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     Next-Generation Course
     Management Systems
     Course management systems could use some improvements—
     and we have some ideas
     By Colleen Carmean and Jeremy Haefner

         t’s déjà vu all over again, in the words
         of Yogi Berra. As course management
         systems (CMSs) spread worldwide
     and become more complex, they grow
     larger, slower, more costly, and less
     responsive in customer support. A crea-
     ture that once seemed to embody the
     best qualities of technology and instruc-
     tion is now entering a difficult adoles-
     cence, and we all wonder how to deal
     with changes in teaching and learning
     that are happening too quickly for reflec-
     tion or assessment. Despite an appreci-
     ation of the many fine qualities of this
     hybrid creature, customers of the CMS
     (whether commercial or homegrown)
     have a list of expectations as CMSs move
     into the next stage of maturity.
        One great frustration, with CMSs and
     with life in general, is simple time man-
     agement. A CMS should not demand
     significantly more time from students
     and faculty than the same course before
     technology was added. CMS improve-
     ments that simply save time may not be
     pedagogically driven, but if time-saving
     features can’t be built into the technol-
     ogy, the users’ initial incentive and                dors will ever implement easy export      library services need to be available
     enthusiasm will turn to frustration,                 of developmental pieces. An oft-heard     via the course container. Within
     exhaustion, and disappointment.                      example of where module sharing is        departments and programs, the lack
        Improvements for next-generation                  needed lies in the new burden on          of CMS module export capability has
     CMS software might include the fol-                  library support. As information liter-    hampered learning-object sharing and
     lowing capabilities:                                 acy grows more significant in learn-      collaboration at a time when national
     ■ The ability to share materials and mod-            ing outcomes, the role of the library     endeavors like the IMS Global Learn-
        ules across course containers. New part-          in course support increases. We can-      ing Consortium,1 OKI, Multimedia
        nerships of commercial vendors with               not ask librarians to create assess-      Educational Resource for Learning
        the Open Knowledge Initiative (OKI)               ments, announcements, and elec-           and Online Teaching (MERLOT), and
        allow for standards of course export,             tronic reserves over and over again for   the National Learning Infrastructure
        but it’s unclear whether CMS ven-                 each course container. Integrated         Initiative (NLII) Learning Objects Pro-

10   E D U C A U S E Q U A R T E R LY   • Number 1 2003
    ject have begun to make the need for                                                       ulty member to assess the compre-
    open learning-object access clear to                                                       hension of material by collecting data
    faculty, instructional designers, and
                                               One great frustration, with                     on responses generated—all could
    administrators who feel the pressure           CMSs and with life in                       lead to better assessment of learning
    of limited time and resources. Where                                                       and effectiveness of teaching.
    were the CMS vendors when the                 general, is simple time                    ■ The ability to open uploaded documents
    learning-objects discussion was taking               management.                           in a new, target window. The CMS
    place?                                                                                     frame often is too small for lengthy
■   The ability to export CMS materials in                                                     documents, PowerPoint slides, Excel
    desktop-accessible source formats. Many     rather than clicking from course to            spreadsheets, media objects, and so
    faculty committed to using CMSs are         course to access their stored work.            forth. Some CMS systems allow the
    adjunct and part-time faculty. Ask-       ■ The ability to edit, comment, and track        “open in new window” setting, some
    ing them to commit their resources to       changes on student documents from              of the time. If not set on each object
    a closed container that cannot be           within the CMS. This would eliminate           by the faculty member, however, the
    exported when they leave the insti-         the need to download, manage, and              student has no control. This should be
    tution makes the use of commercial          upload documents. We like the track-           a simple right-click option, available
    CMSs a difficult decision for this          changes features, but the time it takes        on all links. The ability to close the
    growing body of instructors. Content        to download, open, edit, save, and             navigational frames whenever not
    belongs to the instructor, but if con-      upload student work makes us yearn             needed, giving the content more
    tent gets “locked away” from external       for the old red pencils. If the feature        space, would also help.
    (non-CMS, non-vendor-specific)              cannot be brought into the CMS, a            ■ Simplified navigation. It is difficult for
    access, where does ownership of the         transparent interface to word-pro-             all but the best hacker faculty to lead
    course truly reside? Good faith com-        cessing programs in the CMS win-               their students directly from one area
    mitment to a CMS umbrella should            dow would benefit the majority of              of the CMS to the next. Assignments
    come with reciprocity in under-             users.                                         should easily link to online readings.
    standing of faculty needs for             ■ Tying student work directly to the assign-     Announcements should allow navi-
    exportable access to their own mate-        ment in the grade book. This would             gation to the assignments or specific
    rials, including exportable naviga-         save faculty time and reduce the orga-         discussion threads, and so on.
    tion, announcements, course docu-           nizational busy work of collating,           ■ Improved grade books. One screen can-
    ments, and quizzes. The engine and          recording grades, entering the grade           not contain all columns of assign-
    tools of the CMS cannot be exported,        book, and recording the grades again.          ments. This makes navigation to the
    but the content created by the faculty    ■ Much greater speed. Pages should load          latest grade columns difficult to asso-
    member should be accessible for             quickly over high-speed lines. If we           ciate with student names and impos-
    export and sharing.                         watch the page load, if we’re aware of         sible to print. Instructors should have
■   The need for WebDAV-driven upload           the interface, if we watch ourselves           the spreadsheet options of drag-and-
    and download. Web-based, distributed,       fidgeting, it takes too long. If faculty       drop sorting of columns and hiding
    multi-file transfer and viewing are         impatiently wait in their offices for          columns from view. Although other
    needed in CMS file transfers. An excel-     the grade book to load or reports to           grade views are available (by one
    lent resource becomes a time drain          generate, what are captive students            assignment or one student), these are
    when the faculty member must indi-          doing from home, on dial-up lines?             numerous clicks away, take longer to
    vidually download 30 (or 60) papers.        Improvements directly related to the           load, and are difficult to print and
    For faculty who use word-processing       quality of teaching and learning that            carry to class.
    track-changes features, individually      technology affords include improve-            ■ Expedited collaborative teaching. Col-
    uploading these same, commented           ments in the tools now associated with           laborative teaching is difficult in the
    papers can bring tears to the most        use of a CMS, as follows:                        current faculty view. Dividing the
    stoic eyes. We hear that CMS ven-         ■ Assessment tools could improve greatly.        grade book or drop box is impossible.
    dors have been listening to the howls       Assessment is one of the most allur-           The rigidity of the view contributes to
    of beleaguered faculty and plan to          ing features for faculty new to the            the traditional isolation of teaching,
    incorporate WebDAV in future ver-           CMS environment. Greater sophisti-             now being challenged in learning
    sions. Although it will be some time        cation of the tool, including instruc-         communities, capstone classes, and
    before we see these versions at our         tional design support, could foster            shared teaching models.
    institutions, we impatiently await the      better assessment. Options to guide            Although we cannot predict the tech-
    upgrades. While waiting, we note that       students to resources based on their         nology on the horizon, we know that a
    students would benefit if they could        responses, options for setting the           number of relatively easy-to-implement
    access a collective drop box for all        number of times a student can retake         improvements are possible right now.
    their materials, in all their classes,      an assessment, options for the fac-          Such upgrades would clearly provide

                                                                                                    Number 1 2003 •   E D U C A U S E Q U A R T E R LY   11
     richer tools for effective teaching, deeper                                                              Student-initiated threads in discussions
     and more engaged learning, and inno-                                                                  and more student-assigned controls
     vative possibilities for rich and mean-                                                               would provide better access to collabo-
     ingful assessment.
                                                              Further                                      rative learning modules. In addition,
                                                              Resources                                    tools that support output or byproducts
     Next-Generation Wish List                                                                             of learning, especially the next generation
                                                                  Those interested in continuing
        Most significant in our wish list for                                                              of electronic portfolios, should be evalu-
     future-generation CMSs is a place for                    discussion of course management              ated for inclusion. CMS vendors should
     the student. For CMSs to become true                     systems and the transformation               actively participate in the discussions of
     learning environments, the needs of the                  happening in teaching and learn-             teaching, learning, and technology now
     student must become as important as                      ing might look to the NLII site              happening in higher education.
     those of the faculty in building a setting                                                               CMS vendors must begin to take more
     for the course.                                                                                       responsibility for value-added develop-
                                                              for information on
        From a design perspective, the singu-                                                              ment resources, linking students and
     lar view of learning being “the course”                  ■   A focus session on Course Man-           faculty to best practices and resources for
     is not learner centered. Vicki Suter, Direc-                 agement Systems: Next Genera-            learning. Gathering standard tools under
     tor of NLII Projects, made this point to                     tion, set for March 7, 2003, in          an umbrella interface has served the
     vendors at a recent meeting:                                 Tucson, Arizona.                         first generation of CMS users well and
        There are ways, with well-designed                                                                 has created a demand for uniform access
                                                              ■   Joining the discussions taking
        database infrastructures, to orga-                                                                 and seamless enterprise management
                                                                  place in the online “Teaching
        nize views as though there were                                                                    of resources. This will not be enough
        two different “containers,” and                           and Learning” Work Tools-based           for the next generation of CMSs, as we
        right now the student’s view is miss-                     virtual community of practice.           look to open standards, open source,
        ing entirely. I think that gets in the                    Topics include where we go               open resources, and new tools built on
        way (and will continue to get in                          from here, best practices, and           those standards to improve our access to
        the way) of the real transformation                                                                deeper learning options.
                                                                  enhancing teaching with appro-
        of teaching and learning.
                                                                  priate technologies.
        Students need to see their learning as                                                             Visions and Nightmares:
     an integrated approach to outcomes,                      ■   Notes from discussions on these          Where’s the Money?
     rather than as isolated requirements                         topics at the annual NLII meet-             We assume that vendors want to do
     toward a degree. Integrated access via the                   ing: Teaching, Learning, Tech-           the right thing. And they understand-
     CMS to their materials, readings, mail                       nology, and the New Academy,             ably want to make a profit. We are now
     lists, instructors, and storage areas would                                                           seeing multiple products released by
                                                                  scheduled for January 26–28,
     contribute to this learning goal.                                                                     vendors to satisfy the growing demand
                                                                  2003, in New Orleans,
        In the current course view, CMS tools                                                              for campus enterprise systems and cen-
     could have better instructional design                       Louisiana.                               tralized control and management. Rel-
     built in. Many faculty don’t have the                    ■   Continuing work being done on            atively inexpensive installations, plugged
     skills to design good learning modules.                      learning objects and their role in       in all over campus, running on depart-
     We are experts in our content area and                       teaching, learning, and instruc-         mental servers, have given way to costly,
     passionate about our subjects, but might                                                              campus-wide initiatives. Administrators
                                                                  tional design, including a focus
     never have had the time or resources                                                                  must find resources for portals, enterprise
                                                                  session planned for fall 2003.
     to become well versed in instructional                                                                editions of the software, integrated sys-
     design. CMS tools could provide direc-                                                                tems, campus licensing, and centralized
     tion, prompts, and modules that model                and open platform. We cannot ask CMSs            CMSs. All good ideas, but what costs
     and link learning activities associated              to reinvent already well-developed wheels,       will the continued feeding of the hun-
     with content and teaching modules.                   but we strongly suggest that CMS vendors         gry beast incur? Will improvements in
     This could be done with a richer control             partner with third-party developers of           CMS functionality be limited to the new
     panel and with a design area that offers             applications and tools. Semantic net-            tier of “enterprise-class e-learning sys-
     options, links, and best practices. More             working software like Inspiration, visual        tems” being deployed by CMS vendors?
     seamless access to shared sources like               modeling tools, flowchart generators, and        Will the rich get richer tools while the
     MERLOT in the design area would assist               so forth are all strong possibilities for col-   struggling state schools and small cam-
     faculty in embedding better teaching                 laborative packaging. Light Web versions         puses contend with constant pressure to
     materials and learning objects.                      of these tools would introduce faculty           upgrade to systems they can ill afford?
        New technologies should make tasks                and students to software and could serve            Will campuses lose choice as CMS ven-
     that are expensive, or impossible to                 as a strong marketing tool for the richer        dors entering the portal market make
     develop individually, more retrievable               third-party vendor products.                     the case that enterprise compatibility

12   E D U C A U S E Q U A R T E R LY   • Number 1 2003
demands their portal product? How many                                                     changed the educational experience in
IT leaders will make choices using crite-                                                  many courses. The number of faculty
ria of academic alignment over perfor-
                                                Difficult choices lie ahead                and students committed to using a CMS
mance, options, support, and manage-           both for CMS vendors and                    is growing, and these constituencies
ability of a portal product? Is there any                                                  should not be neglected. We know what
evidence that portals serve the campus          for institutions of higher                 we need, and we’re easy to please: give
mission? What ongoing cost will enter-                      learning.                      us speed, tools, exportability, and inter-
prise systems impose—to the budget, to                                                     operability. Feed us. e
faculty resources, and to student learning?
   Vendors know that lack of interoper-       CMS might look like in maturity.             Acknowledgment
ability or course exportability means            Vendors also know their market, turn-     The role of CMSs in higher education was a
that faculty will commit to only one          ing to CIOs with deep pockets for guid-      research project of ours while NLII 2002 Fel-
                                                                                           lows. A companion piece on CMSs and
CMS once installed on the campus. Once        ance. We’ve seen rapid agreement for         deeper learning is available in EDUCAUSE
a choice is made, IT is bound to continue     compliance with standards like OKI and       Review, Nov./Dec. 2002, pp. 26–34.
to support that choice. As faculty            IMS. This allows easier enterprise solu-
become dependent on a single product          tions, makes middleware workable, and        Endnote
and frustrated with its rough patches, the    eases server upgrades, but what of the        1. See <>.
demand and cost of improvements will          constituents who brought the beast onto
grow. Vendors will offer a new mega-          campus, fed it, nurtured it, and watched
beast product as a solution to those with     it grow?                                     Colleen Carmean ( is IT
large budgets and dark fears.                    Faculty have quickly committed to         Director of Consulting Services and Faculty
   Difficult choices lie ahead both for       the CMS for what it offers in good, tool-    Associate in Integrative Studies at Arizona
CMS vendors and for institutions of           rich instructional design and active, any-   State University West in Phoenix, Arizona.
higher learning. A very good thing has        time learning. Students request and seek     Jeremy Haefner (haefner@engineering.uccs
grown very large, very quickly, and           out classes where anytime access to their    .edu) is the Dean of the College of Engineer-
few faculty are speaking or being heard       materials and colleagues is available. For   ing and Applied Science at the University of
in the discussions of what an ideal           students, CMSs have significantly            Colorado, Colorado Springs.

                                                                                                  Number 1 2003 •   E D U C A U S E Q U A R T E R LY   13

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