and false notion that if you had learner-centered tools that learning would break out like the proverbial thousand flowers blooming. We can live with the CMS shortcomings and focus our energies on the traditional settings for learning activities—classrooms, labs, clinics, libraries, and study groups. On the other hand, I can easily imagine a web course application that would combine the best aspect of course administration with the best aspects of both personal web portfolios and group blogging. I can imagine it, but I have no idea if such a thing will ever exist.

Perhaps it will be an interesting blogging project for another day to speculate on what a true hybrid of the course management system and online learning platform would look like.

Associated reading:
Stephen Downes has an article in this month's Educause Review on educational blogging, which is mostly about blogging, but touches on the convergence with course management systems. It's also a good overview of blogging in education from elementary education on up, for those who are newly exposed to such possibilities.

About a year ago,John Kruper had some interesting thoughts on the potential for bloggish course management or course administration tools within blogs.

Kruper's comments followed April Gibbs' critique of "Blackboard,Students and Publishing on the Web".


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