Managing? Teaching? Learning!

By Patricia McGee and Kathy Bennett

Course Management Systems (CMS) have become an essential component of the learning infrastructure at most universities today. By definition and architecture, these systems are course-centric, relying upon a course shell that replicates a traditional brick and mortar classroom, in which content and learners sometimes awkwardly co-exist. While the presence of CMS has grown, wonderful new collaborative communication tools such as blogs, wikis, and RSS feeds have emerged and are often informally and immediately adopted by the “new learner.” The CMS architecture, however, still heavily proprietary, is slow to integrate these rich new tools. Hence, the mismatch between a course- and instructor-centric management system and a new generation of learners demanding more sophisticated, responsive, collaborative learning environments.

Students, researchers in the cognitive sciences, and innovative practitioners are calling for a next-generation CMS, in which the tools have been designed to support a more effective, learning-centric environment. At the moment the most engaging new tools are not being integrated rapidly and efficiently into the large commercial products, in spite of the hype about new features. Most critically, at this time, a university cannot purchase a turnkey solution that facilitates the next-generation learning environment. Universities who wish to achieve both efficiency and learning benefits must carefully examine their current investment and then look to the growing market of plug-ins and building blocks that extend the reach of the traditional CMS.

In 2001 Marc Prensky, CEO of Games2train, characterized next-generation learners or “digital natives” as highly social, able to multitask efficiently, and eager for authentic choice in what and how they learn. Most online learning, however, is designed by “digital immigrants’ who typically impose their own preferences about how learning should occur. A most effective online learning experience should offer opportunities that call upon these key traits to engage digital natives in the learning process. We must design a virtual environment that is engaging, makes social interaction compelling and satisfying, necessitates actions on the part of the learner, and that relates directly to the learner’s interests, motivations, and needs. This deeper learning founded on principles such as those articulated by Colleen Carmean in her work for the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative1 must be situated in CMS if we are to keep the learner in the learning; if not, we have high attrition rates, students who are not sure what they are learning, and expenditures that don’t accomplish anything.

Currently, CMS plug-ins abound although most institutions purchase systems without examining the potential breadth that plug-ins can contribute. By examining the current crop of CMS building blocks systematically, with a careful eye on the teaching and learning culture of their campus, administrators, IT support staff, teaching and learning centers, and early adopter faculty members can evaluate all of these tools and extend their current CMS, with a cost-effective and pedagogically sound course development strategy that builds on core learning principles. If you are a working with an enterprise system that will not be changing anytime soon, there exist many options for shifting from management to designs for learning. Researchers have pointed out that the demands of faculty for new CMS functions are not driven by the reality of the new learner who is already engaged in digital collaborative environments using phones, PDAs, and even pocket-sized ultralight hard-drive based devices such as the iPod. Providing access to course content through multiple media, one example being a “Podcast,” gives the learner truly ubiquitous learning opportunities. If institutions continue to pay exorbitant amounts for CMS to be used as a syllabus repository or to replicate what is probably more effective pedagogy in a traditional classroom, then we are doing our clients (students and faculty) a disservice.

If you are in the process of selecting a CMS, make sure you are including criteria for learning, not just interoperability and standardization. Include students and faculty members as a part of your evaluation team and look to your teaching and learning center and institutional mission to inform what your priorities in a system should be. Your campus culture must be articulated and used to identify a system that can best support the population you serve--be they innovators or laggards--it is not difficult to identify platforms by the stages of technology adoption that functionality defines. When developing your evaluation tool, be sure to address the following functions: access controls; assessment; cognitive and metacognitive supports; organizational tools; collaboration/communication tools; user interface and navigation; content creation and delivery; instructional/ learning design supports; connective functions; cross-functional capabilities, and standards and specifications that insure interoperability. When higher education unites to raise expectations of CMS that support deeper learning, we will see shifts in the products made available to us.

McGee is Assistant Professor, Instructional Technology, College of Education and Human Development, The University of Texas at San Antonio. Bennett is Web Instructional Technology Specialist, Innovative Technology Center, The University of Tennessee

Patricia McGee, Ph.D. and Kathy Bennett will be presenting on this topic at the July 2005 Syllabus Conference in Los Angeles.

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