Course Management Systems and Learning Principles: Getting to Know Each Other …
The refrain from this Rogers and Hammerstein song captures part of the dance between course management systems and core learning principles. Because the first set of CMS applications was developed by faculty, it was often assumed that these systems reflected sound teaching and learning principles. But of course, faculty are concerned with more than pedagogy. Also, technology often takes on a life of its own, as was once embodied in HAL and is now present in the often overzealous automated assistants on our desktops! Once coded into an application, pedagogical theories and philosophies often cannot be differentiated from the tools. What is coded is what you get (WICIWYG).
The Waves of Course Management Systems
We are already in the fourth wave of course management systems. In the first
wave we used the technology to do what we always were doing, such as using the
Web to organize the elements of a course, and communicate to students. In the
second wave we focused on using the technology to make our habitual processes
more efficient. This wave saw the rise of the now common hybrid course or Web-enhanced
campus courses in which the best of the Web interactions were integrated with
the best of the campus interactions. The third wave created new systems that
support efficiency in administration and delivery at the infrastructure and
enterprise level. These systems are complex and relatively expensive, requiring
ongoing support, upgrades, and maintenance for integrating into campus systems.
At the same time, they provide features and capabilities that support a totally
The enterprise systems of the third wave are now being deployed and a new fourth wave of innovation is well underway. This fourth wave includes the design standards from the Open Knowledge Initiative (OKI) and its spin-off open source products such as Stellar from MIT, CHEF from the University of Michigan, CourseWork from Stanford, and Visual Understanding Environment (VUE) from Tufts. This new wave includes the IMS/SCORM design standards, the APIs of OKI, and related content and learning object initiatives such as MERLOT, OpenCourseWare (OCW) project at MIT, Reusable Learning Objects project at the University of Cambridge, and many more.
Ten Core Learning Principles
Then what is at the heart of this dance between learning systems and pedagogical
values? It's helpful to examine basic learning principles to find out whether
they are "… getting to know all about" each other. The following set of ten
core learning principles has been culled from ongoing research on learning theory,
instructional design, and the diffusion of technology. The most influential
theorist for these principles is the Russian psychologist Lev S. Vygotsky (1978).
Core Learning Principle #1: Learners and learning, faculty mentors
and teaching, are shaped by available tools and resources.
Our tools are important to our work. The human mind is still more of a mystery
than a known entity. Even the language that describes how our brain works is
more suited to computers than the biological ecosystem that it is (Ratey, 2001).
What we do know is this—that we are "shaped by the tools and instruments that
we use and that neither the mind nor the hand alone can amount to much." (J.
Bruner in Vygotsky, 1962).
The principle that we are shaped by our tools, referred to by the pessimists and luddites as technological determinism, has the fortunate corollary—promoted by optimists—that users can shape their tools. The implication is that users should be proactive in the design of their tools. Lessig (1999) argues persuasively that "coded" applications embody specific ideas and beliefs, and often it is the ideas and beliefs of the developers, rather than the designers! The inflexibility of applications and even the difficulty of finding where the flexibility is coded, if it is there, is a frequent source of frustration and dissatisfaction with complex tools.
You might be wondering how the fact that "Tools shape us and we shape our tools" is a learning principle. The course management systems and the learning experiences that we design for our students shape our students' learning. A focus on exploration, problem solving, collaboration with other students, challenging ideas, can cause students to engage and develop concepts, or disengage and retreat.
If tools shape us and we shape our tools, what features of a CMS are essential to ensure effective and efficient student learning and faculty teaching?
Communications and Generation Y
A recent study (360 Youth) on Generation Y (young adults 18 to 30) found that
this group uses the Web primarily for communications. In this study, 40 percent
of the members of this group reported using instant messaging (IM) daily and
82 percent reported using e-mail daily. These new tools are significantly changing
the social lives of young adults, just as it is changing their approach to information.
These communication technologies have resulted in new "digital-age teaching and learning environments" and require a fundamental refreshing of instructional design. We must design for multiple environments and one common feature of these designs must be to support learning wherever faculty and students are. These "wherever" environments must include access to communications and content resources.
The good news is that a collection of communication tools was one of the primary features of the second wave of CMSes and the infinite flexibility of
e-mail, group chat, bulletin boards, and Web sites is one of the major strengths of these tools. These tools also support efficiency in that the faculty member no longer needs to serve as the hub of the communications wheel.
Core Learning Principle #2: Every structured learning experience is
theatre—with four actors (LeMKE).
Vygotsky suggests that every structured learning experience is composed of four
variables. I've created an acronym to capture this idea: LeMKE—learner (Le),
the faculty mentor (M), the knowledge/skill (K) or attitude to be learned, and
the environment (E) in which the learning is to take place. In designing courses
it can be useful to envision these four variables as actors on a stage, with
the faculty member either on-stage or off-stage directing, planning, coaching,
and assessing the learners.
Effective CMSes address the actions and responsibilities associated with each of the roles played by these four variables or actors.
Core Learning Principle #3: Learners (Le) bring personalized and customized
knowledge to the learning experience, and develop personalized and customized
This principle highlights the fact that all learners start with a unique knowledge
representation and end with a unique knowledge representation, often much to
the dismay of their faculty mentors! The ideal CMS supports customized learning
for students. In our current wave of CMSes, discussion boards, postings, and
other communication tools provide multiple channels for exploring and expressing
ideas and issues. These tools can support experiences that challenge students
to accomplish complex, contextual learning.
A futuristic CMS will be able to easily diagnose and assess a student's zone of proximal development. Perhaps the futuristic CMS begins to look like a combination holodeck from the Starship Enterprise linked to real-time events, combining current knowledge with emerging knowledge.
Core Learning Principle #4: Faculty mentors (M) have the responsibility
of designing and structuring the course experience.
The faculty mentor defines the structure and content of a course and determines
"what is to be learned." Faculty write, select, and assemble materials and design,
select, and present learning experiences. The faculty mentor also manages the
delivery of the course, including the daily interactions and assessing of students.
CMSes can help faculty be efficient in these tasks by providing support for teaching strategies, content management tools, and assessment tools. Also, as time is a real cost for faculty and students, CMSes might find a way to support the use of simulated faculty mentors.
Core Learning Principle #5: All learners do not need to learn all course
content/knowledge (K). All learners do need to learn the core or base concepts
and to develop useful knowledge.
In all learning theories, the task of learners is to acquire the knowledge,
skill, and attitudes that are needed or desired. Vygotsky's theory leans toward
the use of problem-based learning (PBL) to do this learning. In contrast, many
courses are still structured with the goal of ensuring that knowledge is "delivered."
The new course management systems will want to structure tools for knowledge
manipulation and experimentation that supports problem solving in context.
Core Learning Principle #6: Every learning experience has a context
or an environment (E) in which the learner interacts.
This principle reminds us that learning is rooted in time and place. In Vygotsky's
theories, the environment for learning is a fundamental "actor" in the process
of learning. We want to design for the "where, when, with whom and with what
resources" of a learning experience. Effective CMSes support the interaction
of a specific learner with specific environments so that the learning of both
core concepts and practical concepts can be customized.
Core Learning Principle #7: Every learner has a zone of proximal development
that defines the "space" that a learner is ready to develop into useful knowledge.
Vygotsky describes the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) as the "distance between
the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving
and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving
under the adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers" (Vygotsky,
1986). This zone concept is similar to the general educational principle of
readiness, but is very learner-specific.
Another implication is that collaborative and peer learning activities fit well within this theory. Is it possible for CMSes to include support for experiences in which more capable peers support the ZPDs of their peers—while not neglecting the ZPDs of the more capable peers and support the creation of new ZPDs for all learners?
Core Learning Principle #8: Concepts are not words. Concept formation
occurs as a series of intellectual operations between the general and the particular
with ever-increasing differentiation.
One of the basic insights from Vygotsky's work is that words are not equivalent
to concepts. When Hamlet says, "Words, words, words," he is likely bemoaning
the use of words as symbols only, without the meaning behind them. As concepts
are developed initially, they resemble mere seeds of more mature thought and
understanding. Thus the practice of "making a learner's thinking visible" is
a powerful practice in revealing the stage of maturity of a learner's concepts.
Interactive media involving learners graphically and dynamically clearly plays
a role in the concept formation process.
Core Learning Principle #9: Different instruction is required for different
This design principle (Gagne, 1965) reminds us of the interdependency of outcomes/assessment
and the instructional experiences we design for learners. Outcomes are dependent
on the specific conditions of the learning experiences and the cognitive and
physical readiness and abilities of learners. Tools for customization that would
help link experiences to outcomes could enhance this relationship.
Core Learning Principle #10: Everything else being equal, more time
on task generally equates to more learning.
This is the most durable learning principle and argues persuasively for the
design of engaging, efficient learning resources and experiences. If learning
can be as engaging as games and socially rewarding as well, students will choose
to be learners more of the time. As learning is intrinsically rewarding, our
students will soon outgrow the need for faculty mentors, and hopefully, focus
on solving the pressing problems of our complex society.
The new generation of open source CMSes are responding to the complexity of
the learning experience and the teaching and mentoring role. Remembering that
we shape our tools and our tools shape us underscores the need for being proactive
and thoughtful about the design of these tools.
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