Alphabet Soup: The Perils & Promise of E-Learning


CMS stands for Content Management System, which Wikipedia defines as  “a computer program that allows publishing, editing and modifying content as well as maintenance from a central interface.”  Several of the universities I have taught or teach at use a CMS called Blackboard.  It has several iterations; Blackboard Vista, Blackboard 9, etc.  Faculty are encouraged to use Blackboard by many college administrators, but I have yet to talk to a faculty member who has enjoyed using them.

Blackboard is the latest skirmish in a struggle between faculty and administration that I have seen go on for 2 decades in educational settings from Pre-K to PhD.  It usually goes like this:

Technology A is developed in the private sector.  Some enterprising developer of Technology A decides to take it to Educational Setting B.  This takes a while, as it is often hard to find the decision maker in Educational Setting B.  An administrator or administrators finally see the potential of Technology A, and Educational Setting B buys a very expensive version of Tech A.

Tech A is presented to the faculty of Setting B.  “This is a great resource,” they are told.  They are encouraged to use it.  Some enterprising faculty try it, but become confused or bored with it and stop.  The rest of the faculty never try it.  Administrators of Setting B get frustrated, and often mandate the use of Tech A.  They invest more money in consultants to come in and offer training.  This often consists of scripted powerpoints, or nowadays video tutorials.  Sometimes an in-house Tech A supporter is hired.  The supporter is avoided, because s/he is associated with a top-down administrative initiative.  Slowly the faculty begins to use Tech A as little as possible as rarely as possible.  Administrators get frustrated, and begin to answer every Faculty complaint with a thinly veiled, “if you only used the expensive solution we bought you you’d have more time to do X,Y or Z and there would be no more problems.”

Meanwhile, in the outside world, Technology A is now obsolete, because in the time it takes educators to change we have developed, beta-tested, and marketed better stuff.  We’re now on Technology Q, but when Educational Setting B is approached by the salespeople for Technology Q, they are rebuffed by administrators, who say, “Look, our faculty never used Technology A, so we’re not going to waste money on Technology Q.”  Technology Q folks stop trying to design a product that would work really well for educators, because if no one buys it, well, what’s the point.

OK, back to the particular brand of  technology called CMS, content management software.  In this case, people have begun to confuse the software, which allows you to upload content into a course shell, with E-Learning.  At its worst, this stifles creativity, because it misses the point that education is not about content but about facilitating learning.  In a recent TED Talk, Sir Ken Robinson put it this way: “Teaching properly conceived is not a delivery system.”

By now, many educators and learners, will have heard of MOOCs, Massively Open Online Courses.  The Pros of MOOCs for E-Learning are several, most notably the provision of access to educational resources to people who may be disenfranchised in some way.  People can enroll in MOOCs for little or no money, take them after their workday or on weekends, and view and review material at their own pace.

But their are costs, literally and figuratively.  Many MOOCs require entire production teams to create “professional” looking media.  (The Khan Academy does a great job with less polish, but it often produces less formal media which some may consider less professional.)   And ultimately, MOOCs are not going to be free, and seed money will need to be replaced.  In my hometown for example, EdX is beginning to look at ways to generate revenue from future courses.

Not all E-Learning should or does take the shape of a MOOC.  Not all E-Learning is scalable, at least not at first.  Perhaps most importantly, not all E-Learning needs the same kinds of technology to make it good education.

There is a lot more to creating a good online educational experience than converting a syllabus into learning modules.  The content management software can be used to powerfully enhance E-Learning, but in many cases it lends itself to being used as “pedagogy management software” instead.

I was reminded of this recently as I have been developing an online course.  And the ironic part was that I was being stifled not by the administration but by myself.  I had been given free rein to produce a course by the university administration.  They were and are extremely supportive, encouraging and confident that I can teach something well.  But I let myself get sucked into Blackboard.  I started thinking that I had to produce a certain size and shape widget.  The fact that  I could create class modules became an internal mandate to fill them with material.  I began to feel oppressed.

It wasn’t until I noticed that the only one expecting me to do that was me, and maybe the software, that I realized I could get off the treadmill.  And I had to, because for me education is about facilitating learning, not putting content into student’s heads.  In this case, a large part of the course is about social media and gaming, so a large part of my work will be about using social media with the students, playing games with them, and then discussing those experiences.  I’ll certainly use Blackboard when it makes sense, but I’m not going to be assimilated by it.

I’m one of the lucky ones.  Many educational settings wouldn’t be so encouraging of  faculty creativity and thinking outside the box.  Many of my colleagues instead find themselves scolded and asked, “why aren’t you using the box?”  I have several colleagues who are engaging educators who have been avoiding E-Learning because they like the interaction with students, as if E-Learning has to be inherently non-interactive.

Fortunately a lot of administrators in higher education are also instructors, so hopefully we can begin to bridge this divide.  These technologies are all relatively new to us, so there really shouldn’t be any hard and fast rules on how to educate students online.  We’re pioneers, and we’re going to make lots of mistakes, but if we can remember to think of education as a laboratory for innovation rather than a delivery service, we may have some epic wins as well.