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Course Management Systems in Perspective: A Conversation with Carl Berger

Syllabus advisory board member Judith Boettcher talks with a veteran in the field of instructional technology about course management systems. Carl Berger is a professor at the University of Michigan, in the School of Education, where he specializes in science and instructional technology. He is also the director of Advanced Academic Technologies and the Collaboratory for Advanced Research and Academic Technologies. Dr. Berger's career-long involvement with instructional systems, including his recent work with the development of CHEF, the university's open source framework for next-generation course tools, gives him a unique perspective on these key technologies for education. While now retiring from teaching after 32 years, he will continue to contribute to the advancement of learning technologies.

Judith V. Boettcher: Carl, it's great to be talking with you today about course management systems.
Carl Berger:
It's great to be here, Judith.

JVB: You and I go way back to the days of the J'e Wyatt Challenge of 1991, when a group at EUIT in [what was then] EDUCOM was charged to find a hundred success stories where technology was making a difference in teaching, learning, and research on higher education campuses. Since then you've been in the forefront of many new developments in information technology, including the first wave of faculty support centers, early technology programs, and standards for instructional systems—creating tools to make it easier for faculty to teach, for students to learn, and for universities to manage. Now, the question of the usefulness of information technology for instruction is being raised all over again. How are the problems different today than those we faced 12 years ago?
As Yogi Berra said, 'It's déjà vu all over again.' We seem to be seeing some of the same things coming up—people constantly asking us, d'es it make a difference, do we really see any difference if we utilize technology in teaching and learning? And we could easily find another hundred success stories, or probably five hundred or a thousand that would show that it really d'es make a difference. But the real change that has occurred over those 12 years is the way we look at that question. It's no longer the case that we are looking to find examples of projects that are successful; it's almost as though we expect every project to be successful.

The other thing that I'm very pleased to say has changed, is that we are now looking inside the courses at the changes that have been made to see what's really going on that may cause improvements in teaching and learning. It isn't just that we throw technology at the problems to see a difference between pre- and post-test. We are truly examining the behavioral, cognitive, and affective needs of the students.

JVB: Is the new system that you are developing at the University of Michigan, CHEF, being responsive to the question that you are bringing forward about what's happening inside a course?
Definitely. We have built a lot of interaction into CHEF that allows faculty, students, and instructional designers to share in how the features are going to display and how the students are going to interact.

Students have their own separate work spaces to keep the materials that they need from course to course and from year to year, almost as a living portfolio, if you will. We are measuring how that all works together, and spending a lot more time doing assessment, right from the very beginning.

JVB: Carl, that sounds really exciting. By the way, what d'es CHEF stand for?
Similar to many acronyms it's changed over time. Now we're referring to it as our CompreHensive collaborativE Framework. And it really is a framework, wherein you can place many things for courses, research projects, and activities—all together into a single type of site—and they will all be interconnected. This actually g'es far beyond what is normally called a course management system. It really considers how people learn, do their research, and carry out their work—and encourages all of that to be interconnected.

JVB: It's always helpful to have real examples. Are you using CHEF right now for courses at the University of Michigan?
Yes. We're in an open pilot situation, with several hundred students and dozens of professors. We are working very hard to implement CHEF completely this coming fall. I'm pleased to say that we do have working pieces right now. Last term I was able to use CHEF in my courses, and in fact, in one of my courses we began an evaluation process.

JVB: Is there a URL where people can access CHEF?
CHEF is an open system, and you can learn about it at You'll notice that it is a framework, and the CMS we're building from it is at where you can create your own ID and password to come in and enjoy.

JVB: Will CHEF be an alternative that people might consider to a CMS that they are currently using?
Very definitely. And we think that it is probably the next level up from any current CMS. But for people that would want 'CHEF-in-a-box,' it is a little early for that even though we're working on it.

JVB: And CHEF is open source?
Yes, we've made a commitment to follow through with open source and the Open Knowledge Initiative (OKI) as well as making sure that CHEF is compliant with IMS specifications.

JVB: Could any institution use CHEF for their CMS?
Yes. But as with all open source initiatives, putting together a group of users to help support the CMS would be necessary. So, right now CHEF is more appropriate for large institutions that have good technology resources available—as examples, we're collaborating with UCLA, AAHE, as well as the University of Indiana. But we are already starting to work with smaller institutions, such as Earlham and Lake Forest College, as well as a group of minority-serving institutions through AN-MSI. Those smaller institutions may have only one or two CMS support people. In the past, they would have bought off-the-shelf course management systems; in the future, they might similarly adopt CHEF and be part of a large user community or open source collaborative.

JVB: What other open source course management systems are being built to OKI and IMS specifications?
Certainly CHEF is not the only one. There is a beautiful tool coming out of Stanford right now as well, called CourseWork []. And the granddaddy of them all, which is going to come across very well I think is Stellar, out of MIT [].

JVB: Are there differences among them?
You are going to find some very interesting similarities and differences. CHEF, for example, has a very strong distinction in that it has a series of tabs across the top of the page, which reflect the course that the student is in, or that the professor might be creating or using. But also in that tabbed area you'll find research projects that the students and professors are involved in. Again, CHEF is a framework for interconnecting courses, research projects, and activities.

JVB: What would be an example?
At the present time, one of the biggest implementations of CHEF is for NEES, the consortium dealing with earthquake studies. They are using CHEF as their tool to access instruments remotely and to carry out research at remote sites. So, I'm sure that we'll see that not only are these open source tools going to be similar because they will be designed to OKI and IMS specifications, but they will also have striking differences. I think that is going to be exciting, as people will be able to make very clear distinctions about the exact types of things that they want to do.

JVB: That is very exciting. And your example illustrates very well the difference between course management systems as we have known them and the potential of the framework approach that you are describing. Carl, you seem to be using the word "framework" now when you refer to these systems, instead of calling them course management systems.
That's right.

JVB: You've said that CHEF is offering more than current course management systems. Could you tell me a little bit more about how faculty can use the framework approach to integrate learning, research, and specific technologies? How is that done?
The framework fits the moniker of 'chef' very well, as it allows the researcher to go through a menu of various ingredients, if you will—tools, ideas, places—and then select the ones that they wish, and drag and drop them onto a window, or several screen windows. These resources will all be interconnnected automatically because of the relation to OKI and IMS specifications.

For example, imagine you have a simulation that you've dropped in, which automatically integrates with an assessment tool for the students. And that automatically links to a URL at a remote site so that the students can access a radio telescope rotating and picking up a section of the sky and downloading data which then links into their data system on their computer. So, as a faculty member, I just go in and click on the pieces that I want to use, drop them into the various boxes in a window, and select the sizes I want them to be on the screen. They automatically integrate.

JVB: People are going to be anxious to get their hands on this tool and try that. Let's talk a little more about faculty use of the system. You mentioned to me earlier that faculty have a tool called Living Textbooks. Tell me about that.
Living Textbooks is a fascinating tool for a vast group of faculty who are not what I would call the technology innovators. It's a system wherein you have predetermined templates so that you don't have to worry so much about how you are going to set up your screen real estate. The difference between Living Textbooks and a full-blown CHEF implementation is that many of the hooks and technology pieces are already set up for you, so that you can develop a module very, very quickly. We liken that to the way many professors work right now. If you ask a professor whether they have a particular textbook, they may say "Yes, but I really don't use that textbook; I do use it as kind of a guide, but I do a lot of my own development of modules." So, you can think of the Living Textbook as being the broad stroke, and then the faculty build up their own modules within it.

JVB: Do they then, in those templates and modules, link out to existing digital textbooks?
Very much so. It's common to work with publishing companies, which are beginning to feel much more comfortable doing that.

JVB: Okay, how will faculty, in the evolving model, get the best resources to use, and why wouldn't they just use canned curriculum, Carl? Wouldn't that be more efficient? Why would they want to pull it all together themselves?
We think that what often happens is that faculty hear about good stuff from their colleagues at other campuses, and they want to go and get that to use in their courses. Now, they don't want to drop just anybody's stuff in, nor do they want to drop everything in. They want to make their own unique modules. That's the creativity that keeps academics really humming and happy. So I think that's why many of them do that rather than going out and getting the canned work to use.

JVB: So, they really treasure their flexibility, then, to redesign their courses?
You bet. And they do so, even when they are working in teams. We have some very large courses with several faculty and thousands of students at the University of Michigan. Even in those cases, when faculty work together as a team, with technology support from the instructional technologists on campus, they really pull from everywhere. And they really do put up some unique materials—no more like what you'd see at another institution than like textbooks that you'd find anywhere. Their courses are truly unique to this particular campus. And I hear this wherever I go—that when faculty members get together and work in teams they do come up with a tremendous amount of unique content, and unique packaging.

JVB: Then is this kind of content getting into MERLOT so that it can be available to the much larger community?
Yes. And the nice thing about MERLOT is that we are starting to see some really wonderful resources percolate up—in the MERLOT system, the resources with high marks from review boards are listed near the top, so you see those right away when you do a search.

JVB: Carl, I wanted to ask you how the open source CMSes will affect the commercial products. Do you think that any particular module or feature will become part of the industry-leading course management systems?
What we're going to see is some opening up, in general, such that some of the more popular systems, such as WebCT or Blackboard, are actually going to be using some of the same ideas that come out of the open source movement. And they will provide open APIs for parts of their systems, so that they will fit into the open source environment.

JVB: How will this affect purchasing decisions?
Well, some institutions will buy the off-the-shelf packages. Those products may seem a little bit more expensive at first glance, because after all, they do provide everything. And others may use the open source equivalent. But those institutions may well end up paying almost as much, because they have to support the development and maintenance of the system themselves. So, the main purpose of open source is not really to save on expenses, but it is there to get the things done that we need to and move the profession forward.

JVB: Well, with your comment about the profession, I have a closing question. You've just retired from teaching. And when you first started your career, the notion that there might be a profession for academic technologists was pretty far from anyone's thinking. Now, in 2003, it looks like we have a real need for a national professional group for academic technologists. What would that look like?
I think we are on the brink of having a national organization, a national or international association of academic technologists, in view of all the local groups that have developed. There are numerous professional associations in the various disciplines that can serve as models, such as the American Chemical Society, or the American Library Association and some from our own, such as CATS [] and CIC/LTI []. How we put it together is going to be one of the great experiments in the next four to five years. I think that we are, in our field, becoming true professionals, and we have to approach our field as true professionals. We have to realize that what we do has to go beyond the bounds of our own institutions and benefit the profession, regionally and nationally. And as we provide for the profession as a whole, we can keep moving forward, nationally and internationally, with the appropriate use of technology for learning, teaching, and research.

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