File Cabinets in the Sky

I'm a big advocate for course management software. It magically converts ordinary text, tables, and pictures into Web pages. The password-protected Web pages are then automatically viewable by all class participants. Students may, like the professor, post materials to the course Web site. No special knowledge
is necessary.
It's as if there were a program that automatically provided a perfect translation from English to Chinese (or French to Russian), except in this instance it's a perfect translation from language that can't be read on the Internet to language that can be read. Novice instructors can, with less than an hour of training, make all course materials Internet accessible.
The best-known course management software systems are Blackboard and WebCT. On his Web site, Bruce Landon provides comparative reviews of 56 such systems (www.c2t2.ca/landonline/evalapps.asp). As you will see, people have had a lot of fun thinking up names for these systems, such as Generation 21, Top Class, ANGEL, Eloquent, Learning Space, Prometheus, Docent, eCollege, Class Act!, and the Learning Manager.
But most systems are functionally similar. Think of them as file cabinets in the sky, with a cabinet for each course. Materials are placed in a specific drawer. In each drawer there are folders (sometimes there are folders within folders).
Most of the systems have five or six drawers. Some drawers will accept only documents from the instructor but will allow all to view them. Another drawer might allow everyone in the class to add, view, revise, or even discard anything in it. There is usually a drawer for grades, where only the instructor can make entries and each student can view only his or her folder.
By creative selection of drawers, the professor implements an education philosophy. One drawer allows collaborative development of papers. Another allows all students to view grading comments on one another's papers. Still another drawer keeps secure the original text of the professor's lecture. Fully private drawers are available to the instructor and in most systems for the students, for materials they are not yet ready to share with the professor.
Interaction among students can occur asynchronously (comments are submitted at different times) via discussion groups. Here streams of comments, reactions, and replies may be devoted to a single topic. If circumstances call instead for simultaneous (synchronous) discussions, most course management software provides a space for online chat in the same real time.
These course management systems are frankly too useful to be limited to courses. Each academic department can deposit materials, hold discussions, and conduct chat sessions on topics of common interest. Each student organization—the band, the debate team, social fraternities, disciplinary honoraries—can use its own file cabinet in the sky. Alumni interest groups, governing boards, research collaborators, association officers, and innumerable other affinity groups can productively increase community and collaboration by using these systems.
Kenneth Greene reports, in his most recent Campus Computing Survey, that roughly one-fifth of all college courses in the United States are using course management software. It's likely that well over half of the technology-intensive courses are using the software. I strongly urge every professor and teacher to consider using a course management system. It is hard for me to imagine teaching without one!

About the Author

David Brown (brown@wfu.edu) is vice president and dean of the International Center for Computer Enhanced Learning at Wake Forest University.

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