Toolbox or Trap? Course Management Systems and Pedagogy

Lisa Lane has an article in the most recent issue of EDUCAUSE Quarterly, “Toolbox or Trap? Course Management Systems and Pedagogy.”  For a brief article, she does a good job laying out the criticisms I hear most frequently about course management systems: their design is focused on integrating resources (as “inventory control”) instead of being focused on innovative teaching.

“The construction of the course syllabus, a natural beginning point for most instructors, is a good example of how the software imposes limitations.  When they first enter a CMS, new instructors see the default buttons of the course menu, which are based on type rather than purpose: Announcements, Course Content, Discussion, even Syllabus.  The buttons link to pages that simply provide a place to upload a document, which is exactly what most instructors do: upload a word-processed file of their in-class syllabus.  It would be more natural for novice instructors to see a blank schedule in which they could create each week’s (or unit’s) activities.  Most professors think in terms of the semester and how their pedagogical goals can be achieved within the context of time rather than space.  The default organization of the CMS forces them to think in terms of content types instead, breaking the natural structure of the semester.”

Lane suggests that constructivist, learner-centered, or inquiry-based approaches are better supported by Web 2.0 applications, or by learning management systems that focus more on pedagogy than content management.

We’re exploring these tools at Richmond now, but at this point we’re connecting with our early adopters, not the majority.  I wonder what it will take for most faculty to embrace social tools: they require more consideration up front, and if they want to use more than one tool, it’s multiple logins for them and their students.  The effort has to be justified, and I think we’ll see that as early adopters share compelling stories of transformed learning.  But is there something more we need to do, either to be sure the stories are communicated effectively or the administrivia streamlined?

I guess I’m trying to step into our learners’ shoes, to be sure our plans are effective.  I can be patient, as social technologies work their way into instructor toolboxes, but I also want to be sure I’m not missing any opportunities.

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