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
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
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
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
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!
David Brown (firstname.lastname@example.org) is vice president and dean of the International
Center for Computer Enhanced Learning at Wake Forest University.