Course Management Systems and Pedagogy
© Lisa M. Lane 2007

Course Management Systems are programs purchased by institutions to enable instructors to teach or provide materials online without having to know programming languages. The two most popular commercial products recently merged: Blackboard and WebCT. These programs are sometimes called integrated systems, since they create a self-contained environment with many technological options. Although most colleges began using CMSs after faculty innovation created the first online classes, integrated systems are now used for online, on-site and hybrid courses across the world. As colleges have adopted these systems on a large scale, questions have emerged about their pedagogical use, but few studies have looked at how the interface itself affects pedagogy, or how teaching is impacted by the systems. With the emergence of new CMSs (also called Learning Management Systems, or LMSs) based on alternative pedagogy, and the advent of Web 2.0 (web applications), the standardization encouraged by integrated commercial systems could be seen as limiting pedagogy. This is particularly an issue for novice users, but also can be a problem for experienced online instructors.

Course management systems, by virtue of their intent and design, create limitations on faculty independence of instruction. Since such systems are simply products marketed to institutions in order to integrate resources,  they are the equivalent of enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems and thus reflect a move toward standardization as a way to ease management issues (Danaher et al 2004, Katz 2003).  Decisions about which systems to use are often made by campus technologists and administrators, rather than faculty. According to Katz, "The CMS has shifted from being based on the bottoms-up energy of a small cadre of inventive faculty to being the embodiment of a top-down institutional strategy". These programs "automate and standardize", and "although the CMS does not dictate either a discipline or a pedagogy, it does posses a structure that threatens faculty hegemony" (Katz 2003). This is because the pedagogy of Blackboard/WebCT is based on managerial and administrative tasks centered on instructor efficiency: gradebook, test creation, threaded discussion, rosters, and instructor-student messages. Indeed, "Faculty adopt course managment systems principally to manage the more mundane tasks associated with teaching, especially teaching large classes" (Morgan 2003). Many of them never move beyond these basic uses, despite the many interactive features now offered. Why?

One problem is the default structure presented by these systems. The pre-set organization of commercial CMSs encourages novice instructors to "plug in" their content under the appropriate catagory instead of envisioning a translation of their individual pedagogical style into an online environment. Blackboard "tends to encourage a linear pathway through the content" (Herrington and Bunker 2002). The construction of the course syllabus, a natural beginning point for most instructors, is a good example of the system creating limitations. When they first enter Blackboard or WebCT, new instructors see the default buttons of the course menu. These buttons are based on type rather than purpose: "Announcements", "Course Content", "Discussion", even "Syllabus". The buttons link to pages that simply provide a place to upload a document, which is exactly what most instructors (up to 80%) do: upload a word-processed file of their in-class syllabus. It would be more natural for novice instructors to see a blank schedule into which they could create each week's or unit's activities. Most professors think in terms of the semester, and how their pedagogical goals can be achieved within the context of time, rather than space. Blackboard/WebCT's default organization forces the instructor to think in terms of content types instead, breaking the natural structure of the semester.

In addition to their counter-intuitive organizational scheme, integrated commercial systems have a built-in pedagogy, evident in the features available at the most accessible levels and easiest to use. The focus on presentation (written documents to read), complemented by basic "discussion" input from students, is based on traditional "sage on the stage" pedagogy. This is very different from the construction of knowledge by students who are guided by their instructor, sometimes called the "guide on the side" approach (King 1993). This "constructivism" is better supported by Web 2.0 applications (blogs, wikis, social networking) or by Learning Management Systems that encourage such pedagogy at the novice level. The more tailored to traditional pedagogy the system is, the more likely it is to limit faculty creativity. Such flexibility and creativity are the foundation of academic freedom and, often, good teaching.

Large Course Management Systems can, however, be used to create constructivist or alternative teaching methods. Blackboard and WebCT have evolved methods of customization to permit constructivist pedagogy, but these have been added as "features" (some at additional cost) that simply make a heavy program even heavier. Such features are added to "Tools" or "Communication" areas, or even as a separate section ("Scholar"). The very size and complexity of the CMSs structure creates a need to reduce effort by abandoning true mastery of the system and instead focusing on what can be used easily, preventing the "thoughtful experimentation" (Katz 2003) necessary to bring about a good combination of pedagogy and technology. A savvy instructor can certainly break away from the default setup if it doesn't meet his/her goals, renaming the course menu buttons and redeveloping what each section does. Many learn to link out to other sites, and to "hide" from students the many features they aren't using. But at the novice level, the system simply does not encourage such customization. In order to establish constructivist (or any alternative) pedagogy inside the CMS, it is necessary to come into the course design process with a well-developed sense of what is possible in the online environment. Yet many instructors do not have this perspective when they first start teaching online. When presented with a set of options, it is far more usual to select one than to question the list of options.

Lack of knowlege about technology can also create roadblocks, and make it difficult for instructors to tailor a large CMS to meet their needs. Interestingly, many faculty teaching online are not "webheads".  Most do not use the web either extensively or intensively in their own work (Lane 2007). A number of studies have indicated that certain factors seem necessary in order to encourage technology adoption on the part of faculty. One recent study notes that the significant factors most influencing the level of technology adoption are the pre-existing use of data tools in their own work, use of self-directed informational sources, and collegial interaction (Sahin 2007). Thus two of the three top factors for successful adoption are dependent on the faculty member already being well-versed in technology uses for education. Those who aren't "into technology" will quickly find themselves overwhelmed by the CMS. The complexity of the larger systems means that only the simplest tasks can be accomplished easily.

Experience with the CMS over time does not necessarily lead to more creative pedagogy, or even to more expansive use of system features. Even after several years of working with the CMS, faculty pleas for help tend to focus on what the technology can do, rather than how their pedagogical goals can be achieved. My own recent survey of instructors at a few San Diego community colleges indicates that even experienced instructors use Blackboard/WebCT primarily for grade administration, email and presenting static content (Lane 2007). These results support similar findings at other institutions (Gastfriend 2005: Morgan 2003). This does not mean that online teaching cannot be improved through ongoing use of a CMS, but Morgan notes such improvement as a "side effect of the use of the software rather than a direct result of its use" (Morgan 2003) -- those willing to play around with the features tend to discover new directions for their teaching.

Even experienced or innovative teachers find immediate and frustrating limitations when faced with an integrated CMS. In a constructivist pedagogy, the instructor's role is to provide a rich learning environment, embed assessment as part of instruction, encourage multiple perspectives and social interaction to create knowledge, and enable students to have ownership of their own learning (Chen 2007). Many faculty use such techniques successfully in on-campus classrooms, and their enthusiasm for new ideas leads them into online instruction. If an instructor is already experienced with Web 2.0 applications, or "lives on the web", the enthusiasm may be stifled when faced with the managerial focus of a commercial CMS ("why can't I do that?"). Those who want to offer learning experiences based in audio, visual or mixed media formats, for example, find these systems clunky if not completely unusable for their purposes.

Faculty satisfaction rates with integrated systems can therefore be deceptive. An instructor desiring an easy way to post Microsoft Word documents, enter grades, receive papers and assignments through a digital "dropbox", and run a traditional threaded discussion board will tend to show great satisfaction in using Blackboard or WebCT (Tufts 2006).  Those taxing the system more, and using the most complex features, show lower levels of satisfaction. It is easy to bring everyone in to a big CMS, but harder to sustain pedagogical options. As George Siemens puts it, "Learning management systems have been effective in eliminating the challenges faced by educators in selecting and aligning particular tools with particular tasks. Unfortunately, these systems have begun to determine options available for faculty. . ." (Siemens 2006). Such options are important not only for good pedagogy, but for academic freedom.

Instead of focusing on technology, colleges "must now focus on how LMSs promote student learning and engagement" (Petherbridge and Chapman 2007).  Learning Management Systems based on a constructivist pedagogy, such as Moodle, Joomla or Drupal, make it possible for a novice instructor to explore pedagogical options more freely than Blackboard or WebCT. Organization in Moodle is not by type of content, but by week or topic, like a regular class syllabus. Very few features are more than two or three clicks away (one of the ongoing complaints about Blackboard is how many clicks, how "mouse-heavy" the program is), and many of the newer systems are open-source, which increases institution-wide customization options.  Web 2.0 applications that encourage social construction of knowledge are freely available and may provide more creative instructors with better options than any LMS currently available. Such programs make possible "component-based learning environments", which cobble together a number of mini-applications (Sessums 2006) and Personal Learning Environments, where students take the lead in creating their own learning experience (Siemens 2006).  In all of these cases, unlike with "BlackCT", it's clear that the pedagogy comes first.



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17 September 2007
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