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CMS: The Bottom Line is a Dotted Line

Collectively, the Committee on Institutional Cooperation (the Big 10 universities and The University of Chicago) confer, on average, 15% of all Ph.D. degrees awarded annually, employ more than 33,000 full-time faculty members, and enroll nearly one-half million undergraduate, graduate, and professional students. Implicitly and explicitly, the consortium thinks "size matters." Yet the October TechForum in Madison, Wisconsin reminded us that the faces of these schools is reflected one student at a time, and these individual voices argue for-or against-the considerable investments each of us makes in course management systems and the technical and human infrastructure that supports them.

The University of Wisconsin at Madison's Chancellor John Wiley closed his welcoming remarks at this year's annual CIC meeting with a cautionary comparison: "The median family income in the state of Wisconsin is $45,000. The median family income of the 2003 incoming freshman at UW Madison was $90,000."He spoke in the context of ten years of declining state subsidy to Wisconsin public institutions and Congressman Buck McKeon's legislation to tie federal aid programs to graduation rates and other metrics of accountability. At College Cost Central one can read:

"In the coming months, through reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, the Committee will work to add new sunshine and transparency to our nation's higher education system. Legislation will be offered to provide the consumers of higher education - students and parents - with accessible and easily understandable information, allowing them to better exercise freedom in the marketplace of higher education. By empowering consumers, the Committee believes, America's higher education system will be more accountable to the students it exists to serve."

Higher education faces a crisis of affordability. What "easily understandable" information conveys our million-dollar-plus annual investments in enterprise CMS? What matters to our consumers?

In the last year, Illinois has adopted

CT Vista, Wisconsin has selected Desire2Learn, and Ohio State is in the final stages of evaluating its next generation Course Management System. Our TechForum panel was to focus on the pragmatics of implementing a large-scale CMS serving "tens of thousands" of students distributed across "hundreds of courses." We were to discuss best practices for content migration, course rostering, help desk, and authentication - heads-down implementation concerns of interest to IT. Yet in the agenda set by Chancellor Wiley, are these the important questions to those who pay the bills? Not to our university presidents, who speak to deepening the undergraduate student educational experience, and not to the individual student facing deeper debt. These constituencies look to the impact of CMS on student learning, and this frame should guide our conversations as well. In a time of escalating costs, IT must make the case for CMS on learning effectiveness more than on operational efficiency. "D'es IT really matter to Higher Education?" is the cover story of the November/December Educause Review. Not if you count students-per-server in round lots of 10,000; perhaps so if you can engage the individual student in a new contract for learning.

In a March, 2003 article in Change Magazine, George Kuh gives us the scorecard on which to evaluate our CMS implementations. He describes an implicit learning contract between faculty and student that too often exists. It is: [Faculty]: "I agree to organize content reasonably and make moderate demands on your time." [Student]: "I agree to commit adequate response and reflection for receipt of an acceptable grade." [Question]: "Can we use course management system features to break this implicit contract and deliver deeper learning?"

Michael Miller, director of the Arts and Engineering Libraries at the University of Michigan, describes universities as buckets within buckets. The IT bucket holds thousands of students in a CMS, but has its value in the university bucket - teaching and learning. If we spend our time banging around only in the IT bucket, we will be heard as a cost center rather than a value center in a fiscal environment that continues to tighten. And, paradoxically, in spite of a successful CMS implementation, financial concerns that reduce faculty support or increase class sizes could combine to weaken the overall learning environment.

The bottom line for course management systems is that like all lines, it is made up of a number of points. Each point is a dot on the learning landscape. Too often we only see those dots when massive numbers squeeze shoulder-to-shoulder and lose their individuality. Yet to each of those tens of thousands of students in our CMS, the point is their individual learning. And that is the message we need to carry forward with our university administration. CMS should be presented as a learning value proposition, not as a managerial efficiency argument. Each of us must learn at least one good story of a single student's marvelous learning tied to CMS. Only from within this inverted context do the large numbers used to describe successful CMS implementations really matter.

One good story from Ohio State University: Merry Merrifield, Professor of Education, teaches Multicultural Education to future P-12 teachers online. Learning scenarios with cultural overtones are presented in discussion lists for the class. A cadre of graduate students from Africa, Latin America, and Asia reflect on the student postings. Like a good classroom-based course, Merry's dilemma is how to end the online debates once the students engage. Each of these students offers an answer to Kuh's challenge, and carries the argument for million-dollar course management systems.

Kuh, G. (March, April 2003). "What we're learning about student engagement from NSSE," Change Magazine, 24-32.

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