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The So Sad and Silly State of the CMS
Sunday, December 18, 2005
What do you think of the course management systems (CMSs) that are out there today? Have we seen much improvement in the past decade in terms of teaching and learning functionality? If so where?

Someone recently noted to me that CMS developers (e.g., Sakai, Blackboard, and other ones as well) were not thinking how the tool will be used “in the classroom to support TEACHING;” particularly when group learning and virtual teaming is involved. What do you think? Personally, I loved this person’s capitalization of the word "teaching" and I will add "LEARNING" to it.

In fact, when I do talks around the planet on this stuff I point out that the only thing that course management systems have done in terms of helping with teaching and learning during the past decade (in terms of what is new and did not exist prior to the development of a CMS or the emergence of the Web as a teaching and learning platform) is design spaces for collaboration and group workspaces and even those existed prior to the Web. Now that may sound harsh, but the truth of the matter is that discussion and chats existed before the emergence of the Web so such tools are nothing new and to be honest a review of collaboration tools I did for the web back in 1990 and 1991 uncovered dozens of collab tools at various levels of interaction and that was years prior to the emergence of CMSs. In defense of CMS developers, more tools are expected of one system now (e.g., online gradebooks, chats, profiles, discussion, etc.) and it simply takes a while to code. It is sorta unfair to expect them to be developed quickly in one tool.

Here in the School of Education at IU, our 100+ faculty members were extremely happy with a tool called SiteScape Forum (SSF) and that was taken away from us this year in the move to Sakai (but we are willing to cope and push ahead despite the superior functionality of SSF from a teaching and learning standpoint). CMSs like Oncourse, Angel, Desire2Learn, Sakai, WebCT, and Blackboard all lack teaching and learning tools--they are administrative tools (tools to see how many people are logged in and when), they are management of student tools (ala behaviorism--they "manage" things--they should instead be freeing students up to learn), and they are tools designed by technology people for the most part, but they are not, in their present state teaching and learning tools. None of them. And the recent merger of WebCT and Blackboard will not improve anything when you have 2 primitive tools, from a teaching and learning standpoint, merging.

I knew that it is still somewhat in beta state, but I am using Sakai this semester in a fully online class and I have had to give up a number of innovative teaching things I did a year ago in the exact same course using SSF. I have had to totally revamp a blogging activity to use Blogger and LiveJournal instead of Sakai since scrolling through 50 posts per blog and having 20 blogs in Sakai (i.e., 20 students are in the class) would have been 1,000 posts to weed through each time--ug! The online forum is simply harder to use and much much slower than SSF and much slower than the old Oncourse (Note: Oncourse is the name of the IU tool) and I never liked the old Oncourse much either. The new Oncourse/Sakai takes forever to see who posted and join in conversations and my eyes go buggy with the online discussion forums. But I still support the movement to Sakai and I decided to use what works for now. In the long run it is the right solution. We often take 2 steps back in order to take a step forward and this is likely the case. IU needs to be a leader right now in this space and model use of Sakai and so we are.

That being said, the rare improvement in learning that I have seen in most CMSs is in group workspaces and collaboration. While we are at it, we also need tools for brainstorming, timelining, comparison and contrast, concept mapping (ala Tufts Visual Understanding Environment), role play, debate, Venn diagramming, etc.

Just my 3 cents.
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  posted by Curt Bonk @ 9:25 PM  
  • At 9:12 AM, Blogger dave cormier said…

    I notice that you didn't include moodle... i would be interested to know what group you think it's included in... also, what do you think of switching to a learning landscape over the CMS... and (dave babbles) what was that fantastic innovative technique you teased us with but didn't describe!

  • At 11:43 AM, Blogger michael hotrum said…

    A posting that is dear to my ed tech heart - I am on a mission to secure learner freedoms - and the LMS is one of those cages that block user freedoms. I have cited my concerns on my blog at

    and in my writings at (see abstract below)

    The traditional packaging of electronic learning — the learning management system (LMS) — is progressively being regarded as a hindrance to effective online learning. Its design, functionality, complexity, price, and value are being questioned. A new generation of Web-based tools and approaches is evolving that are better suited to meet the need for dynamic online learning content, interaction, collaboration, and networking. Whereas traditional LMS approaches traditionally tend to relegate students to the role of passive recipients of information, these new tools and collaborative approaches allow learners to take proactive control of their own learning. This paper will discuss how the LMS has affected the design and delivery of e-learning, and the emerging technologies that are better suited to current learning and performance needs.

    I am now focussing on "less than evil" options like Moodle; and trying to promote the use of alternative tools like course blogs, and

    Of course administrators and a core group of instructors want to retain the LMS, so a long term weaning process neds to be employed to get them to see these alternatives.

    Let's keep working on it.

  • At 4:31 PM, Blogger 5tein said…

    While I love using Moodle over WebCT (and even more so over Blackboard), I think you first need to prove that these new and alternative online learning tools are as good or better than their more traditional counterparts.

  • At 10:23 PM, Blogger Curt Bonk said…

    Yes, I will try Moodle in the fall or so I think. I am on the Moodleman's dissertation committee, by the way. Will he finish? Humm...

  • At 2:41 PM, Blogger lee said…

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  • At 8:31 AM, Blogger pegasys said…

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About Me

Name: Curt Bonk
Home: Bloomington, Indiana, United States
About Me: I am a former accountant and CPA and a former educational psychologist. I am now Professor of IST at Indiana University and also adjunct in the School of Informatics. I founded and later sold SurveyShare. As president of CourseShare, LLC, I run around the world training instructors to teach online and give motivational talks about emerging learning technologies. I also write and edit books related to e-learning and blended learning. See bio and vita.

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Click here for information about my recent book, The World is Open: How Web Technology Is Revolutionizing Education.

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