Eric Kunnen\’s GRCC Blog

Pedagogy and the CMS
May 21, 2008, 11:24 am
Filed under: Articles

I just read a viewpoint article in Educause entitled “Toolbox or Trap? Course Management Systems and Pedagogy“.

I love the topic, because I think as educators, we need to continuously improve our teaching practice and be creative in our approaches and use of technology to create effective pedagogy. I disagree, however, with the notion in the article that a default tool set in a CMS in-and-of-itself limits instructional creativity and pedagogical approaches.

The tools offered by any course management system are just that – tools. Moodle, Blackboard, Angel, etc. all have a somewhat similar set of instructor and student tools. In fact, Blackboard, through it’s expansive Building Block partner program provides the ability for institutions to personalize and connect home grown systems while also enabling seamless connections to a wide array of best in class tools such as: Wimba Live Classroom, VoiceTools, and Pronto and Learning Objects Blogs and Wikis. In addition, Blackboard’s Web 2.0 initiatives through the Blackboard Beyond Initiative ( Scholar, SafeAssign, and Sync) create one of the most robust tool sets on the CMS market today. Finally, while moving into social bookmarking and social networking, Blackboard is enhancing their user interfaces to make them easier, richer, and more effective. Take the new Grade Center in Bb 8, for example, which provides an interface that is far easier to use and more efficient.

Just as in a face-to-face classroom, the instructor has access to “tools” such as a whiteboard, overhead projector, computer, furniture, etc, it is up to the instructor (and students) to leverage the tools available to create the best learning experience for students. This is the same online and with a CMS.

The article mentions an analogy of tools in a toolbox determining what we construct and how we construct it. The missing part of this analogy is the SKILL of the carpenter and their vision as to what is being constructed. Then, the tools are carefully selected and used to create and make real their vision. So merely having tools in a toolbox doesn’t dictate how the tools are used to create something. If there isn’t a tool that is needed, the carpenter adjusts by approaching the problem strategically. Perhaps the carpenter asks others in the field which tools they have used to reach a solution. He could also go to the hardware store to find the tool he needs, or adjusts how he approaches and uses the tools that are available to achieve the intended result.

I think the key that we should be focusing on is not the tools or course management systems themselves, although they are definitely important. Rather, we need to focus on instructional design to achieve the highest quality and most effective pedagogy.

Moodle, Joomla, or Drupal or no more constructivist in their design than any other CMS. In fact, I’m not sure I would even include Joomla or Drupal in the same sentence, as these are web content management systems on a different but somewhat related technology direction around the management of websites and content.

I think the author of this article hits the nail on the head by saying:

“Most faculty do not use the web either extensively or intensively in their own work, and those who aren’t “into technology” will quickly find themselves overwhelmed by a CMS.

However, I’d suggest that the problem is NOT the CMS, it’s default tool sets, etc. The limitation and problem we are facing is our ability to adapt, manage technological change, create technological awareness, provide faculty professional development, and to take the TIME to work with our faculty for the execution of the next generation of learning. Effective teaching with effective pedagogy involves an instructor’s skills, wisdom, and experience coupled with deliberate and purposeful instructional design which involves leveraging the tools in a CMS.


19 Comments so far
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You haven’t mentioned the cost of maintaining a LMS likie Blackboard which makes it prohibitive for many learning institutions. Moodle is open source and free, making it a viable alternative to schools with a budget that doesn’t support a LMS like Blackboard. Why have UCLA just abandoned Blackboard? I think I read they have moved to Moodle.

Comment by jennylu

Hi Jennylu,

Thanks for your comment!

With any CMS there is a cost. From people resources for programming and installation, to the software operating system or application costs, to hardware resources required to maintain the system, to supporting the environment and fixing bugs – nothing is *really* free.

You are definitely right, that each institution should definitely approach the ROI – return on investment question. In some cases an open source cms like Moodle or Sakai may make sense depending on your institutional needs.

However, I believe an enterprise approach to a cms easily justifies the cost of a vendor based system, be it Angel, Blackboard, eCollege, or others. The prices of these systems are well below other “non-academic” enterprise systems currently in place at institutions today.

If you compare how much an institution pays for systems like Banner and Peoplesoft for example, these far exceed the costs of Blackboard. Blackboard is often used every single day by students and instructors (compared with once or twice a semester for a sis), therefore, it is a core requirement for the business of an institution – that is to deliver high quality instruction. And therein provides the justification, especially if you view the system as an enterprise system that is more than just a place to post a syllabus.

Thanks again for your comment!


Comment by ekunnen

Also, I just came across this article in Campus Technology Magazine on Social Networking: “Learning Theory in Action”. See:

Here is an excellent quote in the article related to this topic: “As with all digital environments, to integrate these spaces into a legitimate and beneficial learning environment requires innovation on the part of the instructor.”

Comment by ekunnen

I found lots of intresting things here. Thanks!

Comment by Buy Tool sets

Thank you for your article. I agree with many of your points but wanted to raise one specific issue. Having used Blackboard, WebCT, and MOODLE extensively, I have chosen MOODLE. MOODLE specifically was designed as a social constructivist tool for higher education; other CMS were not. The driving force behind MOODLE is that students collaborate, help, and learn from each other. While dissemination of static content is certainly possible with MOODLE, the different page formats available themselves make this somewhat less likely. For example, whereas traditionally CMS course layout are fairly standard, MOODLE has topic, week, flex page, accordion, Q and A, etc… MOODLE itself is the result of people working together to reate something; which is what should also happen within MOODLE.

Comment by Jason Bedell

Thanks for your comment Jason. I’ve used Angel, WebCT, Blackboard, Sakai, and Moodle and there are some good things about Moodle that I also like. For those colleges that run Blackboard and have some departments or parts of the college that use Moodle, there is a Blackboard connector for integrating Moodle into Blackboard. See:

Comment by ekunnen

I was referred here in a comment to a thread I started in a Ning group College 2.0 The thread is trying to explore what it would mean for a campus to abandon the LMS, not just switch brands. I posted some data on the tools that our campus carpenters use and I think it fits what would be expected based on your comments and the article you reference.

Comment by Nils Peterson

Hi Nils,

Thanks for posting here and letting me know that there are some great discussions happening on the College 2.0 Ning group!

Comment by ekunnen

Thank you for the analysis.

I certainly agree that the focus must be on pedagogy, which was my original reason for doing the article. Yes, indeed, the skill of the worker is paramount, and yet few faculty beginning in online teaching have that skill, and when they do ask for help, they tend to ask technical folks or those faculty making traditional use of the tools. They like to feel competent even when new at something, and thus tend to use the defaults.

So yes, the default tool set itself is a big part of the problem. And although I agree that Drupal and Joomla really did not belong here (I was focusing on their constructivist nature in building sites, and it just didn’t fit), Moodle is indeed different in that it is an “opt-in” rather than a “opt-out” system. Blackboard’s default set makes you turn off what you don’t want. Moodle’s has you select what you want. The distinction is important, especially when dealing with novices to the web.

I have written another article on this issue, but have not yet gotten it published, and may publish it myself. (And I apologize for not finding you sooner — I have yet to set up tracking of my own work!)

Comment by Lisa M Lane

The real Lisa M Lane, commented here? Wow! Cool! šŸ™‚

I offer you my compliments for starting what seems to be an ongoing discussion in many forums and networks on this important issue.

Your comment rings true for certain, that “few faculty beginning in online teaching have that skill, and when they do ask for help, they tend to ask technical folks or those faculty making traditional use of the tools.”

Your comment in the College 2.0 Ning site has definitely been my experience as well: “The point to me was that faculty use these systems primarily for class management rather than teaching.”

It seems what we are really needing are cms’s that provide deliberate TEACHING tools in addition to productivity tools. CMS’s that provide students with LEARNING tools in addition to productivity tools. And finally, faculty need effective PEDAGOGY techniques and strategies that take traditional teaching into the next generation of learning.

Thanks again for commenting Lisa, I’ll definitely keep an eye out for your upcoming article.


Comment by ekunnen

I agree that tools are just that. If anything, these may encourage educators to broaden their methods, try new technology, and stay current with learning styles of their students.

Comment by Jan Carney

Very useful information. Thanks for this. You got a great blog .I will be interested in more similar topics.I’m very interested in CMS and all its related subjects.

Comment by John conrad

Thank you Eric for starting this discussion. I’ve also been researching ideas on getting faculty to use Mooodle and other CMS creatively for teaching- rather than as you stated, using it for class management.

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