Is it time to start sharing the course management system?

Not sharing the CMS is a missed opportunity to bridge some of the gaps between instruction and administrative areas.

For over a year I have been asking colleagues at universities around the country a simple question: Are you sharing your course management system? After a few puzzled looks, I clarify the question by adding "with the non-instructional areas of the university."

For the most part, the responses indicate that the answer is no. The exceptions are pretty limited. One university offers its required sexual harassment training as an on-line course, but there are no additional on-line offerings for non-instructional staff beyond this single offering. In other cases I have been told the CMS license d'es not permit non-instructional use. This, to me, is a strange limitation. Rarely have I heard of a campus using the course management system across the entire university.

Not sharing the CMS is a missed opportunity to bridge some of the gaps between instruction and administrative areas. Let’s explore a few of the benefits that might accrue from sharing the CMS. There is little doubt that staff training yields significant dividends in terms of staff effectiveness, job satisfaction and better service to campus constituencies—including faculty. Studies have shown that there is up to an eight-fold return for every moment spent on training.

If your campus is like many, new staff are frequently greeted with the catalogue, a few items to read, and then thrown into the fray. In academic department offices, as well as major administrative offices such as admissions and records or financial aid, it is sink or swim for these new employees. For those offices that do train, freeing time for a trainer and a trainee is difficult.

Imagine if you will, shifting staff training in large measure to the course management system. Instead of browsing through the catalogue, trying to find the answer to the question at hand, staff would be introduced to training through the staff development syllabus. Training content would be broken into modules with assessments to measure the staff member’s progress in mastering the job tasks. While training time may initially be structured to particular times, it is entirely possible to shift the training pattern to better match the needs of the employee.

D'es the above sound familiar? The structure sounds much like many online courses. To be sure, the nature of training material, including presentation is frequently different than instructional material, but the desired outcome is much the same—we want people to learn. Some might argue that training and academic instruction are substantially different, but I doubt if your campus’s course management system is not capable of accommodating the needs of administrative training.

There could also be a potentially significant upside to sharing the course management system come budget time. Many on the instructional side feel that all of the big information technology bucks go to support the campus legacy systems, including student information, human resources and finance. When it comes time to request an enhancement to the course management system, money is cobbled together from the leftovers. All this could change if administrative offices become significant users of the CMS. For the first time, many administrative decision makers could be vested in this core instructional technology. Similarly, administrative staff members develop much better understanding and appreciation of the issues faculty and students confront in online classes. Both sides benefit from the shared experience.

An obvious downside might be a desire to control the CMS. However, I doubt that there is any compelling argument that can be made to wrest away something as obviously instructional as the course management system. In fact, it is likely that instructional technology would be strengthened rather than weakened by this sharing.

Students and faculty are direct beneficiaries of well-trained staff since it is not unreasonable to expect better service from more knowledgeable staff. In addition, the opportunities for cross and tangential training where offices interact are a significant opportunity. For example, it might be helpful for an academic advisor to access the training content on key aspects of the Registrar’s Office. Such training might avoid many unnecessary petitions to overcome "misunderstanding" of university regulations.

To maximize the impact of this sharing, it is important to have more than just a few isolated training courses. Online training, like online instruction, requires regular use for staff to become comfortable with the technology. Remember back to the initial installation of the course management system when significant support time was devoted to issues like logon and basic system features. If you are now a regular online instructor, you rarely deal with these issues.

In the end, widespread use of the CMS across the campus will benefit instruction as much as it will benefit campus areas that rarely touch the instructional aspects of the university.

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