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Course Management Systems: A Tipping Point

Long recognized as a magnet for new concepts and idea-sharing, the CMS as we’ve known it teeters on a precipice as institutions reassess need and warily eye the pitfalls that may lie ahead.

A Tipping PointIt’s near-impossible to think about course management systems (CMS) without thinking about innovation, collaboration, and the sharing of ideas across institutions and even from vendor to vendor. Yet, “the next step” in CMS now means distinctly different things to various colleges and universities as, going forward, they consider their landscapes of learning, and requisites that didn’t even exist five years ago. What’s more, recent events in the CMS community—open source efforts and an ugly patent infringement suit—have further colored CMS decision-making on campuses and the striving for innovation in course management.

Johns Hopkins: Integration as Innovation

As of 2008, every time students and faculty at Johns Hopkins University’s (MD) Schools of Engineering and Arts & Sciences log in to their WebCT systems, they’ll get a pop-up screen telling them they’re working on unlicensed software—unless the team at the school’s Center for Educational Resources (CER) succeeds in its mission of finding a replacement course management system. In fall 2005, WebCT announced that it was chucking version 4.3 of its software; in spring 2006, after Blackboard finalized its purchase of WebCT, the company confirmed its intention, setting the deadline to January 2008. So, Johns Hopkins has found itself in the position that many campuses find themselves in: After making do with the same CMS for as long as possible, it’s now time to move on. But “moving on” can be a time-consuming and complex process, and as CER Director Candice Dalrymple points out, “I’m not sure if [Blackboard/]WebCT realizes how many of its users on this old legacy system—that many of us have clung to—will not be able to work within that time frame and keep our faculty happy. I’m hoping we can get an adjustment of at least a semester.”

In the meantime, CER has initiated an evaluation process to determine what CMS platform it should move to next. Although the Center serves two schools at JHU, both of which are using WebCT, the search will now involve all other divisions in the school, some of which are working on Blackboard, others on homegrown systems. The good news? Though the search for a new platform is driven by the need to meet an externally-imposed deadline, CER officials now see this as an opportunity to bring the entire university into one CMS. They don’t see the need to build every possible innovation directly into the CMS, however—as long as the platform allows for integration of external programs. As an example, CER Assistant Director Mike Reese cites the Madison Digital Image Database (MDID), freely available from James Madison University (VA), for managing digital images. “Our students have been able to get to those visual resources through their WebCT course site, even though those resources are not built into the current version of the software we’re using.” That kind of integration, or bundling, he says, is what he views as being the most innovative aspect of the current crop of CMS offerings.

Dalrymple seconds that assessment. “We are very interested in tools that accommodate the research and scholarship function of both faculty and students and make it possible for them to merge their efforts easily, to cross boundaries in terms of what they store. The very fact that you can get content into and out of environments that are accommodating to one another is a definition of innovation.”

Stanford: Innovating Through Open Source

Stanford University’s (CA) primary and proprietary CMS, CourseWork, has been in use there since 1997 or ’98, with upgrades in the intervening years, according to Lois Brooks, director of academic computing. Still, the school has recognized the need to upgrade and replace its system. “People have new wants and needs,” says Brooks, but adds that continuing to rebuild has become “cost prohibitive.”

Yet, in discussions with other colleges facing the same problem, a new plan came up. Along with three other schools (Indiana University, MIT, and the University of Michigan), Stanford founded Sakai, the community source project to build an online collaboration and learning environment. As Brooks explains, one of the goals of Sakai was not only to build software “we could all use,” but to build a program that “would encourage other people in the community to develop other tools for it as well, so we could all get more out than we put in.”

Stanford is currently in a pilot with Sakai, using it in a small number of courses and working to add special functions or features the school has deemed important. The intent is to move off CourseWork completely and onto Sakai by the end of the current academic year (though the school may brand the system as CourseWork 5.0).

Innovative features, says Brooks, come from a variety of sources—generally, via the staff working with faculty and students. One current development effort, question pooling, would allow a group of instructors to access a large pool of test questions. A faculty member could either select the questions or have the system select a number of questions from the pool, so that students are presented with a random set. “That [idea] came from the instructors understanding that they share tests back and forth,” says Brooks.

Typically, as Brooks’ team receives requests, gets ideas, or must modify the system to address changes in legal requirements, it’ll go through a requirements analysis, then do prototyping to “flesh out the ideas,” she says, “to mimic the behavior in a simple way before we build something big and complex.”

Working with Sakai required a similar approach—though “it’s a little more complex and interesting,” Brooks says. A couple of years ago, for example, the Stanford team worked with a group from Indiana University to develop testing and quizzing functionality. Even though IU is a much larger university, the two schools came together and developed a common set of needs requirements. The meetings, she says, became “really interesting because staff on both sides got a lot of new ideas for things they could try; new functionality within the system. There was a lot of give-and-take about what the system could do, but also regarding screen design and user friendliness (and how to build it in), with both sides sharing concepts and coming away with new ideas.” The effort resulted, she concludes, in “staff development as well as a more comprehensive system. When we were done, we all got more than we would have gotten separately.” And that, she explains, is why participation in Sakai has been so rewarding. “Stanford has written 25 percent of the code in Sakai. That means that we’ve gotten four times more software than we’ve written.”

MIT: The Best CMS Is No CMS

Phil Long, senior strategist for the Academic Computing Enterprise at MIT, recounts his school’s long and storied history in developing technologies that have contributed to course management and collaborative learning. Among the major initiatives: iCampus—the collaboration between MIT and Microsoft Research that funds research by MIT faculty in the area of educational technology—and OpenCourseWare, which publishes course content from MIT.

iCampus, says Long, is developing tools that could be “called” from a CMS. In this sense, he says, the CMS presents the “surrounding infrastructure”—the place that “represents the location a student might go to for Chemistry 101.” But in the course of working with Chemistry 101, he explains, there might be a lab the student has to complete. “In that context, she might connect to the iCampus online remote lab for semiconductor testing and, using the iCampus iLabs system, invoke and conduct the experiment online via her browser. Then she’d come to her course management environment to find out about the day’s events associated with the course, to scan notices, and to submit her iLabs experiment work to the teacher.”

Long sees the link between course infrastructure and course content as a force for pushing innovation in course management systems. “Not to disparage them, but the people building a CMS probably would have no idea how to build a [chemical engineering] experiment, and they shouldn’t be expected to,” he says. “But if they build the CMS properly, they should be able to present a good interface that says to the tool developer with a specific tool in mind, ‘This is how we would connect to you. And here’s the kind of information you need to present back to me, so we can work together.’”

But Long maintains that the ultimate innovation for CMS is its absence altogether. He envisions a future where there is a series of core services that work together but are not necessarily wrapped into a single software program. “Those core services will provide an infrastructure on which to build and attach very specific software tools for specific disciplines and problems. I think we’re moving in that direction, but we’re not there yet.” He explains his thinking: “Any major course management system—Blackboard, Sakai, WebCT—is presented as a big package. You get it and you install it. At the back end, you have a big set of computers that runs the databases, manages the [background operations], etc. And when you connect to it, you have to be authenticated via the authorization model that the particular package employs. That’s the way we currently build things. But we’re starting to move toward building these things in a way that separates those functions so they can evolve and develop semiautonomously. For example, my campus uses the Kerberos authorization system, and we would like to evolve the development of Kerberos without having to reimplement it within every single software package that we use.”

Long is speaking about the move toward service-oriented architecture and implementing best-of-breed functionality. Ultimately, he says, “those services should be provided separately, so that you use the best grouping of them that makes sense for your particular need.” He sees a scenario in the course management environment in which “people can build, add, and aggregate tools independently for a collection of the functions that, at the moment, are thought to be the best combination of things you see in this environment.”


Could CMS innovation be stalled by Blackboard’s patent and its patent infringement suit?

When Blackboard announced patent #6,988,138 on July 26, 2006—and then on the same day sued Desire2Learn for infringing on its patent—the company became for many what one observer called the “Darth Vader” of the CMS community. In the intervening months, bloggers, magazine columnists, and organizations have weighed in with opinions, almost uniformly negative. Both Sakai and Educause have issued public statements against the patent and the lawsuit. The patent suit also has inspired Boycott-, which features an informal petition, and was a concept put forth by a group of educators who have come to know each other in the Second Life virtual world. BoycottBlackboard’s developer Chris Hambly (director of a distance learning school for music production solutions) says that because learning management systems have been around for so many years in various forms, practitioners find the Blackboard patent “plainly wrong.”

Not surprisingly, the entry for “history of virtual learning environment” on Wikipedia has gone into update overdrive, with numerous contributors methodically building a detailed history of the evolution of CMS-type technology in order to prove “prior art,” and thereby dispute the validity of Blackboard’s patent.

And on CALIopolis, John Mayer (executive director of the Center for Computer- Assisted Legal Instruction) has posted audio interviews with legal experts discussing the patent and the suit. Professor Vincent Chiapetta of Willamette University (OR) College of Law cautioned against vilifying Blackboard (“Patent holders aren’t bad guys…”). Eduventures Senior Analyst Catherine Burdt views the patent as a strategic move, claiming she has “seen where [patents are] almost used as trading cards, in terms of one company holding a patent for some type of algorithm and another company holding another patent for another algorithm, so you need each other.”

Blackboard’s ChasenBlackboard CEO Michael Chasen (left) claims that much of the fear that this will be just the first of many lawsuits, is misguided. “It would make no sense for us, from a strategic or financial perspective, to sue the colleges and universities that make up the majority of our clients,” he maintains. “It’s hard to calm irrational fear, but…this is not part of some larger overall plan. We’re aware of the Desire2Learn technology. We believe they are infringing on our patent and we are seeking a reasonable royalty because we believe they’re taking advantage of the technology that we spent a lot of money to develop.”

Yet, part of the growing alienation against Blackboard may revolve around the very idea of getting patents. Still, Chasen insists, “Institutions themselves are some of the biggest patent holders, right?” pointing to the fact that some institutions hold “huge” patent portfolios. “It’s something you’ve got to be open about and discuss,” he says.

Other vendors fear being the next target. Says Angel Learning’s Chief Products Offi- cer Ray Henderson, “Desire2Learn was the most vulnerable and thus the first victim. The usual strategy on these things is to try to succeed against the weakest member and use that momentum to go against the next weakest member.” He fears that as a result of the suit, the free exchange of ideas that g'es on in higher ed will be lost. “If people begin to believe that the information they offer…could become patented by another company that listened to it and thought that was a good idea, it could sure dry up the standards bodies very quickly.” Those sentiments are ech'ed by Desire2Learn CEO John Baker, even though he is adamant that the suit hasn’t slowed the company’s CMS innovation. “But it may force us to reevaluate our willingness to share that innovation openly.” That could be the feared potential outcome: “The innovation d'esn’t necessarily stop, but the open innovation could,” he warns.

According to MIT’s Phil Long, senior strategist for the school’s Academic Computing Enterprise, “By and large, the open source community is sufficiently active, robust, and diverse to persist. [Any number of] people will stand up to stake their own claims for prior art. It’s going to be a long time before this gets worked out.” In fact, Long predicts a renewed interest in open source efforts such as Sakai. By tucking CMS innovation efforts under the Sakai umbrella, he says, “if I get sued, then everybody in Sakai gets sued, and I’ve got more strength.”

Ultimately, says the University of Wisconsin’s Kathy Christoph, director of academic technology in the school’s IT division, the patent will “cut down our number of choices, if it stands. Little companies aren’t going to be able to know how to navigate the waters.” And while she sees the potential for a stranglehold on innovation, she’s also “curious whether people will then just break out of that thinking and head in a different direction with broader innovation. We have a long way to go in creating technology tools to support learning.”

What of the administrators currently shopping for a new CMS? “Frankly, we don’t have time to worry about it,” says Candice Dalrymple, director of the Center for Educational Resources at Johns Hopkins University (MD).

Update: On Nov. 17, 2006, the Software Freedom Law Center (which provides probono legal services to protect and advance free and open source software) filed a formal request with the US Patent and Trademark Office to reexamine Blackboard’s eLearning patent, potentially leading to the cancellation of all of Blackboard’s 44 claims. The Patent Office will render a decision by mid-February.

Wisconsin: Getting the CMS to Work Better

Kathy Christoph directs the Department of Academic Technology in the Division of Information Technology (DoIT) at the University of Wisconsin system, which encompasses 13 fouryear and 13 two-year institutions. Up until 2003, all 26 schools were running either Blackboard or WebCT. Four or five years ago, long before the two companies merged, each announced it would be moving to an enterprise edition, “and the license cost would roughly quadruple,” recalls Christoph. “So, we were faced with two systems with drastically increased license costs. We decided it would be a good time for us to look at the marketplace.”

UW opted to go with Desire2Learn, a little-known vendor at the time. “The considerations were both on the functional (teacher) side and on the technical side,” recalls Christoph. But she can’t deny that being a big customer of a small vendor was a heady experience; in the early days, the company was highly responsive to requests, albeit “in a rather ad hoc way,” she admits. As Desire2Learn has grown and taken on more customers, “they’ve moved to a more systematic method for taking in customer requests; performing analyses and then responding,” she says.

Today, a dedicated group of individuals, representing “about half the institutions” at UW, work continuously on requests for software updates, creating a feature request list. In addition, UW participates in a Desire2Learn group called LISAB—Large Institution/System Advisory Board—which compiles requests into a composite request, and prioritizes the list. In fact, says Christoph, “Just last week we delivered seven very highpriority requests to the company, from the large customers.” Although many of the requests focus on making the existing system work better (rather than adding new functionality to it), Christoph d'es acknowledge the product innovations that are continually introduced by the company. Recent examples include a learning object repository (to store and share content across courses and schools) and ePortfolio functionality.

Like MIT’s Long, Christoph sees a best-of-breed future ahead for CMS. Although a single CMS system is “great for managing courses,” and has “proven to be essential,” the future could look very different, she says. The ePortfolio concept speaks to students’ learning throughout their university careers and beyond, she points out, but adds, “I don’t know that we want everything all tied up in any one system; that’s what we’re trying to get to with these specifications and open source. I’m looking forward to being able to pick a quiz engine from one place and a synchronize tool from another—and maybe even use them through our portal.”

Lois Brooks

Stanford has written 25 percent of the code
in Sakai. That means that we’ve gotten four
times more software than we’ve written.
—Lois Brooks, Stanford University

What’s Next for CMS?

According to Eduventures Senior Analyst Catherine Burdt, the CMS has become “the hub of a lot of technologies.” It has shifted from a place to hang a syllabus and links to the internet, she says, “to the place you go to access the library and your assignments, take an online quiz, or deliver your papers so that they’re digitally time-stamped into a drop box.” But once you get beyond required functionality (such as the ability to safely and securely share material and interoperate with other systems), the CMS becomes “a more personal exercise for each school,” maintains Stanford’s Brooks.

A case in point, she notes: At Stanford, where almost all undergraduates reside on campus, the CMS is used as a supplement for face-to-face meeting time. Remediation is handled in the one-on-one meetings with instructors. But right down the road, Foothill College (CA) has a large distance education program that serves dozens of other California colleges, so it has added an extra component to its CMS: When the system captures upload content or builds courses online, it creates a consistent look and feel for the courses for each school. That’s important, says Brooks, because it allows the students who aren’t physically attending class at an institution to have the same experience their fellow on-site students are having. The system also includes functionality for remediation so that instructors don’t have to be face-to-face with students, to be able to see if the students have done their homework.

The CMS also is becoming a strong branding mechanism—helping students to know they’re part of their school, wherever they go. Says MIT’s Long: “Students can go from MIT to Portugal, log in to the familiar environment, and have access to the all the materials they would have had at MIT.” The environment of a course shell, plus collaboration tools associated with wikis or other functionality, will forge the connection, he explains. Long has written about the value of “mass participation” enabled by functionality such as RSS (which helps users create “customized digests”), or the ability to share information (say, photos on sites such as, or bookmarks on sites such as, “which allows for particular perspectives of individuals to be shared in ways that weren’t possible before.” But he also sees the downside: becoming engaged by a production process or mechanism—in the absence of any learning value.

Yet the CMS, he says, provides a means by which to “interact with intellectually rigorous material that somebody has a point of view around. It’s not just presenting a random set of things, but a structured, sequenced, thoughtful integration of content and ideas that build on one another, toward making certain points or getting certain concepts through.” It isn’t that Web 2.0 innovations don’t have value, he points out; it’s just that faculty need to impart value through the tools of the CMS.

“For example,” he explains, “on Flickr, you can search for X-rays or radiographs. Some people have used the Flickr feature of being able to highlight an area of a picture and add annotation. So, mousing over an image of a lung X-ray brings up the comment, ‘Here’s what a healthy piece of lung looks like,’ or ‘This is what a lung with emphysema looks like.’ The highlight function is being used as a means to add a particular teaching point, and they’re putting it on Flickr because it’s a great distribution vehicle.” Yet, Long can’t help pointing out the importance of the human hand in such efforts. After all, ‘Some person has to impose and apply that intellectual work to take an object and turn it into a meaningful teaching tool.”

WEBEXTRA :: A graduate’s view of the course management system: Click here.

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