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Course Management Systems and the Reinvention of Instruction

There is so much to say but not enough time to say it. Many educators are attracted to teaching because they like to wax eloquently about subjects they are passionate about. The problem is that there is never enough time during a semester to cover all you want to cover. Once again, technology potentially comes to the rescue with the Course Management System  (CMS). A CMS or course management system is Internet-based software that manages student enrollment, tracks student performance, and creates and distributes course content. In this way, the Course Management System enables teachers to extend the classroom beyond its traditional boundaries of time and space. Some common systems include:

  • Blackboard (
  • eCollege (
  • WebCT (

The Course Management System became widely available in 1997, and its popularity and use have increased dramatically ever since. These software solutions have been widely marketed to and adopted by colleges and universities across the country. They have also been adopted by many publishers and e-learning companies that provide curriculum for the K-12 and corporate training markets. Given the increased adoption of the Course Management System as an instructional tool, it’s important to address how instructors are to make use of this technology. A review of extant literature shows that many articles have been written comparing the functionality of different systems (Hall 2003; Van de Pol 2001); how to incorporate this functionality into an existing course, however, rarely has been addressed.

In this article, we will argue that university teachers approach the use of the Course Management System with a pre-existing “mental model” of how the technology should be used and that this mental model then constrains how the teachers use it, thereby using technology to reinforce traditional teaching styles. We will further dispute that there are at least two distinct mental models to account for these approaches, each with a different goal for how to use the COURSE MANAGEMENT SYSTEM. According to the first mental model, Course Management System should be used to supplement a conventional course experience. According to the second model, the Course Management System could be used to organize a conventional course experience. We will contend that this subtle distinction between supplement and organize has dramatic consequences on how instructors use the technology. We will also argue that the organize model is a more effective model to adopt in order to improve student instruction.

Course Management System Functionality
Prior to discussing the distinction between supplement and organize, let’s summarize some of the functionality of the Course Management System first. Although there are a variety of systems on the market, every Course Management System contains some implementation of the following functions:

Authoring/Publishing Tools.
These tools allow the instructor to publish files to a section of the Course Management System for students to download, or simply publish a list of hyperlinks that students can click through to read additional materials online. Some systems also allow the students to upload files, but this functionality is frequently avoided as bandwidth and server space limitations can quickly complicate hosting the COURSE MANAGEMENT SYSTEM.

In addition, these tools facilitate the creation and publication of Web pages — typically, template-driven forms consisting of text and images. Audio or video streams also may be accessed through the COURSE MANAGEMENT SYSTEM, usually by means of a hyperlink. The most common example of these tools is the creation of online tests. Test-authoring tools, in particular, support a variety of question formats (e.g., multiple choice, short answer, essay, etc.). Some tools only support text forms, whereas others support the embedding of graphics and hyperlinks into the test.

Virtual Community.
Every Course Management System enables instructors and students, individually and as a group, to communicate online. Communication can be synchronous (as in chat), whereby two or more people exchange text messages in real time, or it can be a virtual classroom that usually includes chat with a whiteboard and/or PowerPoint slides. The communication can also be asynchronous, as in a threaded discussion, whereby multiple users enter text comments based on a general question or in response to a previous user’s comments.

Data Management.
For students to access course material, the Course Management System must allow for the creating of classes, as well as the assigning of one or more instructors and a number of students to that class. Most platforms also allow students to register for a class online rather than being registered by a teacher or system administrator. This form of registration may capture information beyond simply confirming the legitimacy of the student’s access to the content; for instance, the student’s e-mail, home address and similar personal information may also be collected. Alternatively, the Course Management System might be connected to the database of the school’s registrar, whereby student data is automatically supplied to the Course Management System.

Some platforms also enable students to pay for a course, which might be included in the Course Management System itself, or “pass through” to the university’s online e-commerce system. Typically, access for both teachers and students is rigorously password protected, as password management by a system administrator is an important feature in every Course Management System.

Each system also offers the ability to capture students’ performances on tests and their resulting grades. Grading functionality usually includes the ability to enter grades for papers, projects or tests not done online. Thus, the system becomes the complete online grading book for the instructor, regardless of the amount of testing done online. Most systems’ grading functionality also enables teachers to compute weighted averages of the students’ grades throughout the semester to generate a final grade. In addition, students can access their previous coursework online, including the tests they submitted, notes saved and the like.

Making Use of the Course Management System
How the Course Management System is implemented usually is left to the individual university — or more often, the individual instructor. This position, in fact, is common in the software industry. It’s practically an axiom for companies to know their products are succeeding when customers use their software in ways that were never fully imagined by the programmers.

However, that attitude assumes that users of the system explore every function in a creative fashion. While such a paradigm might work for other kinds of software, teachers usually don’t have the time or inclination to explore some new technology. Also, the Instructional Technology departments of most universities are not prepared to train their faculty on anything beyond the simplest use of new software, while the companies themselves usually avoid suggesting a specific pedagogy with their software in order to appeal to the broadest possible audience. Consequently, how a Course Management System effects the organization, implementation and even the meaning of a class has rarely been explored.

Course Management System as a Supplement
The assumption we make is that teachers commit extensive time and effort in preparing their classroom activities. Many educators teach the same class year after year, and while they update their materials periodically and learn from past experiences, the general framework of the class is set. Therefore, left to their own paradigms, teachers most often use their university’s Course Management System as a supplement to their preferred teaching style. The lecture and teacher-led activity remain the organizing principle — the locus of attention for students and teachers alike. The instructor uses the Course Management System functionality as an add-on to the course. What d’es this mean in terms of making use of the Course Management System?

Authoring/Publishing Tool.
Typically, teachers might use the Course Management System to put content on the site, including publishing their syllabi and class assignments. Students can then check the Course Management System for their assignments and due dates. Teachers sometimes create PowerPoint presentations of their lecture notes which they can upload or provide Web hyperlinks to. In addition, teachers often post links to Word or PDF files for reading materials or links to online references. This content provides support for the course experience, but d’esn’t substantially affect how the class is organized or what happens in the classroom. The content is usually text-based and not intended to stand alone. Teachers also sometimes use the test-authoring tool, mostly to generate a series of simple multiple-choice questions that can be graded automatically.

Virtual Community.
Teachers frequently ask students to write a number of comments on threaded discussions. The teacher then uses the student responses as part of his or her classroom participation and grades accordingly. It is interesting to note that this communication tool may actually be decreasing the amount of time teachers and students spend communicating — knowing that students will have a chance to air their views online often results in teachers spending more class time lecturing, rather than interacting with students.

Data Management.
Instructors frequently move their grading and some other simple data management functions to the Course Management System. The Course Management System, in this case, replaces stand-alone software that teachers often use to maintain their grading. Overall, a teacher who supplements his or her class by using a Course Management System to post reading assignments, promotes student communication through a threaded discussion, and uses the gradebook feature, seems to be extracting some value from the system. However, we suggest that there is a better alternative.

The assumption we make in proposing this perspective is, once again, that teachers have committed a lot of time and effort to prepare their classroom activities. They have taught the course many times and have a good sense of what information needs to be covered. Given their understanding of the content, the first step would be to review all the functionality of the Course Management System and determine how to distribute the content and student-teacher interactions.

Rather than thinking of the Course Management System as a collection of individual functionalities, the teacher should consider the Course Management System and classroom as a complete seamless experience. From the organizing perspective, the instructor uses the Course Management System to outline the course as if it were a table of contents, except it actually directs the student to the different aspects of the course. All course material and activities, including listing the classroom sessions, would be presented in their proper sequence. Hyperlinks giving students access to the content itself or to the areas within the Course Management System would be provided. There might also be text, PowerPoint, audio or video created by the instructor to provide a context for the readings and activities.

Using the Course Management System in this way enables students to have a richer experience with the material. For instance, the Course Management System can direct students to read the first part of a PDF and then go to a different section of the Course Management System that provides a hyperlink to a simulation available on the Web illustrating what they just read. Students then can be directed to a different text, provided by the teacher, which explains the relation between the PDF and the simulation, and provides a transition back to the original PDF.

The data capture of student input now can be used, or not used, more creatively than an ordinary summative assessment. The course table of contents also can include open-ended questions for student reflection on the Course Management System online notepad.

The notepad also would track the student’s own learning process throughout the semester. Although conceivably the notes could be printed at the end of the course and turned in as part of the student’s grade, it might be more effective to keep the notes private, thereby encouraging students to take more responsibility for their own learning. In addition, students could be asked questions as they progress from one reading selection to another in the Course Management System, or be told to go back to the Course Management System to answer a question before finishing a reading assignment. The value of these questions would once again be to provoke thought; perhaps more interestingly, the instructor could distribute some of the students’ responses to the rest of the class in order to begin a discussion or student activity. Because it is the students’ opinions that are being discussed rather than the teacher’s, using the students’ responses for questions in the Course Management System would be an effective technique for getting the students to participate more actively in the discussion.

Since students would have much more participation in the actual class, the threaded discussion and chat would be used to enable students to review concepts from previous classes and prepare for future class discussions.

In this way, the virtual community functions actually would be used to create a virtual community of students sharing information and learning from each other, rather than participating just because they would be graded. In addition, the virtual classroom functionality could be used by the instructor for selected students as a reinforcement of the course concepts, as well as a way for subgroups of students to get feedback from the teacher.

By using the Course Management System for the course’s organization, then the purpose of class time would be almost exclusively devoted to discussion and student activities. Freed from having to repeat past activities, instructors could become more engaged in the process of sharing ideas. The students could become more active learners, taking more responsibility for what they learn and becoming more important in the dynamic of the classroom.

In summary, by using the Course Management System as a supplement rather than as the spine, teachers are taking a technology that could help reinvent their teaching style and making it fit into their old lecture-based teaching styles. Rather than rethinking what happens in the classroom, teachers use the latest technology to defend the old factory model of education. Although, using a Course Management System to its fullest extent would enable us to redefine what happens in the classroom — essentially redefining what a classroom experience is. Reorganizing a course in this light is ultimately a political issue. Classroom activity that consists of a teacher lecturing is a classroom the teacher dominates. However, classroom activity that consists of a teacher and students in group discussion is a classroom where power is to some degree shared.

About the Authors

Mitchell Rabinowitz is a professor of educational psychology and the director of the Center for Technology at Fordham University in New York . His specialization is in the areas of instructional design and skill acquisition.

Craig Ullman invented and led the technology and content development for eSchool Online. He is currently a partner in Networked Politics a consulting company for campaign management in digital media.

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