An educational technology dead end?

In a comment on my recent post "Tech tools for teachers," Virginia Debolt asked why more K-12 schools and universities weren't turning to open-source course management systems like Moodle instead of WebCT or Blackboard.

I'm not a Moodle user, so I'm hoping someone more knowledgeable than I am about Moodle will jump in and answer that specific question. My understanding is that Moodle may be better suited to the K-12 market than to university users, although certainly many colleges and universities are using Moodle. If you're interested, you can check out Moodle's own statistics on its popularity, and you can see a list of institutions where there's at least one instructor using Moodle.

The bigger question--one I am very willing to tackle--is whether a course management system is an appropriate solution at all.

A couple months back, I wrote about my university's course management system, an instance of Sakai dubbed "SmartSite." (Like Moodle, Sakai is also an open-source course management system, and it's being developed collaboratively by colleges and universities around the world.) In that post, I explained the difference between two fundamentally different ways faculty might use Sakai:

SmartSite raises a number of pedagogical questions. Depending on how you use SmartSite, it can serve as either a learning management system (LMS) or a collaborative learning environment (CLE). Although occasionally these terms are used interchangably, an LMS differs significantly from a CLE, and the difference is more than a philosophical one.

An LMS is all about management. In SmartSite, tools that best represent this approach include the schedule, syllabus, announcements, tests & quizzes, modules, and gradebook. These offer ways to manage the dissemination of course content and assess student learning.

A CLE promotes collaboration. In SmartSite, tools promoting collaboration are the wiki, forum, chat, messages, and to a lesser extent e-mail archive. These tools make learning a bit more transparent and allow students to help each other study. They also--the wiki especially--are good locations for group projects.

Sakai is built so that each university can determine which tools (from a very large and ever-evolving toolbox) it can make available to users. In turn, instructors can decide which tools to make available to their students. For example, one instructor might use Sakai's wiki and discussion forums to promote student discussion, while another might use Sakai simply to record and post grades.

The problem, in my experience, is that Sakai is capricious. For many months during the pilot phase of my university's Sakai launch, I was one of the people in charge of ensuring faculty understood how to use the system. And despite our crack team of programmers--Sakai may be open source, but it's not free by a long shot (those salaries add up)--faculty reported bug after bug. Many of those problems have been taken care of, but with every update or new tool come a new set of what I'll generously call quirks. That can be incredibly frustrating for faculty, many of whom are reluctant adopters of technology in the first place.

Making things worse is that the tools offered within Sakai are often below the quality of those offered elsewhere freely online. Sakai's bare-bones wiki, for example, requires students to learn some wiki notation (which may be a worthwhile exercise in itself, depending on one's philosophy of teaching), while many wikis online, such as Wikispaces, offer RTF or WYSIWYG editing and the ability to share video and audio, the lingua franca of Generation Y. Sakai's blog feature doesn't resemble any blogging platform I've ever seen, and it offers one of the stranger text editors online. Why would I use any of Sakai's tools to share images when my institution recently subscribed to the much superior ARTstor?

Why should I use inferior tools with my students when better ones are available elsewhere? The answer that often comes from administrators where course management systems have been adopted is that it's nice to have everything in one system. And faculty may, in theory, prefer a single system solution, a one-stop shop where they can order books for classes, quiz students, submit grades, and administer and read course evaluations. After all, as a wise faculty member once said to me, "Faculty only learn one or two new technologies every two or three years--and adding an attachment to e-mail counts as two of those." Why not try to slip a single-system solution into their lives as a single technology?

The answer may be that course management systems can just as easily stifle learning as enable it.

An article in EDUCAUSE Quarterly explores humanities faculty's use of digital resources. One of the findings:

The fact that the most-cited reason for not using digital resources was that they simply do not mesh with faculty members' pedagogies is an important finding that has implications for those who want to increase technology adoption in the academy. Should faculty—who we can assume know more about teaching their subject than nonspecialists—shoehorn their approaches into a technical developer's ideas of what is valuable or what is the correct pedagogical approach?

Laura Blankenship, an educational technologist and author of the blog Geeky Mom, comments on this question:

That last question is a doozy. On the one hand, yes, faculty know more about their subject area than we techies. On the other hand, they may not know much about pedagogy. Sure, they may have developed through trial and error, workshops and their own reading, good pedagogical skills. But most faculty are not trained in pedagogy. They've picked it up along the way. Many technologists are trained in pedagogy, and keep up with current research. I don't like the idea of shoehorning either. It's why I don't like course management systems, which tend to shoehorn. Most good technologists don't apply a one-size-fits-all approach. I'm a little taken aback that the researchers would make the assumption that they do. And I think that most try to help faculty in whatever way they can, but often faculty don't take advantage of the support and resources that are available to them. As I said above, perhaps we need to rethink how we provide that support, but faculty need to meet us halfway. It's a challenging problem and one I'm happy to be wrestling with.

One part of my job as a coordinator of my university's teaching resources center--and in my previous position as an educational technologist and errant Sakai evangelist--has been matching individual instructors' learning goals with the appropriate technologies. A wiki is not a blog is not a discussion forum is not Voicethread is not Flickr. And yet I've found that if they've consider these technologies at all, many faculty haven't considered when a blog might be a more appropriate tool than a wiki. Nor is it likely they've considered how one might grade wiki contributions versus blog posts and comments.

Fortunately, there is a large community of often brilliant faculty, educational technologists, researchers, and related practitioners upon which those of us in my position can draw--and they all seem to have blogs! Among the women alone there's Barbara Sawhill, Barbara Ganley, Laura Blankenship, Jill Walker, Martha Burtis, Vicki Davis, MaryEllen Bertolini, Angela Thomas, Kristin Scott, Nancy White, Danah Boyd, and many, many more.

What are your thoughts on and experiences with course management systems? And where do you turn when you want to learn about learning?

Leslie Madsen-Brooks helps university faculty improve their teaching. She blogs at The Clutter Museum, Museum Blogging, and The Multicultural Toy Box.

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