Saturday, April 09, 2005

Why We Need a Course Management System - Part 1

The core idea for me is that the technology has to really support what we want to accomplish with teaching and learning and in addition, since we're not there yet, the technology has to help us make the transition. We're past the point of believing the mere adoption of the technology will achieve the result. We know that behavior - both the insructors' and the students' - must change and ultimately that change will be the primary cause in what we want to accomplish. But the behavioral changes wouldn't happen without the technology, because it would be too difficult.

Let's review the key elements of this new world. Students mentoring and teaching other students will be one focus. This will be formally sanctioned and done at scale, rather than via the ad hoc efforts we have now. And faculty will mentor the student mentor/teachers as part of their own efforts to support instruction. The other focus will be students working on making re-usable instructional materails for the next cohort of students who take the course. These materials will be created and distributed in a manner akin to how open source software is created and used. Authorship will be acknowledged. Others will be able to freely use the work and make improvements in the work as long as they too allow their contributions to be freely used by others. In this manner the work that students do will be dynamic, engaging, and foster a sense of community.

The natural way to organize this type of work is by the course where the work will be utilized. And while there may be cross-course and cross-institution sharing of learning materials constructed in this process, the most obvious path for sharing is from one cohort to the next within a course that continues to be taught by the same instructor. It is the instructor's taste in teaching and how the materials might potentially be used that will dictate how they are constructed. The students through their mentoring/teaching and through the content creation learn a great deal about learning to learn, how to collaborate, and how to communicate well. But they don't have a long term stake in the materials themselves. After they graduate they will leave. Yet the work must endure and have use value. To ensure that the work needs to have the imprint of the instructor.

This means a critical aspect of the technology is to be organized around the course, to enable excellent possibilities for collaboration within the course, but to create some walls to the outside world that are necessary when the learning and content creation is formative and experimental.

At present, there are some who criticize course management systems because they are too "teacher centric." These crtics want to see software that is more "learner centric." And clearly the current main use of course management systems as a way of distributing lecture notes and other documents prepared by the instructor enforces that view. So we are a seeing the onset of one campus after another adopting ePortfolio tools to provide a "learner centric" environment and to assist the campus in it efforts to prepare for reaccreditation. The ePortfolio tools also enable "folio assessment" meaning evaluating the body of work rather than each piece individually. These are good features.

But there is a confusion between learner centric and individualistic approaches. The ePortfolio tools focus on the work of the individual. These tools therefore do nothing in themselves to promote collaboration and they actually mask the sense of the class as a community that is necessary to achieve the approach to teaching and learning that we want to advocate for. Current course management systems are better in this aspect and it is my view that their current deficiencies are more easily remedied than those of the ePortfolio software. At present the discussion board and chat areas represent the parts of the course management systems that are most open and most collaborative. What is needed, in addition, is to give students a "sandbox" where they have all the tools available to them that the instructors have when designing the course site. And because many students will have access to the same sandbox, versioning must be the default. One student doesn't overwrite the work of another but rather creates a new version. One can go back to the old version if need be. Then from the the sandbox the instructor must be able to pull the content into the other part of the course site to be used to teach other students. In other words, it is the instructor's choice to use the content created by the students. These functional changes are easy to describe and I don't believe that they are too hard for course management system makers to implement.

Let me suggest how this might work. While I certainly don't want to horn in on any other instructor's creativity in how to engage students as content creators, I believe the approach I've suggested with content surveys that blend presentation and assessment is something that is easy to produce and effective for teaching and learning. These are precisely the type of learning objects that students should produce as open courseware and that should be re-used for instruction. Perhaps, in addition, students should be encouraged to make content quizzes. (The different is that quiz questions are graded for correctness and therefore have "right answers.")

There is a second issue to address. During the first two years of college, in particular, the technology should assist the instructor with the assessment of student work. The content surveys and content quizzes do that in a way that is meaningful to the student. The ePortfolio tools in contrast, provide neither automated grading of student work nor aggregation of student work across class members for ensemble assessment. They therefore don't offer instructors any economy on their own time in evaluating students. These are the key areas that the technology must deliver on and it is consequently the primary reason why course management systems should be the focus.

The reader will note the above argument rests on an either/or but not both approach to instructional technology. In part 2 I will argue why that makes sense as we move forward.

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