What is it that these tools do do?

Filed under: — Joe @ 3:05 pm

I’m late posting this–it started as some thoughts growing out of our CUNY WordCampEd, which is now (how time flies!) weeks past.  Others, notably two of my co-organizers, Luke Waltzer and Mikhail Gershovich, have already posted some terrific thoughts on the event and its implications.  My other co-organizer, Matt Gold, has been great about keeping up the CUNY WordCampEd blog itself with other posts and responses. Of course Jim Groom is always looking beyond.  And George Otte has taken the thinking in other, connected directions, too.

So I think it’s my turn.  With some time now elapsed since the event, and thinking about all these responses, I keep stumbling across some questions that I want to deal with.  I guess it really started with a conversation I had with Jeff Young of the Chronicle, as he was preparing his article on our WordCampEd.  Jeff’s headline was “Colleges Consider Using Blogs Instead of Blackboard.”

But, really, the more I thought about it, the more I thought that what we were about at our WordCampEd really wasn’t much about Blackboard at all, or much about blogs, either.  Yes, I did say (quoting Jane Wells) that some were talking about WordPress as a “Blackboard Killer,” and I did say (referring only to the CUNY Online BA) that Blackboard being down was like the door to the classsroom being “nailed shut” (and I might have been quoting George Otte when I said that).  But I also said (and really meant to make more clear) that I had considered a subtitle for the WordCampEd to be “it’s not just about blogging anymore.”

In conceiving the CUNY WordCampEd, and in planning it, and in hosting it, I wanted to bring together people throughout CUNY who were interested in WordPress, or using it already, but not because WordPress could replace something else (Blackboard).  I was more interested in letting people come together to see and think about what WordPress could do differently–and even more than that, even beyond WordPress, thinking about what kinds of online tools people were using, and what they wanted to do with them.

Your standard, generic, LMS (Blackboard being the biggest and most widely-used, but really not a whole lot different from any of the others–Moodle, Sakai, Angel, WebCT, etc.) has some very standard parts.  There’s an area for posting announcements, an area for “lectures” (modules, units, whatever), discussion forums, live chat (usually), some mechanism for submitting and returning assignments, some mechanism for testing and quizzes, and a gradebook.  (There are other elements–notably communication–some kind of messaging/email system–but those are the major ones).

The elements that WordPress lacks, out of the box, are the gradebook, the assignment submission system, and the testing/quizzing mechanism.  That’s about it.  And what are those three elements?  Those are the sine qua non of a Learning Management System.  They’re what makes an LMS different from anything else, to the point where if it doesn’t have those, it’s not an LMS.

But (here I’m maybe being a little stronger than is called for), those elements are not about learning.  They’re about managing.  Cole Camplese and Michael Feldstein (among many others) have been challenging–rightly–the idea of Google Wave as the “death of the LMS,” and in doing so Cole refers to the LMS as “Learner Management System.”  I think I’d even go beyond that and think of the LMS (especially Blackboard) as a “Learner Management System.”

The LMS really offers nothing unusual or particularly useful in terms of learning, or in terms of learners.  Its strength is in managing learners.  Assessing, enrolling, record-keeping, attendance verifying, assembling and collating assignments–those are all management tasks, not learning tasks (again, I’m being a bit too emphatic about this–I think the lines might actually be blurrier, but I do think it’s an important distinction).

The actual learning activities–discussing, exploring, engaging, thinking, collaborating–those are not assisted by Blackboard any better than they are by WordPress (or many other platforms).  In fact, in those areas, Blackboard is often worse.  Often much worse.  Because Blackboard is built for management, it privileges closing and limiting.  Open platforms don’t.  (To be more specific, I’m talking about the model of the class and the semester and the assignment for a grade, all of which are absolutely central to Blackboard, to the point where multi-class and multi-semester and public self-evaluated or peer-evaluated work is almost impossible within the system).

The Biggest Swiss Army Knife Ever

The whole reason for CUNY WordCampEd was not to show how to replicate what Blackboard already does.  The management tasks are already done by Blackboard.  It was to see (and to show) what else we can do with our students.  Outside of a learning management system, or a learner management system, or any kind of “management,” what happens when students (and faculty) have ways to connect with each other, with other classes, with themselves at later points in time (after a semester is over), with the wider online community?

That’s what was exciting at CUNY WordCampEd–what Zoe Sheehan Saldana’s students are doing, what the Academic Commons is doing for CUNY faculty, what Baruch faculty and students are doing, and mostly (he says modestly) what Macaulay students are doing with the Macaulay Eportfolios and Macaulay Social Network.  None of that has anything much to do with Blackboard, none of it has anything at all to do with “management.”  There was nary a mention at our WordCampEd of assessment, enrollment, testing, submitting assignments, or keeping track of grades in a gradebook.

In fact, what all these projects have in common, what WordPress as a tool encourages, is almost exactly the opposite of management.   I conceived the CUNY WordCampEd to showcase (and I think it did showcase this) innovations in teaching and learning.  Not management.  I think that the best learning and the best teaching really can’t be managed.  They can be supported, they can be encouraged, they can be scaffolded.  But managing them tends to kill them.

The Matsumura Chisel

When I think about what teaching and learning with technology can be, how it can be different, I never think (although I recognize that many teachers and students do say this), “it makes it easier to check my grades and find my syllabus and take my quizzes and turn in my homework.”  Making managing learning more efficient is just plain not interesting to me–and it’s certainly not innovative or revolutionary.  The revolution that teaching and learning with technology makes possible is in the areas of exploration and engagement.  It’s when students are able to publish and see their work as a meaningful beyond the assignment for the class.  It’s when they’re able to collaborate incrementally and be fully present for all stages of a project.  It’s when they’re able to follow a discussion far beyond the boundaries of what would be possible in a 50- or 90- or 120-minute class session–or even a whole semester or year, and to research and think about that discussion because it matters to them, because they have a responsibility to a real community and they have learning that they want to do, and to demonstrate, and to have evaluated, beyond what a professor or grade might require.

If an LMS is a tool, it’s something like the giant Swiss Army Knife.  It costs $1,000, weighs almost 3 pounds, would never fit in your pocket, has 85 blades, and can absolutely manage every task you throw at it.  It can’t manage any of them in any artful way, or any creative way, but it’s always there, comes out of the box sharp and doesn’t need sharpening, and every one in every box looks the same.

When I think about the tools that I wanted CUNY WordCampEd to show and spread, I was thinking more of something like the white steel 2″ Matsumura Bench Chisel, which is hand-made, needs hand-sharpening and care, doesn’t hammer nails or pull ingrown hairs or open wine bottles, but is the absolute best tool for the job it is designed to do.

I think that what we showed at CUNY WordCampEd was some models for creating tools that are specific to the specific needs of the specific campuses and even classes and even individual students and faculty who are building them.  That’s what I want these to tools to do do.


  1. Here’s where I get a little lost. Is assessment inherently disconnected from learning? Is a teacher’s ability to track a student’s progress and issue a student-readable progress indicator (a.k.a. “grade”) inherently disconnected from learning?

    I would humbly submit that these activities–providing students with information regarding their progress, and providing their teachers/guides/coaches with information about their progress–can be essential aids to students’ learning. Maybe the tools designed to support these activities as currently conceived in today’s LMS do not serve the pedagogic aspects of assessment and feedback well, but I don’t get why so many good educators are so quick to dismiss the value of the underlying functions, denigrating them as mere “management.”

    And by the way, what’s wrong with management? From what I recall of life as a university employee, academics could really benefit from the support of better management. Time an instructor spends dealing with crazy room changes or getting A/V equipment into the room is time away from the students. And some time having that A/V equipment, which one procures either through the bureaucracy or not at all, improves the quality of particular educational experience being offered in that classroom on that day. The same is true on the student side, particularly with those who are at risk. Making it easier for a student to submit homework or check grades may not seem like it has direct educational value, but for a student who is already intimidated, struggling, barely hanging on, having an easy experience submitting homework and getting timely feedback from (a.k.a. access to) one’s teacher can mean the difference between hanging on and dropping out. In a F2F class, when I collect students’ homework, track who has handed in what, and tell students what they are missing, marking up papers, and handing them back I am unquestionably engaging in a management activity. But that activity is not just imposed for bureaucratic purposes. It is essential to the pedagogic process–or at least, to a pedagogic process in which I can add value as a teacher.

    Is that so bad? What am I missing here?

    Comment by Michael Feldstein — 6/14/2009 @ 3:48 pm

  2. Apologies for the grammatical errors. I am not especially good at writing in little text boxes without being able to go back and edit.

    What I really need is a comment management system.

    Comment by Michael Feldstein — 6/14/2009 @ 3:51 pm

  3. Nice and provocative post, Joe, and I really appreciate your keeping the conversation rolling.

    I totally understand and agree with most of what you’re saying about “management,” but I also share some of Michael’s concern about rejecting the concept wholesale. I recoil less at the notion of a “course management system” than I do the “learning management system”; the former formulation acknowledges more precisely that the goal of the technology being used is to facilitate the work of the course. Whether “learning” is happening is dependent upon factors external to the technology; it’s dependent upon pedagogy and the ability of the instructor to choose and manipulate the tools to meet his/her particular goals. All of our courses need to be managed in some way. Syllabi and assignments manage. I guess I basically see “management” as representing some sort of organizing principle for a course, and think there’s a difference between the notions of the CMS and the LMS.

    Where I have a real problem with Blackboard isn’t with the first or the second word of it’s identity, but rather the third. A “Learning Management System” implies that the box has anything and everything a teacher or a learner could possibly want to engage the world via the web. The notion of a “system” is especially problematic because it’s had a totalizing impact on the imagination of our communities (or more precisely, their IT leaderships) when it comes to thinking about how to structure support for integrating technology into curricula. For years at CUNY, the “system” occluded much of the oxygen — and all of the money — that might feed critical thinking about these issues. WordCamp Ed showed that this lack of oxygen didn’t do us in, and also argued that a more open “system” that challenges the very notion of an all-encompassing solution can not only function better than an overpriced box, but can spur exciting teaching, learning, and research and also point towards a university of the future that more effectively reflects and prepares students for the world they’re set to inherit.

    Comment by Luke — 6/14/2009 @ 10:05 pm

  4. While I’m not a big fan of getting too hung up on definitions and terminology (possibly one reason why I’m not still in academia), I agree with Luke on this one. I’m not sure if anyone would object to the existence of online grade books, test engines, and homework drop boxes if they weren’t forced to buy along with them a whole collection of expensive and mediocre tools in a box that gives little option for using others. That’s why I prefer to think about something like a Learning Management Operating System. Or, if you prefer, an Academic Operating System. An operating system is the necessary substrate upon which the tools you need run, but it is not terribly useful on its own.

    Comment by Michael Feldstein — 6/14/2009 @ 10:53 pm

  5. […] who I respect the most. And I don’t always handle these situations well. (See for example, my somewhat snippy response to my friend Joe Ugoretz regarding the value of grade books and test engines or my […]

    Pingback by Cracking the Code — 6/15/2009 @ 10:20 am

  6. Thanks, guys–I did say, or tried to say, that I was going too far with some of this, and I recognize that.

    I don’t think there’s anything necessarily or inherently bad about management, or assessment, or gradebooks. They’re all fine things to have, and not evil.

    But they’re also not interesting, or exciting, or innovative–and they don’t have a lot to do with learning. They’re the necessary substrate (thanks for that term, Michael), but they’re not sufficient, and they don’t provide the exciting and creative added value that is what I’m looking for in using new tools.

    And as Luke says, the substrate shouldn’t suck all the oxygen out of the discussion or the classroom.

    I think, too, that part of the problem with Blackboard (as it’s used at CUNY) or any big system is that it’s big. Centralization brings economies of scale. And it brings convenience for students moving among different units. But it also brings single points of failure, and it can stifle the independence and context-specificity that really is important.

    Comment by Joe — 6/15/2009 @ 10:32 am

  7. There’s an LMS-y aspect that cuts across feature checklists, though: integration with multiple externally-defined groups of people, each of whom has multiple memberships carrying different expectations and duties. I’ve tried directly integrating good LAMP applications directly into an LMS environment, and the trickiest part hasn’t been their programming language — it’s been that they assume a single person will play a single role across the installation. I’d rather use a WordPress group blog than any current Sakai tool, but (last time I looked, anyway) WordPress doesn’t help me when I need one database to support thousands of group blog instances whose hundreds of thousands of memberships and permissions are set automatically by class enrollments and teaching assignments.

    What I’d like most is to support that style of integration _without_ forcing teachers, learners, and collaborators into the traditional Swiss-Army-knife-cum-penitentiary LMS mindset.

    Comment by Ray Davis — 6/15/2009 @ 5:46 pm

  8. I think that’s a good point, Ray. Maybe I’m just surrendering without really addressing the problem, but I think the easy solution is to just abandon the integration. Allow self-registrations (with a codeword or filtering by email domain or other method to keep out everyone in the world), and don’t bother with automatic provisioning of accounts (especially de-provisioning of accounts). If you don’t care about single-signon (and students generally don’t), then you can put control of accounts and account maintenance into the individuals’ and groups’ hands. You don’t use one central database for all those thousands and hundreds of thousands.

    Especially if you decouple memberships and permissions from class enrollments and teaching assignments, you get some exciting possibilities for learning communities working across disciplines, across semester, across institutions.

    (But I agree that you don’t achieve the traditional LMS functions of automatic and easy account creation and maintenance).

    It would be good to imagine a way (and then invent it) to get that integration when you want it, without the lockdown when you don’t want it. I totally agree about that, and would love to see it!

    Comment by Joe — 6/26/2009 @ 9:06 am

  9. Thanks for the thoughtful response, Joe — I appreciate your open-mindedness.

    A year or two before Sakai began, I tried experimenting at UC Berkeley with easy commercial-web-hosting-style deployment of LAMP tools on an instructor-by-instructor, site-by-site basis. But even with scripts in place to reduce the cost, it couldn’t scale to meet our mandate. Hereabouts, anyway, most instructors and GSIs were simply too pressed for time to deal with the extra cognitive and administrative overhead of tracking updates, maintaining backups, taking care of memberships, and so on.

    I’m still hoping, though, to break out of the in-or-out mindset and reach the sweet point of supporting LAMP-style (or nowadays Google-Apps-style) environments alongside (or in place of) the all-in-the-LMS environments. A lot of the political barriers have fallen over the past few years, and I think the underlying technical issues are better understood nowadays.

    Comment by Ray Davis — 6/26/2009 @ 2:24 pm

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