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Why Pay For A CMS When You Can Get It For Free?

The following is a guest Viewpoint:

A recent news story in the March 3, 2004 edition of eLearning Dialogue mentioned that the University of Wisconsin--Eau Claire was in the process of replacing WebCT and BlackBoard with another course management system (CMS): Desire2Learn. According to a report in the Spectator, the UWEU campus newspaper, Kathy Pletcher, a school executive said, "a major reason for the switch was cost savings." She expects to save $1.3 million over the five years.

I applaud management for wanting to save money. Unfortunately, Pletcher didn't look at the entire balance sheet. If she was really in interested in saving money, she should banish all CMS systems from campus and make use of the free systems, and the content that publishers provide at no charge to the school. If she put on the green eyeshades, she would realize that she could save the entire cost of the CMS system while providing the faculty and students with better function.

In doing her financial analysis, Pletcher reported that she "considered license fee, plus five years maintenance, plus installation costs." Missing from the analysis are the cost of faculty development and the cost of faculty support. While these costs will continue with any campus based CMS, they are not necessary. Moreover, the cost of the present system, $3.3 million over five years, could be reduced to zero.

The cost of a CMS system is not necessary because publishers will provide them for free. For several years, leading publishers have provided electronic content that can be imported into many leading CMS. If the school paid for a CMS, this content can be used with the college's system. If the school d'es not pay for the CMS, the content can still be used. The publisher hosts and maintains systems for faculty use. The content can be used on a system managed by the publisher or the CMS vendor. In both cases a PIN code comes packaged "for no extra charge" with a new textbook. Students who purchase a used text can still use the CMS after a small payment via credit card.

In the old days (pre-WWW) when a faculty member taught a course the instructor wasn't required to first write a textbook. Textbooks were written by a few and used by many. Why should it be any different in the age of the Internet? In those days of distant memory, course content was delivered via a textbook and class lectures. The course was "managed" via a grade book and the exchange of paper (quizzes, tests, and essays).

When a college "owns" a CMS, there's an assumption that faculty will develop content for use on the system. Clearly this is a labor of love for a few, a burden for many and impossible for most. In the age of the Internet course management should be done differently because the courses can be taught differently. We can now deliver multiple media to the lectern, the laboratory and the dorm/home desktop. For that matter, some schools can deliver media to the cafeteria, the lounge and the lawn via wireless networks. But why must each professor develop the material?

If we are to deliver all of these resources to the student at the moment of instruction we need a way to manage the process. We need a course management system. But why pay for it with scarce institutional dollars. Publishers will pay for it. College libraries do not provide course content in the old format; ink on a page. Why should academic computing provide course content in the new format; pixels on a screen? Further, we should not require all faculty members to "write" or assemble the multiple media that is used with the CMS any more than we do not require them to write textbooks for every course they teach. Faculty members do not have that much free time and the institutions do not have sufficient resources to support them properly it they did.

Some might argue that if a college pays for a campus or system wide CMS they could save money for the student over the cost of the student buying the new textbook with "free" PIN code. This is a false argument best refuted by comparison with the college library.

College libraries serve the research needs of the college; they do not provide textbooks for instructional purposes. Students are expected to pay for their own textbooks. So it should be with the tools that faculty need to administer the multiple resources now available for instructional use. Faculty members manage the process of learning, either online or face-to-face. Students purchase the material they need to participate with the course. The course material is changing, the model can remain the same.

When it comes to a CMS system I require a robust full-featured system; but I require more course management, I require content. If a school provides a CMS system it must support faculty and students. Far better to leave this to a commercial firm that wants to secure a textbook adoption. Also, the commercial firms are better able to offer responsive help lines and to make required upgrades and back-ups. My students and I want great services, but only if the school and I don't have to pay for it.

In the days of yore, when the final draft of a textbook was edited, it was sent to the printer. The faculty member had to work with what was bound between the covers. With the new publishing model, where the content can live on the Web within a course management system, the faculty member can modify the content to fit the unique needs of his or her students and his or her teaching style. It is far easier to modify content than to create it.

In other venues, I have made the argument that the publisher provided electronic content is not yet perfect. After all, it has been conceived as a printed book. The supplements have grown like Topsy; without a plan. In the not too distant future, publishers will deliver course content that has been designed from the ground up for electronic delivery. But until we get there, we need not continue to pay for course management system delivered without any content. And we should not pay with college money.

The article above was provided in response to a news story in a past issue of eLearning Dialogue. We encourage your comments on the articles in our forums. Or, better yet, submit your own Viewpoint or Case Study. Help make this a real eLearning Dialogue through your contribution.

Frank Tansey

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